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Halacha Of Smoking – A Review On How The Authoritative Poskim Weigh In

My friend Jon Cohen wrote this research essay on halachic views of smoking, for a class entitled, Contemporary Issues in Halacha. It was given at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem by Dr. Pesach Schindler (whom I highly recommend). The parenthetical names are sources, which you can find listed in the bibliography.

Ever since its introduction to Europe in the 16th century (Freehof) tobacco, and smoking tobacco, has been widely used by many people including people of the Jewish faith. Smoking tobacco has been common for many centuries. What was once thought to be healthy and a cure for diseases is now known to cause them. Smoking tobacco is now a hot topic (no pun intended) in Halacha. There are two views on this subject (Herring). The first is to allow smoking in Jewish law. The second is to ban it.

Over the course of time many people have written many thoughts on this subject. There have been more than 40 Halachic תשובה on this issue (Grolinkin). The issue I will be discussing is whether or not smoking tobacco is allowed at all. This paper will not be the first piece of literature on this topic. The first person to discus the use of tobacco was Chaim Benvenisti of Constantinople (Freehof). Chaim lived in the 17th century (1603-1673) (Freehof). Already in the 17th century, Benvenisti is weary of this new drug, as he states in his work.

Later Isaac Lampronti of Ferrara writes on smoking (Feehof). Lampronti was both a doctor and rabbi. Isaac never tells the reader whether or not he would ban smoking all together or not. The list continues on and on to this day where פוסקים are still sharing their opinions and backing them up with sources. In this paper I will try to present both sides of the issue in Halacha of whether or not tobacco should be permitted.

I will start with the argument that smoking tobacco should be allowed by Halacha.

There are many reasons for why there is currently no prohibition on smoking. There are many פוסקים from the Tanach that Rabbis quote that support the use of tobacco. Supporters of smoking also use scientific and medical data to back up their conclusion. Another way they support their idea is through other laws and decisions made by the פוסקים.
One of the great Rabbis who did not support the ban on tobacco was Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Herring). R. Moshe was a very highly regarded פוסק in his time (1895-1986). R. Moshe was quoted as saying, that there is not enough of a risk to smoking to say it is not allowed (Golinkin). Although he wasn’t in favor of a smoking ban, he did think that people should not start to smoke (Herring).

Some people say either smoking carries no risk at all (Golinkin) or that when smoking in moderation the risk is very small (Aberbach). The only risk they see is in the future (Aberbach). In fact they claim smoking is not linked to death (Herring). In a תשובה that was written in 1977, Binyan Zion (1800’s) was referenced in saying that the majority of smokers do not show signs of health problems or an early death due to smoking (Golinkin). The fact that smoking has even been compared to eating fatty foods (Golinkin) shows that smoking is perceived to be on a low level of health risk. Because of these and other reasons, there is a very high percentage of Orthodox Jews who smoke (Grolinkin).
One of the many quotes from the Torah Rabbis use to permit smoking is “The Lord protects the simple” or ‘יהוה פתאימ שמר’ (116:6 כתווימ). This means that G-d will protect those who smoke. He will do this because a lot of people smoke. It is a simple and popular thing to do. Man places his trust in G-d to protect him from the danger (Golinkin). In his תשובה משה אגרות quotes this psalm (Golinkin). He is far from the only one to do it too. In fact R. Moshe also quotes this source (Herring).

Another principal from the Talmud, used to support the use of tobacco, is the idea that “one should not impose a restriction on the community unless the majority can abide by it” (Bava Kamma 79b). This applies because many people smoke (especially in Israel from this authors personal experience) and if they cannot follow this law they will be breaking Halacha. It is better to sin in ignorance then to sin knowingly (Bush). In other words, it is better not to make the law, and have people doing the wrong thing, then to make the law and have smokers sinning and breaking the law. Therefore the Rabbis cannot forbid smoking because a lot of people will not follow this rule and therefore become sinners (Bush).

As mentioned before the act of smoking isn’t bad, at least not at the time it’s done. The risk lies in the future (Golinkin). Judaism has very specific rules for risks both in the present and future. Binyan Zion does a good job of drawing a distinction between the present danger and future danger (Golinkin). If smoking were a danger in the present it flatly would not be allowed. However, since it is a risk in the future, it has different rules.

We are allowed to take risks for the future as long as something bad will happen less than fifty percent of the time (Golinkin). R. Yaakov Etlinger states a similar thing. He says we should look at the statistics to make our decision (Bush).

This law was created for journeys into the desert or ocean a long time ago (Bush). R. Feinstein associated smoking as part of the culture even more common then flying.

