Responsum on Smoking1
In view of the fact that it has been proven that tobacco smoking is extremely dangerous to human health, what should be the policies of the synagogue regarding smoking on its premises, including the offices? Should synagogues and rabbis take any action with regard to smoking of its members and others in the community off premises?
Until a few years ago, the hazardous nature of smoking was not on the public or Jewish agenda. On the contrary, there were rabbis who thought that smoking was beneficial because of its curative properties. This was the claim of the famed Rabbi Jacob Emden (1697-1776) : “Tobacco is a healthful substance for the body … its natural action is important in helping to digest food, cleanse the mouth, separate the humours, and help the movement of essential functions and blood circulation which are the root of health … It is indeed beneficial to every healthy man, not only because of the pleasure and enjoyment it affords, but because it preserves one’s health and medical fitness.”2
Eventually, the position of halachic decisions on smoking changed. At the turn of this century, their opposition was not a matter of health, but of propriety. Rabbi David Hoffmann (1843-1921), head of the Hildesheimer Rabbinic Seminary in Berlin, stated in response to a query : “It is known that the Gentiles are very punctilious and forbid smoking in their houses of worship, and therefore, it might appear, God forbid, as a desecration of the Divine Name if we should permit it”, and therefore forbade it for synagogues.3
As a result of more recent medical revelations on the health dangers of smoking, most rabbis came to the conclusion that not only is it without beneficial qualities, but on the contrary, the tobacco habit may be dangerous and even fatal. They dealt with two major issues : the danger to the non-smoker (in medical parlance: passive smoking) and the danger to the smoker himself/herself.
Danger to the Non-Smoker
A prominent halakhic authority, R. Moshe Feinstein of New York, forbade the widespread practice of smoking in rabbinical academies (yeshivot). He ignored medical findings, claiming that the deleterious effect of smoking had not been conclusively proved. Nevertheless, it should be prohibited even if it were not injurious to the health of others studying in the same room, but only disturbed them. He rejected the argument that
cigarette smoking helped students to concentrate. On the contrary, he considered leaving for a puff as considered a waste of time which could be spent in the study of Torah (bitul talmud torah). He also criticized the claim that since the room was already full of smoke, each smoker was adding only an insignificant amount. R. Feinstein retorted that each smoker was responsible for his portion of all of the smoke in the room and therefore for the discomfort of all those present who suffer from his habit.4
R. Eliezer Waldenberg of the Israel Chief Rabbinate Council went a step further, forbidding a host to smoke in his own home, if this habit bothers or harms his guests or members of the family, and especially children who might be present.5
Danger to the Smoker
Rabbinic respondents have been divided on the question of whether available medical evidence is sufficient to ban smoking as dangerous in the view of Jewish religious law.
R. Feinstein would concede only that, since “we may be wary of the danger of becoming ill from smoking, it would be better to be cautious.”
However, in his view, it is impossible to forbid smoking for two reasons :
1. Tobacco is in very wide use and has become an entrenched popular practice. The Talmud states about such a habit : “Since the multitude are accustomed to it, ‘the Lord will protect the foolish'”.6
2. “We must especially note that some of the great Torah scholars in past generations were smokers and still are in our day.”
