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Smoking: Halacha and History

By: Rabbi Moshe Taub

 

Originally Published in AMI Magazine

 

“There is something about the smell of old sefarim that I just love”, I once told my wife. She wisely pointed out that “It’s not the smell old paper that you enjoy, rather that old sefarim have the smell of cigarettes!”

 

She was right.

 

When I first came to Lakewood I was using an old shtender that had, strangely, holes drilled in to its side. It was explained that this shtender was first made years ago when smoking was common in the beis midrash and ashtrays were bolted onto each shtender! Another told me how at the end of each day a blue cloud hung over the beis medresh in the yeshivah where he learned some 40 years ago. Although there was once a heter to smoke in a beis medresh (see Shaarei Teshuvah 154:20) it is hard to be meykel today, especially in America (see below).

 

For a long time after Sir Walter Reilly popularized tobacco in Europe the dangers of smoking were unknown. In fact, old issues of American magazines had advertisements declaring smoking beneficial for one’s health, or that a particular brand is recommended by doctors (“More Doctors smoke Camel than any other cigarette” claims an old issue of Life Magazine)!

Slowly this began to change –in 1958 only 44% of Americans believed that smoking can lead to cancer - coming to a head with the Surgeon General’s 1964 report on the dangers and risks related to smoking.

 

Things have changed in the yeshiva world as well. By the time I arrived in yeshivah smoking was, to say the least, frowned upon by the hanhala, at risk of being expelled; and such is the rule across almost all yeshivos in America. Rav Meir Stern once asked me –after discovering I was a smoker –if I would like to join him on a trip to an ICU or cancer ward. Rav Meir Stern is a prince of a person and I still shudder at the memory of such stern words coming from his mouth. When I did finally quit several years later, his were the words echoing in my head.

 

In truth, we already find the Chofetz Chaim writing negatively about smoking, during a time when it was quite popular (Likutei Emorim, 13). Nevertheless, in his halachik writings he seems to allow smoking on Yom Tov (see below).

 

The Nishmas Avraham (oh’ch siman 503) even brings from the Birkei Yosef (Machzik Beracha oh’ch siman 210:13) who records that his grandfather asked in a dream what they think in shomayim about smoking. The reply came that anyone who smokes on yom tov is put in cherem!

 

I often hear balla battim complain about the smoking of yeshivah students, and while I don’t wish to diminish their concern, a little perspective will help this discussion. In my time in yeshivah about 10% of bachurim were regular smokers (while anecdotal, it could not be far off as smokers always knew of each other). That number is far less than, say, a college campus. A recent survey of charedim in Israel reported that 17% smoke compared to 28% of Israeli general public. That being said, yeshiva bochurim must be made aware of the chilul Hashem smoking causes in present society. Subway Corp. and other vendors would never allow a worker wearing their uniform to be caught smoking, and Gd’s army mustn’t have any less of a standard.

 

Smoking on Yom Tov, in a Shul

 

In the Pnei Yehoshua, for whom the Baal Shem Tov was the shochet while in galus, we find references to smoking (see his remarks to Shabbos 39b). He is often falsely quoted as saying that smoking is healthy (I saw one rabbi quote him this way in an article where this rabbi wanted to show how halacha can change with new information). In discussing smoking on Yom Tov, the Pnei Yehoshua says that so long as one is doing something which is benefiting him in a physical way, like smoking, “…which helps with digestion and appetite…” it would be permitted. This was a halachik argument that relates not to overall health. The Yaavetz (Siddur Beis Yaakov, relating to Tisha B’Av) marshals the same logic in relation to smoking on a taanis, explaining that so long as it is not done for pleasure rather to help stomach ailments etc. it would be allowed then.

