TRADITION TODAY: Does Jewish law permit smoking?

What is the status of smoking in Halacha (Jewish law)?

An illustrative phtoto of cigarettes (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
An illustrative phtoto of cigarettes
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
The announcement by the Health Ministry that tobacco companies would not be permitted to distribute free cigarettes at Meron on Lag Ba’omer was a bit of a surprise, since the head of that ministry has done nothing to discourage smoking over the years.
Unfortunately, the latest report of the state comptroller gives no reason for rejoicing, since it states that the ministry has done nothing to fight against smoking in Israel. On the contrary.
Therefore, the time has come to bring this matter to the fore so that steps will be taken to keep people from endangering their lives needlessly.
What is the status of smoking in Halacha (Jewish law)? Although in the past some Orthodox authorities have been reluctant to forbid it, for many years now, important Orthodox and haredi authorities have declared smoking to be forbidden by Jewish law.
In the Masorti/Conservative movement, the Law Committee of the Rabbinical Assembly issued a statement forbidding it nearly half a century ago. Written by Rabbi Seymour Siegel, of blessed memory, one of my outstanding teachers, and endorsed by the committee, its conclusion was that Judaism treasures life and is opposed to anything that detracts from life, so that we are forbidden to injure ourselves, as Ezekiel declared in the name of the Lord, “I gave them My laws and taught them My rules, by the pursuit of which a man shall live” (Ezekiel 20:11).
When the Torah declared that we are not to place a stumbling block before the blind (Leviticus 19:14), it was forbidding individuals and society from doing anything that would entice or assist anyone to harm himself even inadvertently. As Siegel wrote: “In regard to smoking, there is little difficulty in applying these principles to the question of smoking. Scientific evidence has now established beyond doubt that smoking, especially cigarette smoking, is injurious to our health. It is now evident, too, that the nonsmoker can be harmed when he/she has to suffer the smoke of those who use tobacco. The smoking habit is dirty, harmful, and antisocial. It would, therefore, follow that Jewish ethics and Jewish law would prohibit the use of cigarettes. Smoking should, at least, be discouraged in synagogues, Jewish schools and in Jewish gathering places.
The rabbinate and community leaders should discourage smoking. This would help us live longer and healthier. In doing so, we would be fulfilling our responsibilities to God and humanity.
“The preservation of health is a mitzva. This idea is expressed most concisely by Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), who is considered one of history’s greatest physicians and one of Judaism’s greatest scholars. His legal code is called Yad Hahazaka. In the section dealing with ‘Murder and the Guarding of Life,’ he writes: ‘It is a positive commandment to remove any stumbling block that constitutes a danger and to be on guard against it.... The Sages have prohibited many things because they endanger one’s life. If one disregards any of them and says “I am only endangering myself; what business do others have [interfering] with me over this?” or “I don’t care [if they are dangerous; I use them anyway],” he can be subjected to disciplinary flogging.’ “Another classical writer, Rabbi Moses Isserles (1525-1572), writes: ‘ should avoid all things that might lead to danger, because a danger to life is stricter than a prohibition. One should be more concerned about a possible danger to life than a possible [violation of a] prohibition.... And it is prohibited to rely on a miracle or to put one’s life in danger.’” Unfortunately, the bans on smoking issued by haredi authorities were never enforced or taken seriously and have had little effect. A walk in Mea She’arim will demonstrate that. Stand outside any yeshiva there, and you will see how youngsters have no inhibition about smoking. I do not have the figures to prove it, but it certainly seems that the percentage of smokers there is even higher than that in the general population. Would it not be a wonderful thing if the yeshiva heads were to issue a ban and enforce it? How many lives could be saved! The problem is also acute in secular society. I have observed all too many students outside a secular high school in my neighborhood – male and female – who smoke. It is astounding that, when so many years have passed since it was proven beyond any doubt that smoking kills, we have still not succeeded in preventing young people from starting to smoke.
Whatever programs there are in schools, it is obvious that they are not good enough. Certainly Education Minister Naftali Bennett, as a believing Jew, should see to it that more effective ways be found to prevent children from embarking on such a dangerous habit.
Tobacco companies spend billions to persuade people to harm themselves and place themselves in great danger. They do everything they can to entice young people to begin to smoke, knowing that their product is intentionally addictive.
There is so much more that could be done to oppose their criminal activity. For example, there should be a complete ban on advertising cigarettes in any media. I was disappointed to see The Jerusalem Post carry huge cigarette ads. Even if not against the law, they are against every ethical and religious teaching. Stores should not sell cigarettes or, at the very least, not to anyone under 30.
They should not be so easily available. Certainly pharmacies, whose mission is to promote health, should not be allowed to sell cigarettes. Why should cigarettes be allowed in the country duty free? The government should do more – upping the taxes to make them too expensive. The army has undertaken steps to discourage smoking. It should also provide seminars for those who want to stop smoking.
We have come a long way in Israel in changing the public environment so that we no longer see smoking in theaters, restaurants, hospitals, public buildings and buses. But we have a long way to go in eliminating this health hazard and raising a new generation that will not be enticed into a habit that kills. It is time to take the teachings of our tradition seriously – so that we “shall live” and not die needlessly. 
The writer is a former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly and a member of its Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. He is a two-time winner of the Jewish Book Award whose latest book, Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy (JPS), has recently been published in Hebrew by Yediot Press and the Schechter Institute.