Insights into Halacha

For the week ending 15 February 2014 / 15 Adar I 5774

Smoking and Halacha

by Rabbi Yehuda Spitz
A Historical Perspective
The Color of HeavenArtscroll

The question of how smoking is viewed through the lens of halacha is not a new one. In fact, there is abundant halachic literature dating back to seventeenth and eighteenth centuries related to the permissibility of smoking. Far from discussing the health issues later associated with this habit, the poskim of the time actually address whether or not one may smoke on Tisha B’Av or other fast days[1] and whether non-kosher ingredients contained in a cigarette are of halachic concern[2]. But the main area where we find smoking discussed is by the Halachos of Yom Tov, where poskim debate whether smoking on Yom Tov is permitted, prohibited, or actually fulfilling a Mitzvah.

It is well-known that on Yom Tov, as opposed to Shabbos, we are allowed to light a fire, provided that it is only kindled by transferring from a preexisting flame, and not by creating a new flame. The Gemara (Beitzah 22b - 23a) discusses whether placing incense on coals, and its by-product, the smoke it causes, are permitted on Yom Tov, due to the kindling and extinguishing issues involved[3]. Many Acharonim drew a parallel from the Gemara’s scenario to what must have been a burning issue of the day (and still is): smoking cigarettes on Yom Tov.

The Magen Avraham, as well as the Elya Rabba, Korban Nesanel, Chavos Yair and Chayei Adam, all maintain that smoking is not a ‘davar sheshaveh lachol nefesh’, ‘something that is equally enjoyed by all’, a necessary provision to allow dispensation for a Melacha on Yom Tov[4]. Therefore, they all rule that smoking on Yom Tov is prohibited[5].

However, several other poskim, including the Darchei Noam, and the Chida[6], disagree with their assessment, averring that smoking does indeed fit this criterion, for several reasons: 1. They deem smoking to be in the category of ‘ochel nefesh’, (generally used to describe acts related to food preparation) which is permitted on Yom Tov regardless of whether or not it is enjoyed by all[7]. 2. Since the vast majority of people enjoy smoking, it is still considered a ‘davar sheshaveh lachol nefesh’.

The famed Pnei Yehoshua (Rav Yaakov Yehoshua Falk), Rav Yaakov Emden, and Rav Yonason Eibeshutz,[8] all raise an additional point to allow smoking on Yom Tov. Astonishingly, they extol the health benefits of smoking! They write that smoking aids digestion, whets the appetite, and improves the body’s general wellbeing. Therefore, they conclude that even if some do not actually enjoy smoking, it is nevertheless still considered ‘shaveh lachol nefesh’. Rav Yaakov Emden adds that his father, the renowned Chacham Tzvi, restarted smoking on Yom Tov, because otherwise he felt that he was not properly fulfilling the Mitzvah of Oneg Yom Tov!

Although many poskim argued on all of these points, including the Beis Meir and Zera Emes, other later authorities, including the Pri Megadim, Ben Ish Chai, and Aruch Hashulchan, concurred wholeheartedly[9]. In fact, the Mishna Berura cites a summary of this discussion with no clear cut psak, and concludes simply that ‘one may not object to those who smoke on Yom Tov’, with a provision to be careful regarding extinguishing the cigarette.

However, in the words of Rav Asher Weiss shlit”a[10], nowadays the real question is not whether or not smoking is permitted on Yom Tov; it is whether or not smoking is permitted at all!

In 1964, the United States Surgeon General released his initial report stating the health risks associated with smoking. Since then, there have been thousands of scientific studies and reports detailing the hazards of smoking. The Center for Disease Control estimates that one out of every five deaths in Americaeach year is caused by smoking. Other reports estimate that 15% of smokers eventually die of lung cancer. Compounded with the elevated risk of emphysema, stroke and coronary disease, studies indicate that smokers face a much higher mortality rate.