 

As for presently smoking on Yom Tov, while Rav Moshe (Igros Moshe, ohr hachaim 5:34) seems to be meyekel, many others are stringent. I am sure many readers will disagree, but the goal here should be better to get one to actually quit smoking entirely than to turn so many into mechaleli yom tov. When I was a smoker - and boy was I - I would not hear of ceasing smoking on Yom Tov and even once paid a friend to walk all the way to Dayan Fisher zt’l –known for kulos in this area –to ask if I could smoke on Yom Tov. The shu’t Teshuvos Vehangos 1:316 quotes a general assumption with which he seems to concur that even those who allow smoking on Yom Tov speak only about those addicted, about whom cessation of smoking for a couple of days would sully their simchas Yom Tov. The Piskei Teshuvos (511: footnote #57) finds a source for this view in the Sdei Chemed. See also Shemrias Shabbos K’Hilchasah 13:7.

 

Should one be lenient regarding this debate he should be highly cognizant of the innumerable shailos that arise in addition to its general Yom Tov allowance. The Piskei Teshuvos siman 511:11 lists seven different concerns should smoking be allowed on Yom Tov: is one allowed to light a cigarette from candles lit l’kavod Yom Tov?; may one smoke cigarettes with words on them? Etc. In addition to his list are even more concerns, for instance questions of carrying on Yom Tov more cigarettes than needed (Rav Moshe in two separate teshuvos allows it) and the allowance of smoking and leaving ashes in a sukkah.

 

Kashrus and Fast Days

 

The old yeshiva joke went like this:

Why don’t we make a shehechiyanu on our first cigarette?

 

For an American: because its always in a bathroom.

 

For an Israeli: because they are too young to make a beracha

 

Behind this are real halachik questions.

(As for a beracha on cigarettes, see Shaarim M’tziyunim B’halacha, siman 50:7, shu’t Meor U’Ketziah 210; regarding a beracha on snuff tobacco see Be’er Heitiv 216:13 and Aruch Hashulchan 216:4. See also Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Aviner, edited by my dear chaver Rav Tzion p. 207)

 

In a recent news story the following was reported:

“University of Sydney Professor in Public Health Simon Chapman points to recent Dutch research which identified 185 different industrial uses of a pig - including the use of its haemoglobin in cigarette filters.”

 

“Prof Chapman said the research offered an insight into the otherwise secretive world of cigarette manufacture, and it was likely to raise concerns for devout Muslims and Jews.”

 

"I think that there would be some particularly devout groups who would find the idea that there were pig products in cigarettes to be very offensive," Prof Chapman said today.

 

"’The Jewish community certainly takes these matters extremely seriously and the Islamic community certainly do as well, as would many vegetarians.’”

 

 “The Dutch research found pig haemoglobin - a blood protein - was being used to make cigarette filters more effective at trapping harmful chemicals before they could enter a smoker's lungs.”

 

Prof Chapman said while tobacco companies had moved voluntarily list the contents of their products on their websites, they also noted undisclosed "processing aids ... that are not significantly present in, and do not functionally affect, the finished product".

 

Would this be a halachik issue? The thrust of the question would be if smoking is like eating. The Pri Chodash warns us not to light a cigarette from a candle made from cheilev (forbidden fats) unless one lights from far atop the flame so that there is a fear of some of the cheilev substance interacting with the cigarette. Now, cheilev is only forbidden to eat, deriving pleasure in other ways from it is allowed. We see from here (see footnote in shut Yechaveh Daas 2:17 at length) that, at least according to the Pri Chodash smoking is not a simple hanah/pleasure rather it falls under the rubric of halachik eating/drinking!

 

While I doubt the measurement of blood found in cigarettes is halachikly viable, should it be shown to be significant then according to him it would indeed be problematic, although rabbinical in nature (especially since it will be cooked by the time one ‘eats’ it).

 

The Shaar HaMelech (see article from this writer in the Torah journal ‘Haamek’ titled ‘Lifnei Ever’ where this Shaar HaMelech is discussed at length) (hilchos meacholos assuros, ch. 13) discusses cigarettes flavored with non-kosher wine where he is lenient for a number of reasons (although he recommends being strict). Rav Ovodia Yosef (ibid.) deduces from this that the Shaar HaMelech argues on the opinion of the Pri Chodash and holds that smoking is simply a pleasure –although a bodily one- and does not fall under the rubric of eating. For this reason shu’t Mateh Yehudah siman 210 explains why we do not make a birchas hanehenin (blessings before one has pleasure/food) on smoking. A similar line of reasoning is given why there is no beracha achrona on (see Magen Avraham and Chazon Ish oh’c 25).

