Is Smoking Kosher?
Is Smoking Kosher?
by Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz
According to Health Canada, Canadians will suffer 46,910 deaths attributable to smoking in the year 2000. Studies have linked smoking to a variety of illnesses, including heart disease, lung cancer, emphysema, and bronchial disorders. The health risks smoking presents pose a halachic question: does Halacha permit smoking?
In Judaism, health is a religious concern. Maimonides notes that a sound mind requires a sound body, and for this reason it is a religious obligation to take care of one's health (Deot 4:1). There are many halachic regulations enacted for health purposes (see Shulchan Aruch YD 116). In general, health regulations are treated with greater stringency than any other section of halacha (Hullin 9b).
While health and safety are halachic obligations, it does not mean that every health and safety risk are prohibited. It is normal for people to accept certain safety risks in the course of their regular activities. Regular activities such as driving, flying in a plane or giving birth to a child entail some risk. What needs to be determined is which risks are considered to be halachically acceptable and which are not.
The crucial text for determining the criteria of acceptable risk is found in Yebamot 72a. The Talmud states in the name of Rav Papa that even though there is an obligation to avoid danger, when many people ignore a specific type of health hazard, it is halachically permitted to ignore it because "the Lord watches the simple" (Psalms 116:6). There are several interpretations of Rav Papa's statement. To some, this means that even a demonstrated health hazard may be ignored if most people ignore it as well (Ritva, s.v. "Shomer"). This interpretation sees acceptable risk as subjective and socially determined; I cannot be more reckless then most other people in my society. One can conclude that according to this view, if large groups of people ignore the health risks of smoking, it is not halachically prohibited.
A different interpretation is offered by Rabbi Yaakov Etlinger (Binyan Zion 137). He explains that there is a difference between behaviour that presents an immediate danger, and behaviour that may present a future danger. An action that presents immediate danger, such as entering a burning building, is prohibited. Something that may turn dangerous in the future, such a long boat trip, is allowed because "the Lord watches the simple". Some argue that according to Ettlinger's opinion, smoking, which does not present immediate danger to the smoker, would be permitted.
Others take a different view of the text. They say the dispensation of "the Lord watches the simple" only refers to cases where the danger is extremely small (Achiezer 1:23:2) or cases where the danger is "well known", but there is no empirical, scientific evidence to substantiate it (Tzitz Eliezer 15:39; cf. Beit Yoseph YD 262). According to this interpretation, any scientifically demonstrated health hazard is absolutely prohibited. Because of this, Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg prohibited smoking, saying that there is unambiguous scientific evidence that cigarette smoking is dangerous. Rabbi Waldenberg says those who do smoke must make every effort to quit smoking.
More controversial is the view of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Iggrot CM II:76; dated June 10, 1981). While Rabbi Feinstein strongly discourages smoking, he writes that since many people who smoke do not suffer any health problems, and most who smoke are not endangered by it, one may say that smoking is permitted because "the Lord watches the simple". Due to Rabbi Feinstein's authority, many Rabbis are loathe to prohibit smoking. However, a recent ruling by the Rabbinical Council of America (available at: http://www.rabbis.org/publications/smoking.pdf) which Rabbi Feinstein's son-in-law, Rabbi Moshe Tendler, co-authored, argues that in light of recent studies demonstrating the widespread danger cigarette smoking presents, and the fact that there are considerably fewer smokers today, Rabbi Feinstein would today reverse his position and prohibited smoking.
Like many questions in halacha, there is more than one opinion whether smoking is permitted or prohibited. However, all authorities agree that taking good care of one's health is an important religious value, and may not be overlooked.
[Ed. Note: Although, based upon the above-cited published opinion, Rav Moshe Feinstein zt"l did not prohibit individuals from smoking, it should be noted that in a letter to Rabbi Reuven Sofer dated Tishrei 5741, Rav Moshe specifically prohibited smoking in a Bet Midrash (study hall) and other public places where objections to smoking are raised. See generally "Smoking and Damage to Health in the Halachah" by Rabbi Menachem Slae (Acharai Publications, Jerusalem 1990) at page 53-56, which reprints the letter in its entirety. In relevant part, Rav Moshe writes: "[A]s I wrote . . . it is prohibited for smokers to smoke in the study hall if even one person is present who is discomforted from it, even if he is not injured and made ill, certainly if the possiblity of illness and injury exists, even if the time lost from Torah study would be greater if the smokers would be prohibited from smoking, as the smokers are forbidden to smoke in the study hall and in any place (in general) where non-smokers are found who protest that the (smoke) injures them, or even if the smoke discomforts them."]
Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the rabbi of Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem in Quebec Canada, and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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