Now that we are aware of the true “health benefits” of smoking, the question is whether or not there remains a hetter to engage in this socially acceptable self-destructive behavior.

The Gadol HaDor, Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l, in a brief teshuva dated several months after the Surgeon General’s initial report[11], wrote that although it is certainly appropriate to abstain from smoking, nevertheless, one cannot say that smoking is outright assur, as there are many people that smoke. Therefore, smokers fit into the category of ‘shomer pesaim Hashem’, ‘Hashem watches over fools’[12]. Rav Moshe adds that especially since many Gedolim smoked, it is impossible to say that such an act is truly forbidden[13]. This responsum seems to be the primary justification for many a smoker.

Several other contemporary authorities wrote similarly, explaining that although it may not be proper to smoke, it still is not truly prohibited by halacha. Yet, subsequently, and as the knowledge of the health risks associated with smoking became more widespread and universally acknowledged, and the number of smokers starting dropping, many of these poskim changed their psak to reflect the emerging reality, using extremely harsh terms to decry smoking, with many authorities outright forbidding it.

These contemporary authorities include Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv zt”l, the Tzitz Eliezer, Rav Ben Tzion Abba Shaul zt”l, and Rav Ovadia Yosef zt”l[14], who, contrary to their earlier psakim, in their later rulings all came out strongly against smoking. Other poskim, including Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l, the Debreciner Rav zt”l, Rav Shmuel HaLevi Wosner, Rav Chaim Kanievsky, Rav Moshe Sternbuch, the Rivevos Efraim zt”l, and Rav Asher Weiss, wrote unequivocally about the dangers of smoking and how it is not permitted, with some even referring to smoking as ‘suicidal’[15].

In fact, many Gedolim, including Rav Elyashiv zt”l, Rav Aharon Yehuda Leib Steinman, Rav Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz zt”l, Rav Moshe Shmuel Shapiro zt”l, Rav Nissim Karelitz, and Rav Shmuel Auerbach, recently (in Av 2004) signed a Kol Koreh against smoking, even imploring those who do smoke to do everything in their power to stop[16].

Although it is known that many Gedolim smoked (and do smoke), it is highly probable that they started before the risks were known, and now simply cannot quit, due to their nicotine addiction. If they would be able to do so, they certainly would[17]. Anecdotally, this author’s Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Leib Bakst zt”l, quit cold turkey after a doctor personally explained the health risks of smoking to him. Even mv”r Rav Yaakov Blau zt”l (of the Eida Chareidis), a tremendous Gaon and quintessential old-time Yerushalmi (heavy smoker), and the Dejer Rebbe of Miami, Rav Yehuda Paneth zt”l, both attempted to cut down in their later years.

In fact, even Rav Moshe himself, in subsequent teshuvos dated 1981[18], took a much stronger stance against smoking due to the health risks involved. Although he still would not call smoking outright assur, he nonetheless rules that due to the dangers of second-hand smoke, it is forbidden to smoke where it will bother others (a psak later echoed by other authorities[19]), and concludes with an exhortation that everyone, especially Bnei Torah, should not begin to smoke due to the chashash sakana, adding that it is assur to ‘get addicted’. It may be interesting to note that many Bnei Yeshiva, who would never dream of relying on Rav Moshe’s hetter regarding Chalav Stam, paradoxically seemingly have no qualms relying on his hetter for ‘lighting up’, even though the wording of his halachic dispensation is quite similar.

Over a hundred years ago, the Chofetz Chaim[20] expressed his dismay that ‘weak’ people smoked, even though the doctors of the time clearly informed them of the great health risk involved. He strongly condemned smoking where it was found to be injurious to health.

Additionally, the Rambam writes that one should distance himself from any activity that can cause his body harm. Furthermore, while addressing the requirement of avoiding dangerous activities due to the dictum of ‘chamira sakanta m’issura’, (matters of danger are to be treated more stringently than prohibitions), the Rema stresses that we should be further concerned with a possible danger (safek) above and beyond a possible prohibition[21]. All of the above would certainly apply to smoking.

