Monday 25 January 2016

069) Cigarettes and Halacha Don't Mix:

I finally found a clear, definitive and intelligent piece of writing about smoking and halacha. It’s from the Peninei Halacha, and it’s halacha like you’ve never seen it before.[1]
What follows is my loose translation and summary of the Hebrew text:


In the past, doctors actually thought that smoking was healthy for a person. They often even recommended smoking a pipe, believing it aided in the digestion of food. It seems as if it they may have been correct, but they never knew that additionally smoking brings with it a host of other evils.

Already in the days of the Chafetz Chaim[2] (1839-1933), doctors were beginning to better understand that smoking could have negative and even fatal consequences. More than one hundred years ago, based on the available medical information of that era, the Chafetz Chaim prohibited habitual smoking. However, until more recently, most rabbis did not regard his prohibition as absolute, and considered it instead as an advisory.


Only within the last few decades has the consensus of medical opinion clearly and beyond any doubt, concluded that smoking is very dangerous.

Today we have to say that as a result of contemporary medical evidence, halacha dictates that smoking is absolutely prohibited, not just by rabbinic but by Torah law (as anything threatening health or life automatically assumes the weight of a Torah prohibition).[3] By extension, even a smoker has a Torah obligation to stop smoking.

Some even consider smoking prohibited under the proscription of suicide.

Smoking ‘hubbly bubbly’ would also be included in this prohibition as it has been shown to cause cancer and heart disease.

SCIENTIFIC STUDIES (Remember these are brought in a halachik sefer, not a medical journal!):

Smoking can cause three distinct illnesses:

1)      It can affect the lungs through bronchitis and emphysema, preventing them from absorbing oxygen. Most time this leads to a decline in physical fitness and sometimes even causes death.

2)      It can cause heart disease. Approximately one out of every four people who die as a result of a heart attack is a smoker.

3)      It can cause cancer. Comprehensive studies have concluded that smoking is one of the main causes of cancer. A smoker is twice more susceptible to contracting cancer than a non-smoker. Furthermore a smoker is seven times more likely to contract lung cancer than a non-smoker.

A scientific study has shown that a non-smoking spouse has three times more chance of contracting cancer from their smoking spouse, than a non-smoking spouse.

A study by an insurance company in America found that the mortality rate amongst forty-five year old smokers is 80 percent higher than amongst non-smokers of the same age. When it came to sixty year olds, the rate increased by 125 percent.

Another insurance company study showed that a smoker was more likely to have a motorcar accident than a non-smoking counterpart, because smoking affects the haemoglobin which limits the quantity of oxygen to the lungs thereby reducing the judgement capability of the driver. As a result of this study the company upped their premiums for smokers.

As a result of these relatively recent health findings, there is no question that halacha has to mirror them.


With regard to the issue of whether or not one can ask a smoker to refrain from smoking in the vicinity, there are some halachik guidelines:

A person may do as he or she pleases in their own home and a guest has no right to request that the homeowner stop smoking. Similarly, a visitor may not smoke if the homeowner requests of the visitors not to smoke.

The Talmud[4] has long since established the principle that smoke in general (from whatever source) is considered a halachik form of damage. This means that a person who causes smoke to penetrate into the neighbour’s property can be liable for damage and disturbance. (It’s interesting to note that halachikly smoke was always considered something damaging.)

An individual therefore has the right to ask a neighbour to extinguish a fire that is producing smoke that causes annoyance to others in the vicinity. Based on this halachik precedent it would be quite reasonable to ask another to kindly refrain from smoking in a public place. The same thing would apply to office workers who may similarly request their fellow workers not smoke in their shared space.

Even if a person has been habitually smoking in a particular public space for a long time, fellow citizens still maintain their rights to request the offender move to a place further away.


Smoking does still occur in many yeshivas throughout the world. It’s interesting to see that Rav Tzvi Yehudah HaCohen Kook banned smoking in his yeshiva, Merkaz HaRav. Most students of that institution never smoked! (Apparently his letter requesting no smoking is still hanging at the entrance to the study hall.)