 

In any event, should smoking in modern times be deemed assur (see below), all would agree that smoking has no beracha as we see from Shulchan Aruch 196:1 that one should not make a beracha on forbidden substances.

 

For the above reason (i.e. smoking not deemed eating) many allow smoking on fast days, including Tisha B’Av (see e.g. shu’t Har HaKarem siman 19). The Chafetz Chaim (Mishna Berrura 556:sif katan #8) strongly disagrees and disallows smoking on any taanis, especially Trisha B’av by pain of excommunication! Others are lenient (see Yabia Omer 1:33 who allows one to be meikel in private).

 

Smoking in a Shul or Beis Medresh

 

The gemara teaches (Megilla 28) that we do not allow kalos rosh in shuls and batei midrashim; this includes eating and drinking. In a beis medresh we can be more meikel, for even though it has a higher degree of sanctity, if someone spends most of his day there it may be allowed.

 

Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe choshen mishpat 2:18) holds that if someone is bothered by cigarette smoke then it is certainly forbidden to smoke in a shul. He goes on to say that even if one’s smoking in their private home is proven to bother a neighbor then one would have to cease smoking in his home!

 

Some point out, relating to smoking in a beis medresh, that even if technically allowed (so long as it does not bother another person) we should still not allow it since non-Jews are strict not to smoke in their places of worship and it would be a chillul Hashem if we did (we should point out however that we should not encourage non-Jews to enter a beis medresh accept meshum darkei shalom, especially if they have religious paraphernalia on them, see shu’t Har Tzvi siman 85 and shu’t Yabia Omer y’d 3:15).

 

Smoking in Halacha: Danger to Life

 

So what is the halachik view of smoking in general?

 

There are many sources, starting with Igros Moshe ch’m 2:76 and Tzitz Eliezer 15:39.

 

Sakana/Dangerous Activity:

The gemara (Chullin 9b-10a), after a lengthy discussion, concludes with the famous idiom, ‘Chamira Sakanta MeIsurah’, that halacha is more stringent when it comes to issues of bodily danger than it is toward issues that are purely halachik in nature.

 

The gemara  (Berachos 32b, 55a, Rosh Hashana 16b, Shavous 36a) speak harshly of those who put themselves at risk, and the Shulchan Aruch rules (choshen mishpat 427:8) ‘Any obstacle which has risk to life there is a positive commandment to remove it, to guard from it and to be very fastidious regarding it’. The Chochmas Adam adds that those who see this and do not do anything to stop it or remove it are also liable. It would seem from here (see also Marcheshes 3:29) that there is both a positive mitzvah to protect life and a negative mitzvah prohibiting dangerous actions.

 The Be’er HaGoleh (ad loc.) explains the seriousness of putting oneself at risk that by doing so one displays a laissez faire attitude toward the life Hashem blessed one with and the mitzvos for which life is needed to perform.

[Surprising though it may be to some, there is significant debate if this obligation is biblical or rabbinic in nature (see e.g. Levush in Ir Shoshan 426:11 and Tosphos Yom Tov, Berachos 3:4 who hold it is rabbinic; see e.g. shu’t Noda B’yehudah, kama, #10, Aruch HaShulcha c’m 427:8 for the majority view that it is biblical)]

 

A frightening statement is found in the Sefer Chasidim (siman 675) where he asserts that anyone who dies through their own negligent actions will have to come to din for causing his own demise!

In order to give perspective to the issue of putting oneself at risk (sakana) it would be worthwhile to briefly discuss sakana in cases of need, as opposed to reshus (choice) like smoking.