Although with many apparently suffering from ‘ostrich syndrome’, and others claiming to follow the Pnei Yehoshua since he predated the Surgeon General by several centuries[22], nowadays, with medical science conclusively proving the dangers of smoking, and with so many prominent authorities having issued rulings forbidding it, one who embarks on a smoking ‘career’ does not seem to actually have the staunch halachic backing he might assume he does. ‘Venishmartem Me’od L’Nafshoseichem[23] does not apply exclusively to others.

This article is not meant to be a comprehensive guide; it is merely a brief summary of the main halachic issues involved with smoking.

[1]See Shiyurei Kenesses HaGedolah (O.C. 567, Haghos on Beis Yosef 3 and O.C. 551, Haghos on Beis Yosef 21; he writes that he even put a violator in Cherem for smoking on Tisha B’Av!), Sha’arei Teshuva (559, 4), Mishna Berura (556, 8), and Shu”t Yechaveh Da’as (vol. 5, 39).

[2]See Pischei Teshuva (Yorah De’ah 108, 3) and Darchei Teshuva (ad loc. 89).

[3]For the halacha l’maaseh in this case see Tur and Shulchan Aruch and main commentaries (O.C. 511, 4).

[4]See Gemara Kesuvos (7a) and Beis Yosef (O.C. 511, 4).

[5]Magen Avraham (514, 4), Elya Rabba (ad loc. 3), Korban Nesanel (Beitzah Ch.2, 22, 10), Mekor Chaim (O.C. 514, ad loc.), and Chayei Adam (vol. 2, Klal 95, 13). There are other reasons for prohibiting, as well. The Kenesses HaGedolah (cited by the Magen Avraham) prohibits smoking on Yom Tov due to Mechabeh, extinguishing, and the Pri Megadim (O.C. 511, M.Z. 2; see also Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 98, 32) raises the issue of Mocheik, erasing, if the letters on cigarette get burned. For an opposing view, see Shemiras Shabbos K’Hilchasa (Ch. 13, footnote 34) and Shu”t Ohr L’Tzion (vol. 3, Ch. 20, footnote 2).

[6]Shu”t Darchei Noam (O.C. 9) and Birkei Yosef (O.C. 511, 2). See also Haghos Rav Baruch Frankel (ad loc.), who opines that with the high prevalence of smoking in his time, perhaps the Magen Avraham would have changed his mind.

[7]This is actually understandable, as the poskim of the time referred to smoking as ‘shsiyas tutin’, drinking tobacco. See, for example, Ben Ish Chai (Year 1, Parshas Vayikra 5), regarding the rights of Talmidei Chachamim to smoke in shul, as he considered it drinking. This is also why many ruled against smoking on ordinary fast days, even though nowadays it would seem implausible to consider smoking an act of eating or drinking.

[8]Pnei Yehoshua (Shabbos 39b s.v. amnam), Mor U’Ketziah (O.C. 511, at length), Bina L’Ittim on the Rambam (Hilchos Yom Tov Ch. 4, 6). This hetter for ‘briyus’, health, is based on the words of the Mordechai (Beitzah Ch. 2, 680) and Tosafos (Shabbos 39b s.v. u’B”H mattirin), who allow one to ‘sweat’ on Yom Tov (ostensibly to enter a sauna or ‘shvitz’); as due to its health benefits it is considered ‘shaveh lachol nefesh’. Interestingly, the Chayei Adam (vol. 2, Klal 95, Nishmas Avraham 2 s.v. v’tzarich iyun) although prohibiting smoking on Yom Tov (as mentioned previously) and rejecting full dispensation to allow it due to its health benefits, nevertheless does seem to accept that smoking might have some medical benefit. He allows a ‘choleh she’ain bo sakana’ to smoke on Yom Tov, and only via the aid of a non-Jew, as he classifies smoking as ‘tzorchei choleh she’aino l’taanug’.