Therefore, we cannot stop people from doing it (Herring). Like flying in an airplane or driving in a car, smoking is accepted by the community to have risks and the act is still widely carried out (Golinkin). “The multitude has trodden thereupon”, is the verse that often gets cited in order to carry out a popular risk such as flying, smoking, or driving (Golinkin). Cigarettes are just another example of a risk that everyone takes (Golinkin).

Not only does the future [-looking perspective] allow smoking, the past [-looking perspective] did as well. Jews have been smoking since the 1500’s. Why now should we say it is not allowed? In the early days of the tobacco trade, Jewish people had a big impact and were even leaders of the trade (Freehof). Elijah of Lublin wrote in 1735 about how tobacco was widespread among women as well as men (Freehof). It seems like everyone smoked, even the great rabbis of the past smoked. Cleary if smoking was a problem, Halacha would have banned it sometime in the past 500 years (Golinkin).
Even if now the rabbinic courts wanted to ban smoking, they shouldn’t, because of the principle that one should not disagree with past Halachic courts (Bush). Along those lines the Talmud discourages one from publicly disagreeing with a deceased rabbi. This is done because said rabbi won’t be able to defend himself or his point of view. It is a dishonorable act (Golinkin). Therefore writing a תשובה that directly disagree with (the great) R. Moshe Feinstein is looked down upon. Since people have been smoking for centuries, including our great rabbis and Torah figures, and since no Halachic court has banned smoking before, it should not be done now.

“G-d exempts one who acts under stress”(ועוד ,זייע ,כח בייק). According to this text if someone is under stress they will not be punished for their actions. It is now common fact that cigarettes are addictive. Therefore those who are addicted would be אונס (under stress) (Bush). Since they are addicted and under stress it would be wrong to make them stop (Bush). It would cause them a lot of pain and hardship (Herring). It would not be a very humane thing to do.

Why Smoking Should Be Banned

Opposed to the people who think smoking is ok are the people who think it should be banned from Halacha. While it is true that people have been smoking for a long time, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is not bad for you. The anti-smoking party uses scientific and medical data, sources from the ךייתנְ, and past and present פוסקים. Most of the sources are the same or slightly different from the opposing side they just make different points or have different opinions.

It is not only Jewish people who did not like smoking. When it was introduced to Europe both the church and the state did not approve (Freehof). Soon both the church and the state were making consequences for smoking. In the church smokers were threatened with excommunication (Freehof). The government handed out stricter penalties such as fines, imprisonment, and sometimes death (Freehof). If both the government and the church essentially outlawed it about 500 years ago, then why didn’t the Rabbis of the Jewish faith?

Many great rabbis have also not approved of smoking. A few examples are, R. Eliezer Waldenberg (Bush), Rev Avigdor Nebienzahl (Bush), Rav Aaron Soloveichik (Bush), the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv Rabbi David Haley, and a former Chief Rabbi of Israel Moses Aberbach. The Rabbinic Counsel of America has also come out in favor of a ban on tobacco. The group even goes, as far as to say if R. Moshe were still alive he would agree with them.

One main reason that many people would like to prohibit smoking is the medial and scientific data that has come to life since 1964. In 1964 the Surgeon General in the United States published studies that concluded smoking was bad for ones health (Golinkin). Since that time numerous studies have been done to see what the effects of smoking are. We now know that smoking increases the risk of developing and dying from many different types of cancers (Tobacco) such as throat, lung and mouth. Furthermore, men who smoke increase their risk of perishing from Bronchitis by ten times, Emphysema by ten times, lung cancer by twenty times, and heart disease by three times (Tobacco). Because of all these diseases people who smoke die (on average) 14 years before people who don’t smoke (Tobacco). In the United States smoking is now the leading cause of preventable deaths, killing 443,000 people a year (CDC). Not just smokers are affected. So are their loved ones and the people they smoke around. Second hand smoke is responsible for over 49,400 deaths per year (Tobacco). Possibly because of these facts smoking rates for adults and youths have been declining over time (Bush). This is largely to do with three main reasons. Today people are educated about the risks and dangers of smoking. The habit of smoking also cost more today then it ever has. The third reason is fewer places that allow smoking (Bush). While we now have a wealth of information on the dangers of smoking, new studies are being done everyday to find out more about it.

Considering all this data has been brought to light since 1964, any work done before that year stating that smoking is not bad for you, cannot be viewed in the same light. We now know, without a shadow of a doubt, that smoking does indeed do harm to ones body and the people around him through second hand smoke. One of the points made by the side that supports smoking is that past generations have smoked and didn’t think anything wrong of it. However the people in the past who have smoked be it a famous rabbi or someone in the general public did not have the knowledge we have now and the science to back it up (Bush). We have different information than them so the group of people who think that smoking should be banned says we need to make a different decision.

