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Is It Permissible to Smoke?

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are that of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the Union for Traditional Judaism, unless otherwise indicated.

by Rabbi Wayne Allen

Does Halakhah permit one to smoke?

The Torah (Deut. 4:9, 15) states, “But beware and guard your soul exceedingly” and “You shall be exceedingly protective of your soul.” From these two verses, we learn that a person must guard and protect his or her physical well-being (see Berakhot 32b). Based on this, Maimonides (Hilkhot Rotseah U-Shemirat Nefesh, ch. 11-12), writes that “regarding any obstacle which is dangerous to life, there is a positive commandment to remove it and to beware of it, and to be particularly careful in this matter, for Scripture says, ‘But beware and guard your soul exceedingly’ (Deut. 4:9)…Many things are forbidden by the Rabbis because they are dangerous to life. If one disregards any of these and says, ‘If I want to put myself in danger, what concern is it to others?’ or ‘I am not particular about such things,’ he is given lashes for rebelling. These are they [which are forbidden]: one may not put his mouth to a pipe flowing with water and drink from it, or drink at night from rivers or ponds lest he swallow a leech while he cannot see….One should not put coins in his mouth lest they carry the dried saliva of one who suffers from an infectious skin disease or leprosy…” This list continues at length. Not only does Maimonides rule that endangering one’s life is a Torah prohibition, but he also says that it impedes the proper service of the Holy One, blessed is He. Therefore, he writes (Hilkhot De’ot 4:1), “Since maintaining a healthy and sound body is among the ways of God—for one cannot understand or have any knowledge of the Creator, if he is ill—therefore, he must avoid that which harms the body and accustom himself to that which is healthful and helps the body become stronger.” And again Maimonides provides a list of things of which to beware.

Based on the above sources, Rabbi Hayyim David Halevy prohibits smoking cigarettes. In his responsa, Aseh Lekha Rav vol. 2, Rabbi Halevy begins his book with a special section devoted to this question in order to show its gravity (his opinion was widely reported in newspapers in Israel and abroad – see, for example, New York Times, Dec. 11, 1976, p. 2 – and he appeared on radio and television to publicize the prohibition). He points out that not all the items on the lists enumerated by Maimonides are found in the Talmud. Rather many are based on the medical knowledge of his day and in fact many contradict the words of our sages in the Talmud. Furthermore, Rabbi Yosef Karo (Shulhan Arukh Yoreh De’ah 116 and Hoshen Mishpat 427) modifies the list, as do other earlier (Rishonim) and later (Aharonim) authorities based on the understanding of their time and place. Thus, since scientific evidence has mounted that smoking is responsible for many diseases and illnesses (the Surgeon General of the United States was already warning about the great hazards of smoking in 1964), it is clear and unequivocal that smoking is a Torah prohibition. Rabbi Halevy also points out that when it comes to danger to life, we follow the Talmudic principle that one should be more concerned about a possible danger to life than a possible prohibition (Hullin 10b; also see Rabbi Moshe Isserles to Yoreh De’ah 116:5). And finally, he argues, if the sages of the Talmud and later authorities knew that smoking cigarettes is, according to medical science, deleterious to the health of the smoker, they would, with all their legal authority, have prohibited it.

Rabbi Halevy held consistent to this view, as seen throughout his responsa. In vol. 3, #18, he was asked if cigarettes need special certification for Passover and if it is permissible to smoke after eating the afikoman. He refused to answer these questions on the basis that smoking is forbidden. In vol. 3, #25, he was asked whether it is permissible to annul a vow someone took not to smoke. He responded that it is forbidden and it is in fact a mitzvah to let it stand to keep the evil inclination of that person at bay. And in vol. 6, #59, he responds to a young man whose father regularly sent him out to buy cigarettes for him, that “…in view of the fact that physicians have universally warned against the great danger of smoking, and since, in my opinion, it is forbidden by the Torah, you are not permitted to buy him cigarettes.” (see also Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, Lekutei Amarim, ch. 13 and Zekhor Le-Miriam ch.10, who similarly rails against smoking, as well as Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, Responsa Yehaveh Da’at 5:39, who also forbids smoking).

