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Judaism: The Prohibition Against Smoking

What does Jewish law have to say about smoking? Is it permissible or forbidden?
Published: Friday, June 25, 2010 9:53 AM


1. The Prohibition against Smoking


A question that many people ask is, “What does Jewish law have to say about smoking? Is it permissible or forbidden?”


Hundreds of years ago, there were doctors who believed that smoking was actually a healthy practice, to the point where they would even advise smoking to those suffering from certain types of sicknesses. But, as time passed, it became increasingly clear that smoking is in fact very bad for one’s health. Already in the days of Rabbi Yisrael Meir of Radin, the "Chofetz Chaim", some sixty years ago, the opinion of a number of doctors was made public which stated that a frail person should not become accustomed to smoking. These doctors explained that smoking saps a person’s strength and might even cause death. Basing himself upon this report, the "Chofetz Chaim" wrote that it is forbidden for a person to accustom himself to smoking.


Despite this, though, because it was not clear to just what degree smoking was dangerous, the majority of rabbis held that smoking was not absolutely prohibited, only that it was not advisable to smoke. They therefore did not make noise about Yeshiva students who had a practice of smoking.


But, during the last few decades, it has become undeniably clear through comprehensive studies that smoking is very dangerous to one’s health. This being the case, it is clearly forbidden according to the Torah to smoke. For the Torah commands us to guard our lives, as it says, “Only be careful and guard your soul greatly” (Deuteronomy 4:9), and “You must guard your souls greatly (Ibid. 4:15). And the Torah has commanded us to stay away from anything which might endanger life. Therefore, if one builds a roof or a balcony, there is a Torah obligation to build a guard-rail around it in order that nobody falls from it. Hence we can see to just what degree a Jew is obligated to maintain his health. It follows that the Torah prohibits smoking (Aseh Lekha Rav vol. 2, 1; Tzitz Eliezer 15, 39).


As a side note it is worth mentioning here that Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Halprin writes that it is possible that the prohibition against smoking does not stem merely from the commandment to protect one’s health. It may very well be that the Torah prohibition against murdering also becomes an issue here. This is because with every inhalation the smoker causes direct damage to his lungs and, in a sense, brings his own death a bit closer. If this is the case, such a person violates a severe negative commandment, “Thou shall not kill,” which is one of the Ten Commandments.


2. Scientific Facts


Let us consider the scientific facts (as they appear in vol. 2 of “Asya,” in the articles written by Dr. Meltzer, Dr. Hershkowitz, and Prof. Katan) which served as the foundation for the Halakhic ruling which forbids smoking.


There are three main diseases caused by smoking. The first affects the lungs directly in the form of bronchitis and deterioration of the lungs. These sicknesses attack the lungs’ immune system which stands guard against elements which are dangerous to the body and they affect the lungs’ ability to receive oxygen. In most cases, such ailments damage an individual’s physical fitness and operational capacity, while in rare instances they may even lead to death.


The second type of disease that may be caused by smoking is heart disease: On the average, one in every four people who die from heart disease received it as a result of smoking.


The third category is that of cancer. Comprehensive studies show that smoking is the major environmental cause of cancer. The chances that a man who smokes will contract cancer are twice as great as a man who does not smoke. Smoking leads generally to lung cancer, to the point that among smokers the rate of lung cancer is seven times higher than among non-smokers. According to statistical calculations, then, we find that more than 500 people in Israel die each year from lung cancer as a result of smoking.


In summary, the death rate is much higher among smokers than among non-smokers. For example, in a massive study carried out by American insurance companies, it was discovered that the death rate of smokers up to the age of forty-five is 80% higher than the death rate of non-smokers of the same age group, while the death rate of smokers up to the age of sixty is 125% higher than the death rate of non-smokers belonging to the same age group.


In an interesting study carried out by one insurance company, it was discovered that even the rate of traffic accidents for smokers is higher than that of non-smokers. 6.59% smokers were involved in such accidents while the rate among non-smokers was only 3.75%. The reason for this difference is that smoking affects the hemoglobin, lessening the amount of oxygen in the blood, which in turn damages the driver’s concentration and judgment.


As a result of these studies many insurance companies raised the prices of smokers’ policies.


At any rate, as concerns our discussion, as a result of these studies, it was ruled that smoking is a severe violation of the Torah law.


3. The Prohibition Against Smoking in Other Peoples’ Presence


Another Halakhic question  concerning the problem of smoking: is it permissible for a non-smoker to demand of a smoker to refrain from smoking on the grounds that the smoke bothers him? It goes without saying that in the house of the non-smoker, the right to decide whether or not one smokes therein is his own. Hence, a guest cannot demand that his host refrain from smoking in his presence, just as he cannot himself smoke if the host desires that he not.


The question is: what is the rule in public places, or in places which are jointly owned? Can, in such circumstances, a non-smoker demand of a smoker to refrain from smoking on the grounds that the smoke bothers him?


The Talmud (Baba Batra 23a) teaches us that even in a private domain one must be careful not to cause damage to his fellow. For example, it is forbidden for a homeowner to create a stench or smoke in his own domain if it will be carried over into the domain of another, causing him discomfort. This is a clear proof that smoke is considered by Jewish law as substance which damages and causes discomfort and that a person can demand of his neighbor that he not create smoke which will enter his domain and cause him uneasiness. This rule is true of a public place as well; one can demand that his fellow refrain from smoking. And if there are two office workers together in the same room, one can tell the other not to smoke.