Judaism is a faith in which life is held very highly (Aberbach). We can see this when we look at נפש פיקח (18:5 ויקרא). This commandment takes precedence over almost every other law with the exception to a few (non relevant to this case). One of the laws it does beat out is that of sinning knowingly and unknowingly. Since we know that smoking destroys life there can be no way we are sinning unknowingly (Aberbach) hence נפש פיקח overrules this law and it is no longer a valid argument. In fact according to נפש פיקח smoking cannot be allowed at all (Golinkin).

According to the Halacha, any act in which to hasten death is not allowed (Aberbach). As mentioned before the average person who smokes looses about 14 years off their life. Smoking is direct violation. Another פוסק from the Torah comes from דברימ 4:9,15. These two verses say to take care of ones body (Golinkin) and to guard health. Another source that can be used is from Maimonides and in his תורה המשנ He lists the activities that one should not do. Among them he says to distance things that destroy the body (Golinkin). We now know smoking is one of those things.
In replying to the side that is for smoking the anti smoking crowd says that even if it were a future danger it would be outweighed by נפש פיקח and the fact that there are no time limits on harmful things or crimes (Aberbach).
Doctors do not recommend smoking. In fact they recommend people don’t smoke for the health reasons. Halacha tells us to value our doctors and their advice. If a doctor tells you to break a primary mitzvah, like Shabbat, fasting, and dietary laws, for health reasons you should listen to them (Aberbach). Rav Ovadia Yosef said “We listen to doctors to break Shabbat, eat on Yom Kippur, we should to stop smoking” (Bush).

The anti-smoking side has a response to the pro-smoking side about the risks of the present and future of smoking. According to Rabbi David J Bleich if we applied the 50% rule in today’s time, smoking would not be allowed because of the new data we have linking smoking to diseases and deaths in over 50% of people (Bush). Returning to the commandments to value life, and keep our bodies from harm, even if not everyone dies from smoking, there still is that chance that you will, therefore you still cannot smoke (Golinkin). According to the Talmud “Regulations concerning danger to life are more stringent then ritual prohibitions” (Bullin 10a). Therefore Rema writes that where there is a matter of danger with a doubt, strictness is required (Bush). The strictness required is the ban on smoking tobacco.
People say smoking is an individual decision. While yes this may be true only that one person is smoking, it still affects others through second hand smoke. When Isaac Lampronti of Ferrara wrote on smoking he described how people would smoke in the synagogue during the prayer services. Isaac then went on to describe how the air inside would just become thick and heavy with smoke and how it ruined the kavanah of the experience (Freehof). Maimonides spoke on the individual risking his or her own life. He said, that the people who risk their own life and shun other people from helping, should be punished (Aberbach). The reason he gives is that G-d owns our body; it is not a human’s right to harm it. The more extreme case is suicide. Rashi and Maimonides both agree that suicide is a form of murder (Aberbach). By smoking you are committing suicide. The smoke in your lungs strangles you until death takes you (Aberbach).

In response to the fact that one may not make laws, if the majority of a population cannot or will not follow these laws it is not the case with smoking. According to recent data, only 20% of American adults smoke (CDC). While this is just the number for the United States I think it is fair to assume the number will be similar in the rest of the world. While some of the orthodox communities do have a higher percentage it is still not over half. Not to mention the fact that נפש פיקח still out rules this commandment.

In conclusion, the heated debate whether or not smoking should be permitted in Halacha continues on. This is surely a complicated issue with numerous פוסקים, rabbis and people weighing in. There is ample support both in favor of banning smoking and not in favor of banning smoking. While this issue may never be resolved, it is in my personal opinion after looking over all the sources on both sides that smoking be banned from Halacha.



The bibliography for my friend Jon’s essay on smoking in halacha.

Aberbach, Moses. “Smoking and the Halakhah.” Tradition 10.3 (1969): 49-60. Print.
Adult Cigarette Smoking in the United States: Current Estimate.” CDC. 1 Dec. 2009. Web. 5 May 2010.
Bush, Asher. “The Prohibition Of Smoking in Halacha PDF.” Rabbinical Council of America ( (RCA). 30 June 2006. Web. 5 May 2010.
Freehof, Solomon Bennett. “11.” Reform Responsa for Our Time. [Cincinnati]: Hebrew U Union College, 1977. Print.
Golinkin, David. “Smoking Responsa.” Moment Oct. 1991: 14-15. Print.
Herring, Basil F. Jewish Ethics and Halacha For Our Time. Vol. 1. New York, 1984. 2 232-33. Print.
Tobacco Related Mortality.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 16 Sept. 2009. Web. 5 May 2010.

Posted in Judaism, Quitting Addiction.

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