Despite this clear ruling, cigarette smoking has not been universally banned by halakhic authorities. While Rabbi Moshe Feinstein strongly asserted that it is not proper to begin smoking and people should be urged to stop (because there is a possibility of danger and there is no benefit), he consistently held the view that smoking could not be prohibited by Halakhah (first in a short responsum in 1964, Responsa Iggerot Moshe, Yoreh De’ah vol. 2, #49 and again in 1981, Hoshen Mishpat vol. 2, #76). Rabbi Feinstein based his opinion on the Talmudic interpretation of the verse, “God protects the fools” (shomer peta’im Hashem—Psalms 116:6). The Talmud (Shabbat 129b and Niddah 45a) discusses two cases (blood-letting on certain days of the week and marital relations at a young age) in which there is an element of danger, but people nonetheless engaged in these activities (see also Yevamot 72a and Niddah 31a). Based on this Talmudic discussion, Rabbi Feinstein generalizes that two conditions must be met in order for the principle of “God protects the fools” to apply: a specific act entails only a possible danger, and most people are willing to take that risk. He reasons that since the danger of becoming ill from smoking is exceedingly small and so many people are willing to take such a risk, it is not possible to prohibit smoking on halakhic grounds. Furthermore, in his first responsum, he points out that many rabbinic scholars from previous generations, as well as our own era, smoke (see Responsa Iggerot Moshe, Yoreh De’ah 3:35, where Rabbi Feinstein does, however, prohibit smoking marijuana).

Rabbi Hayyim David Halevy (Responsa Aseh Lekha Rav, vol. 9 #28) and Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg of Jerusalem (Responsa Tzitz Eliezer 15:39) agree with Rabbi Feinstein’s explanation of “God protects the fools,” but argue that it is no longer applicable to smoking. They argue that the principle is a guarantee that in certain situations we will be protected from risks of which we are ignorant. But if the time comes that we are not being protected when we are commonly acting like “fools,” that lack of protection is a sign that the principle no longer applies in this case. Consequently, the mounting evidence that smoking is not just a theoretical danger but is actually killing people tells us that we can no longer rely on God’s protection when we smoke. Medical research today is so clear that smoking is the cause for so many life-threatening illnesses that Rabbi Halevy and Rabbi Waldenberg argue that even according to the opinion held by Rabbi Feinstein, smoking is prohibited nowadays according to the law of Torah. (See Responsa Teshuvot Ve-Hanahagot vol.3, #354, where Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch also agrees that this principle no longer applies to smoking; he argues, however, that there should not be a Rabbinic ban on smoking because of the Talmudic ruling [Baba Kamma 79b] that “we do not impose a decree upon the community unless a majority can endure it.” However, it should be noted that Rabbi Moshe Sofer, Hidushei Hatam Sofer, Avodah Zarah 30a, after quoting the above-cited Rambam, writes, “The duty of the Sages to see to it [that we do not endanger ourselves] is inferred, according to the Talmud [Moed Katan 5a], from the verse [Deut. 19:10], ‘blood will be upon you.’ According to the Talmud, if the Sages do not take care to eliminate the hazard listed in the Talmud and similar ones, and as a result a person’s blood is spilled, the Torah considered it as if the Sages had spilled that blood.”)

Furthermore, according to Jewish law, it is forbidden to harm another person (see Deut. 22:8, Baba Kamma 15b, Maimonides, Hilkhot Rotseah U-Shemirat Nefesh 11:4-5; Shulhan Arukh Hoshen Mishpat ch. 420; see also Baba Kamma 91a-b). As such, smoking is also forbidden due to the fact that secondhand smoke injures other people. In fact, Rabbi Feinstein (Responsa Iggerot Moshe Hoshen Mishpat vol. 2, #18) rules that a person harmed by secondhand smoke has legal recourse to sue for damages. Rabbi Halevy (Responsa Aseh Lekha Rav, vol. 8, pp. 382-84) also prints a ruling of the “Union of Guard Your Soul” of B’nei Brak (which includes Rabbi Zalman Nehemiah Goldberg), which says that if a child is born with defects caused by his mother smoking during pregnancy, the child has every right to sue his mother for the damage she caused to him. And it is also well known that Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook, former Rosh Yeshiva of Mercaz Ha-Rav, and Rabbi Eliezer Menahem Man Shakh, Rosh Yeshiva of Ponevetz, forbade smoking in the study halls of their yeshivot (see Rabbi Yonah Metzger of Northern Tel Aviv, Responsa Mi-Yam Ha-Halakhah, vol. 4, #44; see also Responsa Iggerot Moshe, ibid., where Rabbi Feinstein forbids smoking in a bet midrash or synagogue).

Thus, smoking cigarettes, which constitutes a clear danger and hazard to both the health of the smoker and to the nonsmoker who inhales the fumes, is a Torah prohibition.