With the passage of time, The Ponnevitzer Yeshiva also banned cigarette smoking in their institution, and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein issued a ruling that it is prohibited to smoke in a study hall or synagogue because it disturbs others.


The good news is that when a person gives up smoking, after ten years the chances of contracting heart disease is about the same as a regular non-smoker - and after fifteen years the high risk of contracting cancer is also reduced to that of a regular person.

In the 1960’s, when studies exposing the dangers of smoking began to be publicised, sixty-four percent of all doctors were active smokers. And ten years later, the number of doctors who were still smoking, was reduced to sixteen percent.

We have a responsibility to actively educate young people not to smoke before they reach a ‘point of no return’ and become addicted to nicotine.  We should also protest against religious news papers that advertise cigarettes, as smoking is clearly a Torah prohibition.


Outside of Peninei Halacha, there are other references that may be of interest:


In 1964, after the Surgeon General published his findings on the health risks of cigarette smoking, Rabbi Feinstein came out with the following ruling (loose translation and paraphrase):

“The truth is that one should not smoke. However since there are very many who do smoke, including Gedolim, it is difficult to say that smoking is an absolute prohibition. We have to conclude, therefore, that smokers fit in to the category of shomer pesaim Hashem, where ‘G-d watches over fools[5]’”.[6] 

Later on in the 1980’s, though, he did take a sharper view on the issue, and while not forbidding it, strongly advised against starting to smoke in the first instance. Apparently his son, Rabbi David Feinstein said that had his father been more aware of the medical dangers of smoking, he certainly would have prohibited the habit.


As time moved on and the world got used to the idea that smoking was dangerous, many poskim changed their rulings and became less accommodating towards smokers.[7]


During the 1970’s one of the first rabbis to clearly prohibit smoking, was Rabbi Chaim David HaLevi, Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv. He went so far as to tell children to disobey their parents if they were asked to purchase cigarettes for them.[8]


In the 1980’s, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichick ruled that there is no way we could ever permit smoking in our day and age given the vast scientific data currently available.


Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Aurbach, believed a smoker fell into the category of a chovel (someone who intentionally injures himself) and said: “I make known that I have never joined with those who believe that smoking is permitted in our days.”[9]


An intriguing ruling, by Rabbi Yaakov Etlinger, involves the concept of permitting a possible dangerous activity if there is more than a fifty percent chance that one will emerge unscathed. In the early days some used this as a justification to permit smoking as it was still considered a relatively ‘safe’ practice. However, nowadays, with overwhelming evidence that fifty percent of smokers will die prematurely (never mind the other non-lethal side effects), his ruling takes on a distinctly different meaning.[10]


There is no doubt that there is today an overwhelming body of scientific and halachik evidence militating against smoking. 

Even Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, writing as far back as the late 1700’s, said; “Don’t get into the habit of is of no benefit whatever and can be hazardous.”[11]

-But he also said; “Never get drunk. Be careful never to drink more than your capacity...excessive drinking and drunkenness lead to harshness, anger impurity and evil.”[12]

I eagerly wait for more publication of scientific and halachik research into the dangers of drinking which, it could be argued, has become systemic in sectors of our community, and may be just as damaging as smoking.[13]

[1] Peninei Halacha by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, Likkutim 2, p. 199, Section 7 Ch. 8
[2] Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan.
[3] See Tzitz Eliezer 15,39 and see Aseh Lecha Rav 2,1
[4] Bava Batra 23a
[5] In a fascinating interpretation of the Terumat Deshen, G-d’s protection is only over ‘fools’ and not scholars who should know better.
[6] See Igrot Moshe, Yoreh Deah vol. 2, 49
[7] These included Rav Elyashiv, Rav Ovadia Yosef, Tzitz Eliezer.
[8] Shu’t Aseh Lecha Rav vol. 2,1
[9] See Minchat Shlomo, vol. 2, 58
[10] See Binyan Tzion, vol. 1, 137
[11] Tzadik #427
[12] Siach Sarfei Kodesh 1, 151
[13] I thank Dr Stanley Tenzer for his input and help with some of the medical and other issues this article touched on.

1 comment:

  1. There is room for medical smoking of marijuana. It has more pros than cons.