A Smokin’ Good Idea

“You shall carefully guard your lives.”

Deuteronomy 4:15


Is smoking forbidden in Jewish law? This is an extremely interesting legal issue. Smoking is, of course, a personal preference, and yet the Bible states outright that people should not do anything that will actively compromise their health under the proviso above.

 This past week, The Jerusalem Post covered the story of two rabbis who tried to prevent smoking in their city: Rabbis Shlomo Riskin and Shimon Golan. They wanted to revoke the kashrut license of any food establishment selling cigarettes under the banner of two biblical prohibitions: aiding and abetting another human being who is endangering himself and standing idly by when a life is at risk. The two rabbis said that anyone who sold cigarettes transgressed two legal prohibitions.

 Municipal law, however, forbade the ban because rabbis are only permitted to determine the kashrut of food products. Until people start eating cigarettes, these two rabbis could not forbid their sale. But they could and did begin a campaign to persuade people to view the dangers of smoking within a religious framework as a consequence of their deleterious health risks.

 A few years ago, the High Court ruled against rabbis who tried to ban the kashrut certification of a restaurant that offered belly dancing, which may, if you are not in good shape, actually be worse for you than smoking! Rabbi Riskin regards the problem as profound: "At the very least someone who smokes is transgressing the Torah's commandment to carefully guard your soul, and it could even be considered killing yourself, not to mention the fact that you are endangering others with secondary smoke.

Smoking is a serious problem in many ultra-Orthodox communities where young yeshiva students start as minors. A Haredi marketing firm even leveraged the nicotine withdrawal over Shabbat by producing a clever ad of a havdala set with a pack of Israeli cigarettes on it that said, “Shavua tov” - have a good week - the typical greeting we wish others at the end of Shabbat.

Rabbis who were asked formal legal questions regarding the permissibility of smoking took different sides. Some forbade it because of the verse in Deuteronomy. There was a time when we actually believed that smoking was good for your health. But now that there is enough scientific evidence marshaled against smoking, many rabbis appropriately banned it. Those who permit it do not ignore our verse in Deuteronomy but quote an alternative verse from Psalms that says that God protects the foolish. Smoking is regarded as a foolish behavior, but perhaps God will protect those foolish enough to smoke from endangering themselves. Sounds risky to me. One well-known authority forbade individuals to start smoking but permitted someone already addicted to continue smoking. This shows sensitivity to the difficulties that anyone with addictive behaviors faces and assumes that if no one starts then in one generation the problem would end itself. Those committed to smoking, however, did not pay attention to this voice of authority and found justification in other opinions to their own detriment.

We often use authorities, laws and protocols to protect us from our own worst selves. You can ban large volume cups of soda, but it will still not stop us from drinking them. A kosher lifestyle involves taking care of oneself, even if cigarettes are not under kashrut supervision. Deuteronomy stresses that you have to protect yourself and guard your own life. You cannot expect that someone else will do it for you.

Shabbat Shalom