And even if over a long period of time one worker demonstrated no opposition to his neighbor’s smoking, he still reserves the right to demand that his co-worker refrain from smoking. If the smoker, in such a situation, claims that because he has been smoking in this place for years and nobody ever asked him to stop before, and since this has become the established custom, he ought to be able to continue in his ways, it is, all the same, permissible according to Jewish law to demand that the worker stop smoking. This is due to the fact that it is well known that smoking greatly irritates certain people, and nobody has the right to rely upon established custom where such a custom involves discomfort to his neighbor.


All of the above is true even if we say that smoking does not affect the health of those who inhale cigarette smoke, but merely causes discomfort and unpleasantness; but today, with all that we know about the health hazards involved in smoking even to those who only happen to be in the smoker’s vicinity, the prohibition is all the more severe. For example, studies have shown that when one of the members of a couple smoke, the chances of the partner’s contracting cancer as a result of cigarette smoke is three times greater than in couples where neither smoke.


It is worth mentioning, in this light, that our beloved mentor, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah HaCohen Kook, zt” l, instructed his students in the 'Mercaz HaRav' Yeshiva not to smoke in the study-hall of the Yeshiva. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein also forbade smoking in yeshiva study-halls and synagogues because smoking causes damage even to passive bystanders.


4. Is it permissible to be smoker’s “accomplice” ?


One of the first rabbis who, in light of the publication of modern studies demonstrating the dangers of cigarettes, forbade smoking was Rabbi Chaim David HaLevi, the Chief Rabbi of Tel-Aviv in his time.


An additional question was raised at that time: Is it possible to help somebody else to smoke? For example, if a father asks of his son to buy a box of cigarettes for him, is it permissible or forbidden for the son to buy them? On the one hand, we have learned that the Torah prohibits smoking cigarettes because they damage one’s health, and it is forbidden to help a person to violate the Torah. On the other hand, there is a commandment to honor one’s mother and father.


Rabbi Chaim David HaLevi answered that because Jewish law teaches that the commandment to honor one’s parents does not supersede the Torah commandments, it is forbidden for a son to fulfill a father’s request to buy cigarettes for him. Yet, this does not constitute a violation of the Torah prohibition of not placing a stumbling block before the blind, for the Torah prohibits such behavior only in a case where without help the transgression would not be carried out at all. In the case at hand, though, even without his son, the father would be able to obtain cigarettes. At any rate, there is a Rabbinical prohibition against such behavior, for they have warned us that even where a person can transgress without any aid whatsoever, it is forbidden to assist him.


Hence, it is forbidden for the son to buy cigarettes for his father, for this falls into the category of aiding somebody to perform a transgression. This is the opinion of Rabbi Chaim David HaLevi (Aseh Lekha Rav 6, 58).


Strictly speaking, Rabbi HaLevi is correct. However, if doing so causes a serious conflict, such behavior will eventually seriously damage the bond of love and respect which must exist between son and father and the son will have lost more then he gained. Therefore, it appears that in a case where refusing to buy cigarettes will not be correctly interpreted by the father and will merely lead to aggravation and uneasiness in the home, it is preferable that the son buy the cigarettes and avoid damaging the relations between himself and his father (see Minchat Shelomo sec. 35).


5. Educating Against Smoking


Having learned that the Torah forbids smoking because it is detrimental to health and endangers the lives of both the smoker and those in his proximity, it is obvious that we must educate every individual not to begin smoking, for, before one picks up this bad habit, it is easy enough to refrain from it. But, after having become addicted to the habit and the nicotine, it becomes extremely difficult to stop.


All the same, one who is already addicted to cigarettes is obligated by the Torah to stop smoking. Indeed, once one has stopped smoking, the danger of cancer or heart disease gradually decreases, to the point where, after ten years, the chances of contracting heart disease are no different than those of someone who never smoked. The heightened danger of cancer disappears after fifteen years (Asya vol. 5, pgs. 224 & 235).


And, in truth, though the impression is that it is very difficult to stop smoking, experience shows that via information and education even one who is addicted to smoking is capable of stopping. For example, in the year that studies proving the dangers of smoking were publicized, 64% of doctors smoked, and when they were asked if they felt that it was possible to stop smoking, they answered in the negative. Yet, ten years later, only 16% of doctors continued smoking. From here, the conclusion is that a clear understanding of the dangers of smoking is an extremely effective way of putting an end to the habit. Hence, smokers are obligated to study about the dangers of smoking, and to do all that is in their power to kick the habit.


True, sometimes the mental state of the smoker, or the environmental pressures that he faces don’t permit him to take upon himself the task of quitting, and in such a situation we might consider him a victim of circumstances beyond his control - force majeure. Sometimes it is even better to suggest that such an individual not even attempt to stop smoking, for such an endeavor is liable to take its toll on his entire being and disturb his mental balance. But, the great majority of people are capable of taking the steps necessary to quit smoking.


As a side note, it is also important to point out that habitual smoking constitutes a great waste of money. A person who smokes two packs of regular cigarettes every day for fifty years, has spent almost 150,000 shekels. If he had saved that same amount of money, he would have in hand at the age of seventy, more than 300,000 shekels.


Rabbi Eliezer Melamed is the Dean of Yeshiva Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish Law. Rabbi Melamed is one of the most active leaders amongst the religious-Zionist public. Parts of this article were translated either from his highly acclaimed series on Jewish law "Pininei Halacha" or from his popular weekly column "Revivim" which appears in the Basheva newspaper. Rabbi Melamed’s books "The Laws of Prayer" "The Laws of Passover" and "Nation, Land, Army" are presently being translated into English, and are due to be printed, please God, in the near future. Other interesting and informative articles by Rabbi Melamed can be viewed at: www.yhb.org.il/1 This article also appears at: www.Yeshiva.org.il