 

Rav Moshe Feinstein (y’d 2:74, see also Dibros Moshe to Shabbos 32a) disallows one to induce labor –unless a life is at risk, the mother’s or the baby’s –due to the prohibition of putting ourselves in sakana. He explains that since Hashem gave us the commandment to procreate he clearly allows us to bear the risk of giving birth, but no more than that, and one can therefore not choose when to begin that risk. In a later teshuvah (y’d 3:36) he discusses risky surgeries and rules that one would not be allowed to undertake such procedures for the sake of eliminating pain (not all agree with this psak) and further argues that if someone is very ill and will perhaps die unless a risky procedure is done, while he may be allowed to undergo it, he by no means would be obligated to.

 

As to how much risk halacha allows to take in order to extend one’s life see Avodah Zara 27, shu’t Chasam Sofer y’d 76, shu’t Achiezer 2:16, as well Igros Moshe and others. Some hold that so long as there is at least 50% chance of survival it would be allowed, while others would allow a patient to take on an even greater risk.

 

If we find such discussion regarding inducing labor and risky-yet-beneficial procedures all the more so must we be stringent relating the risks of smoking which serves no benefit or need!

 

On the one hand we have a mitzvah deoreisa: ‘ushmartem meod lanefshoseichem (Devarim 4:9,15), that we must exceedingly guard our bodies from harm, yet on the other hand not all dangers are forbidden.

 

In fact there is a complicated principle based on another pasuk, ‘shomer pesaim Hashem’, that Hashem guards the simpletons (Tehillim 116:6; see Shabbos 129b, Yevamus 72a, et al). Meaning that should something be of tolerable risk, and not shunned by society, it may be allowed in spite of its risk. Because the world is filled with innumerable risk it would be difficult to know what we can and cannot do. Therefore one yardstick availed to us is the ‘ways of the wold’, which under certain conditions, may be followed (see Rav Elchanan Wasserman to Kesubos #136)

 

For instance we see, as Rav Shlomo Zalman Aurbach in a letter to Dr. Abraham points out, as did the Tzitz Eliezar in a teshuva, that the Rambam lists foods that are dangerous in both hilchos deos and in hilchos rotzeach ushmeres hanefesh. While the latter list would seem to be clearly assur mamesh (forbidden in the strictest sense), the former is only severely frowned upon. Rav Moshe (ibid.) points out that there are many foods that may shorten one’s life yet are not be viewed as assur mamesh; smoking, he argues, should fall into this category. Many point to this teshuvah as a way to prove smoking is allowed.

We will return to his perceived allowance at the end of this article.

 

What then is the distinction between tolerable risk in halacha and one that is not tolerated? Rav Chaim Ozer (Achiezar 1:22) and the Aruch L’ner (in his shu’t Binyan Tzion 1:137) seem to have different criteria, but it is clear that a risk accepted by the masses and is common –like air or car travel (the Steipler is quoted as saying that if the Sanhedrin were around they would ban cars!) –would fall into the former, more permissive category.

 

Today it is hard to argue that smoking falls under the permissive category. As Rav Shternbuch succinctly put it (shu’t Teshuvos V’Hanohgos, 1:316) we can’t choose to listen to doctors when allowing us to eat on Yom Kippur and conveniently ignore them when they are stringent regarding other things (like smoking). Rav Ephraim Greenblatt (Rivevos Ephraim, 8:586), a prime disciple of Rav Moshe, posits that the dispensation for accepted risk no longer applies to smoking as we see that modern culture clearly rejects this vice.

 

As for the argument marshaled by some that dangers that accrue over a long period of time do not fall under the rubric of ‘guard yourselves’, I would argue, as a former smoker, that the ill affects of smoking are both immediate and long term. Indeed, the mortality rate for a smoker over 45 goes up 85% compared to non-smokers! It is only a long-term problem before the cat-scan, lo aleinu.

 

Yeshiva bochurim who spend their days engrossed in Torah and seeking to avoid kol minei issur (all things forbidden) are simply seeking for a kosher escape, this we understand. We need to teach them and have them believe, however, that smoking is simply not one of them.

 

An unnerving statement about smoking, considering its source, was written by Rav Dessler (Michtav Me’Eliyahu, Volume 1, page 79): “I intuit and it is intellectually certain to me, for example, that smoking cigarettes is bad for my health…nevertheless, I go ahead and (continue to) smoke. Why is this? Clearly an emotional attachment cannot be overridden by that which I know rationally.”