[9]Beis Meir (Yorah De’ah 197), Shu”t Zera Emas (93), Pri Megadim (O.C. 511, M.Z. 2 and E.A. ad loc. 9), Shu”t Rav Pe’alim (vol. 2, O.C. 59), and Aruch Hashulchan (O.C. 511, 11). A summary of the issues and machlokes is presented by the Ba’er Heitiv (O.C. 554, 1), Sha’arei Teshuva (O.C. 551, 5), and Biur Halacha (ad loc. 4 s.v. ain). See also Shu”t Ksav Sofer (O.C. end 66), Shu”t Shoel U’Meishiv (Mahadura Tinyana vol. 2, 8 s.v. v’hinei), Sdei Chemed (Asifas Dinim, Ma’areches Yom Tov 1, 4), and Shemiras Shabbos K’Hilchasa (new print; Ch. 13, 7). See footnote 18.

[10]See Shu”t Minchas Asher (vol. 1, 35 and 36; at length). He (as well as Rav Moshe Sternbuch and several other poskim mentioned in this article) maintains that the main issur is the addiction and not necessarily each individual cigarette, yet, each individual cigarette brings one one step closer to addiction, and is therefore prohibited; similar to what Rav Moshe Feinstein wrote regarding smoking marijuana and taking drugs in Shu”t Igros Moshe (Y”D vol. 3, 35). The Chofetz Chaim (Lekutei Amarim Ch.13) writes that he screamed at smokers who were harming their health, “who let you get addicted?’. Rav Moshe himself in a later teshuva (Shu”t Igros Moshe C.M. vol. 2, 76) wrote that even by regular cigarettes it is assur to ‘get addicted’.

[11]Shu”t Igros Moshe (Y”D vol. 2, 49).

[12]Tehillim (Ch.116, 6). See Gemara Shabbos 129b, Yevamos 12b, 72a & 100b, Kesuvos 39a, Sanhedrin 110b, Avodah Zara 30b, and Nida 31a & 45a.

[13]This fact is very important. It is well known that Rav Moshe was against prohibiting any action that could possibly cast aspersions on previous generations. See article titled: ‘Bubby Didn’t Eat Bugs!’

[14]Compare, for example, the wording of the teshuvos in Kovetz Teshuvos (vol. 1, 219; from 1981) and the later recent Kol Koreh (from Av 2004) which Rav Elyashiv signed, as well as his Ha’aros B’Maseches Kesuvos (7a) and Shu”t VaYishma Moshe (vol. 1, pg. 436). According to the JerusalemCenterfor Research - Medicine and Halacha (headed by Rabbi Yaakov Weiner), Rav Elyashiv later even prohibited advertising for cigarettes! Similarly, compare Shu”t Tzitz Eliezer vol. 1 (20, Ch. 3; from 1945) to vol. 15 (39; from 1983) where he explicitly prohibits smoking. Regarding Rav Ben Tzion Abba Shaul, compare Shu”t Ohr L’Tzion (vol. 3, Ch. 20, footnote 2) to his later Ohr L’Tzion - Chochma U’Mussar (pg. 221; as well as the editor’s note to his previous teshuva). Regarding Rav Ovadia, one can see the evolution of his psak from Shu”t Yabea Omer (vol. 5, O.C. 39; from 1969) to Shu”t Yechaveh Daas (vol. 5, 39, and footnote 2; from 1983) to Halichos Olam (vol. 1, pg. 265 - 266, 4; from 1998).