The only thing that may be done is to advise against acquiring the habit and especially against allowing one’s children to learn to smoke. Nevertheless, in his opinion, the Torah does not rule out offering a light or matches to a smoker.7
The sephardic chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, R. Haim David Halevi, disagreed with this ruling. A youngster asked him whether he must obey his father who sent him out to buy a pack of cigarettes. R. Halevi responded : “In view of the fact that physicians have universally warned against the great danger of smoking to human health, and since, in my opinion, it is forbidden by the Torah which commands : “You shall carefully preserve your lives” (Deuteronomy 15:4), you are not permitted to buy him cigarettes. Furthermore, whenever you see him with a cigarette in his mouth, say to him, ‘Father, see what we are warned in the Torah about preserving life and we know that smoking is very harmful’ – in the hope that he will understand, overcome and refrain.”8
As a foremost expert on medicine in Jewish law, R. Eliezer Waldenberg accepts the findings of medical experts and proclaims that “smoking is the number one killer of humanity!” Disagreeing with R. Feinstein’s position, he declares “that there is no reason to congratulate oneself … and to rule that since smoking is widespread there is no reason to prohibit it.” R. Waldenberg points to medical findings that “cigarette smoking is the main cause of death from cancer … therefore it is certainly absurd to turn a blind eye on all this and to blithely conclude that (in a case like this) ‘The Lord will protect the foolish'”.9
The reality is that scientific evidence has conclusively proven that smoking is dangerous and even fatal. The United States Surgeon General has issued a 300 to 500 page volume every year on the dangers of smoking.10 There can no longer be any reasonable doubt about it.
Many smokers today see their habit as a strictly private matter, asserting that no one has a right to interfere or tell them to stop. Many modern rabbinic respondents reply by
quoting Maimonides: “The Sages forbade many things which involve mortal danger, and anyone who did so saying : ‘Look, I am endangering myself and what does it matter to others’ or ‘I don’t care’, is beaten by the rabbinic court.” 11For according to the Halakhah,
we have stewardship rather than ownership of the body given to us by our Creator, and therefore may not jeopardize our life.
To whom, then, does one’s body and life belong? R. Moses Ribkes (17th century) taught : “The reason the Torah warned us about preservation of life is that God graciously created the world to benefit His creatures so that they may be aware of His greatness and may work in His service by observing His mitzvot.12
What are the operative conclusions of these rabbinic verdicts for the smoking Jew of our day? There is almost universal agreement that this habit involves pikuah nefesh. There is a consensus of halakhic opinion which may be summarized as follows :
(a) Smoking near anyone who may be disturbed or harmed by smoke is prohibited.
(b) It is forbidden to harm oneself by smoking. (If a smoker cannot stop immediately, then he must make every effort to reduce the number of cigarettes smoked per day and to receive help to be cured of the habit.)
(c) Children and adolescents are forbidden to begin or to become accustomed to smoking. Adults may not help or encourage them to acquire the habit.
(d) Encouraging smokers in their habit, by offering a cigarette or a light, is prohibited.
(e) Synagogues and rabbis should be involved in a serious educational campaign to convince congregants and members of the community. They should help to set up smoking cure groups.
(f) Synagogues and rabbinic organizations should counteract the smoking advertisements sponsored by the tobacco industry (especially with their minuscule notice of the danger to health.) More people die of smoking than of gun-shot wounds or AIDS, yet the public awareness is comparatively weak.
The above sources indicate that the Halakhah can and must be a developmental and dynamic phenomenon which has taken cognizance of the discoveries of medical science. Jewish law in its position on smoking has progressed from the 18th century rabbinic view that “tobacco is healthful for the body” to the present day opinion : “Smoking is the number one killer of mankind.” The Reform movement welcomes this halakhic progression.
Written by R. Moshe Zemer, a member of our Responsa Committee. It was previously published in Israel (in Hebrew) and was not part of our process, but has been included because of its importance. Mor u-ketzi’ah, O.H. section 511. Responsa Melamed Leho’il OH # 15. Responsa Igrot Mosheh, CM pt. 2, # 18. Responsa Tzitz Eliezer vo. 15, # 39. BT. Shabbat 129b; Psalms 116:6. Responsa Iggerot Mosheh, YD, pt. 2, # 49. Responsa Aseh Lecha Rav v.6, # 59. Op. cit. These have included, among others, volumes on Smoking and Health, 1964; The Health Consequences of Smoking, 1972; Smoking and Cancer, 1982; Smoking and Cardiovascular Diseases, 1983. Yad, Hilkhot Rechitzah 11:5. Be’er Golah CM 427, letter 90.
If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.