 

Once, while still in Gateshead, Rav Dessler put up a sign on his office door stating that he had officially quit smoking. He explained that he was testing himself to see which temptation is greater: his desire to continue smoking, or his desire to be seen as a man of truth!

 

Being a former smoker myself I can relate to the following words of Rav Shach: “When I used to smoke I thought I could never understand a Tosefos without a cigarette; now that I quit I do not know how I ever managed to learn with a cigarette!”

 

Rav Hirsch was at one time so addicted to snuff that before retiring to bed one evening he caught himself placing his snuff box under his pillow in case he wanted a pinch in the middle of the night. Shocked at the power his habit had over him he quit that night, never to touch it again.
 

Today the vast majority of major poskim –including Rav Shmuel Aurbach, Rav Elyashiv, Rav Scheinberg, the Tzitz Eleizar –have come out to declare that smoking is forbidden.

 

While Rav Moshe allowed it, it must be pointed out that the concept of acceptable risk disappears should the culture be keenly aware of something’s dangers and if its risks are shown to be both present and long term (see Kesubos 39b with Rashi).

 

Halacha is not magic, and one cannot blindly apply a teshuva to modern times without a deep understanding of the reasons behind it and if they still apply.

 

In addition, Rav Moshe was not writing during a time when a ben Torah smoking in public is seen as a chilul Hashem. Personally, although I knew I had to quit, it was the invitation to be a scholar-in-residence in the Five Town one Shavous when I was still in Lakewood that was the catalyst. I just would not allow myself to be seen in public as both a speaker and a smoker.

 

Furthermore, the issue of taking on a new addiction or a new demanding pleasure is discussed elsewhere by Rav Moshe (y’d 3:35) and he is indeed very strict.

 

Yes, it is true that many tzadikim smoked (as Rav Moshe points out in his reluctance to ban smoking), but there are also many who quit once they learned of its dangers. In addition, we can’t pick and choose our maasei rav (halacha based on the lives of our sages). Should someone choose to live in every way like those great men who smoked then perhaps their argument would have more purchase.

 

The negius of an addiction is so profound that it causes one to wonder if such an addict should be the one deciding if his addiction of choice is halachically acceptable (see however the amazing words of the Chazon Ish in Emunah U’Betachon 3:30 –quoted in Shaarei Aron to Devarim 16:19 - where he explains that often halacha does indeed allow one who has what to gain or lose from a psak to be its arbiter).

 

The Midrash Tanchuma (Shemini 11) relates the story of a son who slowly weaned his drunken father off his dependence on alcohol. When he felt it was safe to let his father out of the house they went for a walk, and came upon an old drinking buddy of his father’s. The friend was lying in his own filth in the road, laughing to himself. Hoping that his father would now see the loss of dignity associated with drunkenness, the son pointed him out to his father. However, the father ran over to his old friend and whispered into his ear, “Where did you find such good wine?”

 

Based on the above Tanchuma and Esther Rabba (5:1) the Gra interprets the verse in Mishlei (23:35), "They struck me and I did not become ill" as symbolic of an alcoholic who becomes oblivious to alcohol’s negative effects and even claims that his addiction is virtuous—a sort of Stockholm syndrome. (See Artscroll's Esther Rabba ad loc., footnote 28 and Insights A for further elaboration.)

 

[For a wonderful treatment of this topic and on addiction in general, , see Judaism and Psychology by Moshe HaLevi Spero, Ktav Publishing, Yeshiva University Press, 1980, pages 120-141]

 

For those who are smokers, let me end with the following.

 

I loved smoking. I thought I could never quit. One day I was walking into yeshivah and a friend told me he quit. “How did you do it?” I asked. He replied, “It was the easiest thing I have ever done”.

 

I borrowed his attitude and eventually, when I was ready, quit myself. While it was not as easy as he made it, his refusal to give in to its grip, to fight it, helped me more than he could ever know.

 

And I hope that it helps you.