[15]Rav Aharon Kotler’s shitta is attested to in a signed letter by his talmid, Rav Yechiel Perr, Rosh Yeshivas Derech Ayson of Far Rockaway; Shu”t Minchas Shlomo (vol. 2, 58, 6); Shu”t Ba’er Moshe (vol. 6, 160, 9); Shu”t Shevet HaLevi (vol. 10, 295); She’elas Rav (pg. 92), Shu”t Teshuvos V’Hanhagos (vol. 1, 159, and stronger in vol. 3, 354, and outright assur in vol. 4, 115); Shu”t Rivevos Efraim (vol. 3, 487, and stronger in vol. 8, 586); and Shu”t Minchas Asher (ibid.). Apparently, these poskim were not impressed by commonly floated smokers’ sevaros as “most of these statistics were referring to non-Jews; this proves nothing about Yidden”, or “statistics were referring to 7 day a week smokers, not 6 day a week smokers”.

[16]It is well-known that Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l (see, for example, the biographical B’Mechitzas Rabbeinu pg. 268, and Artscroll’s biography ‘Reb Yaakov’ pg. 318), his talmid Rav Yisroel Belsky shlit”a, and his son Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky shlit”a, prohibit(ed) smoking. Similar to the above mentioned Kol Koreh, many American Rabbanim signed an Anti-Smoking proclamation in Tammuz, 2006.

[17]See Shu”t Ba’er Moshe (ibid.) and Shu”t Shevet HaKehasi (vol. 1, 332).

[18]Shu”t Igros Moshe (C.M. vol. 2, 18 & 76). He also writes that a father, even one already addicted to cigarettes, should not allow his children to start smoking! See also Shu”t Igros Moshe (O.C. vol. 5, 34) where he concludes regarding smoking on Yom Tov that although not ‘ba’alnefesh yachmir’. Others who originally held it was muttar to smoke on Yom Tov include the Tzitz Eliezer, Rav Ben Tzion Abba Shaul, and Rav Ovadia Yosef. Yet, they later retracted, changing their psak, and prohibited it (see footnote 14). Many other contemporary poskim forbade smoking on Yom Tov outright, including Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Rav Moshe Sternbuch, Rav Asher Weiss (in their respective Teshuvos ibid.) and the Sha’arim Metzuyanim B’Halacha (98, 19). They maintain that the hetterim of previous generations no longer apply. Now that the true health “benefits” of smoking are known, and many people are cutting down, trying to quit, or not starting in the first place, smoking can no longer be considered ‘l’briyus’, and also loses its classification of ‘shaveh lachol nefesh’. A related story is told about Rav Mordechai Winkler zt”l, the famed Levushei Mordechai. Although noted for always smoking on Yom Tov, he quit cold turkey (at least for Yom Tov) after having a dream that he found a hetter allowing him to smoke even on Shabbos!

[19]See Shu”t Shevet HaLevi (ibid.), Shu”t Teshuvos V’Hanhagos (ibid.), Shu”t Tzitz Eliezer (vol. 17, 22), Shu”t Shevet HaKehasi (ibid.), and Shu”t Ohr L’Tzion (vol. 2, Ch. 45, 56).

[20]In his Lekutei Amarim (Ch.13), cited by the Tzitz Eliezer and Rav Ovadia Yosef in their respective teshuvos.

[21]Rambam (Hilchos De’os Ch.4, 1) and Rema (Y”D 116, 5).

[22]See Gilyon Birchas Binyomin (13 Tishrei 5772 - "Showers on Yom Tov").

[23]Devarim (Parshas Va’eschanan Ch.5, verse 15). After completing this article, this author has found out that there are several recent sefarim devoted exclusively to the topic of smoking, including “Pe’er Tachas Eifar” and “Chaim L’lo Ishan”.

Disclaimer: This is not a comprehensive guide, rather a brief summary to raise awareness of the issues. In any real case one should ask a competent Halachic authority.

L'iluy Nishmas the Rosh HaYeshiva - Rav Chonoh Menachem Mendel ben R' Yechezkel Shraga, Rav Yaakov Yeshaya ben R' Boruch Yehuda, and l'zchus for Shira Yaffa bas Rochel Miriam and her children for a yeshua teikef u'miyad!

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