Editor's note: Please see Rabbi Jachter's 3 part series on the prohibition to smoke, the first part of which can be found at https://www.koltorah.org/halachah/the-prohibition-to-smoke-part-one-by-rabbi-chaim-jachter.
Most Posekim have unequivocally stated that it is prohibited to smoke. These authorities include Rav David Cohen, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, Rav Hershel Schachter, Rav Gedalia Schwartz, Rav Ahron Soloveitchik, Rav Mordechai Willig, and the Halachah Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. Moreover, one of Rav Moshe Feinstein’s leading students, Rav Efraim Greenblatt, rules (Teshuvot Rivevot Efraim 8:586) that smoking is prohibited, as do three major Israeli Halachic authorities: Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl (Asia 5:261), Rav Chaim David Halevi (Teshuvot Aseih Lecha Rav 2:1, 3:18, and 9:28-29) and Rav Eliezer Waldenberg (Teshuvot Tzitz Eliezer 15:39). Similarly, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Teshuvot Minchat Shlomo 2:58:6) writes, “I have never joined those who believe that it remains permissible to smoke [on any day] in our times.” Even Rav Ovadia Yosef, who states in his earlier writings (such as Teshuvot Yechaveh Da’at 5:39, published in 1983) merely that it is preferable to refrain from smoking, has concluded that it is completely prohibited to smoke (Halichot Olam 1 pp. 265-266, published in 1998). Finally, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe C.M. 2:76) writes that it is forbidden to begin the habit of smoking. Although Rav Moshe’s Teshuvah explicitly forbids one to smoke only if he did not begin to do so before the ruling was issued, given current medical data, smoking is prohibited even according to Rav Moshe’s standards (see the discussion at length in Gray Matter 3:19-21).
In addition to the Posekim we have cited, many Posekim (for example, the Debrecziner Rav, Teshuvot Be’eir Moshe 6:160:9) have either declared smoking to be prohibited or have stated (in 2000) in a joint letter that one is obligated to make all efforts to stop smoking. The Gedolim who have signed this letter include Rav Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, Rav Aharon Yehudah Leib Shteinman, Rav Nissim Karelitz, and Rav Shmuel Auerbach. Rav Shlomo Wolbe (in a letter dated 1987), in an impassioned plea to cease smoking, stresses the point that each cigarette that one smokes reduces one’s life expectancy by five minutes. The Jewish Observer (November 2007) even published an article strongly discouraging smoking, citing at some length the ruling of the Halachah Committee of the Rabbincal Council of America.
Techumin volume 33 includes a groundbreaking Teshuvah appears from Rav Eliyahu Abergel, who serves with distinction as an Av Beit Din (head of a Rabbinic Court) in the district State of Israel rabbinic court of Yerushalayim. Rav Abergel urges Rabbanim to refrain from using one who smokes to serve as a witness at Halachic events such as a wedding ceremony. While Rav Abergel does not invalidate a smoker BeDieved, post facto, he seems to be the first mainstream authority to publish a Teshuvah calling on Rabbanim to LeChatchilah (initially) refrain from using such a smoker as a witness. Hopefully, this ruling will serve as another major step in the effort to eliminate smoking from the Jewish People.
Avoiding Danger – VeNishmartem Me’od LeNafshoteichem
The question of whether smoking is prohibited hinges upon the general Halachic requirement that we refrain from dangerous and unhealthy activities. The source for this requirement is Devarim 4:15, where we are instructed, “VeNishmartem Me’od LeNafshoteichem,” “You shall guard your souls exceedingly carefully.” The Rambam seems to divide this requirement into two different categories. He lists (Hilchot Dei’ot 4:1) certain foods and activities that, because they weaken the body, one needs (“Tzarich”) to avoid, but also mentions (Hilchot Rotzeiach Ushmirat Nefesh 11:5) numerous dangerous activities that Chazal outright prohibited. The activities listed in Hilchot Rotzeiach Ushmirat Nefesh appear to be strictly forbidden, while those in Hilchot Dei’ot seem to be discouraged, but not technically forbidden. Rav Waldenberg (Teshuvot Tzitz Eliezer 15:39) understands that this is because the former are far more dangerous than the latter. Thus, while it is technically prohibited to drink from water in which a snake may have placed its venom, it is not outright prohibited to overindulge in fattening foods.
“Hashem Preserves the Fools”
Into which of these two categories should we place smoking? One way to distinguish between the two categories is the litmus test suggested by the Gemara in a number of places (Shabbat 129b, Yevamot 12b, and Nidah 31b). The Gemara permits certain activities that involve some risk, positing that “Since the multitudes have trodden upon this matter, [the Pasuk] ‘Hashem protects the foolish’ (Tehillim 116:6) [applies].” This Gemara teaches that Halachah has allowed reasonable members of society to define the parameters of the prohibition to engage in risky activities; Halachah permits activities that such people judge to involve a tolerable risk. Based on this standard, Teshuvot Chelkat Yaakov (3:11) writes that it is permissible to travel in an airplane or car even though there is some risk involved.
Accordingly, if smoking is included within the “Hashem protects the fools” principle, it should be avoided, but cannot technically be categorized as prohibited. If it is not included within this principle, on the other hand, then it is unequivocally forbidden.
When Does “Hashem Preserves the Fools” Apply?
Two great later Acharonim offer definitions of the parameters of the “Hashem preserves the fools” principle. Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky (Teshuvot Achiezer 1:23) seems to believe that it applies only when the danger is minimal and results in disaster in only a small minority of cases. According to this standard, airplane travel is acceptable, whereas cigarette smoking is forbidden, since it involves much more than minimal danger.
It seems, however, that Halachah tolerates greater risk-taking in case of great need. For example, the Gemara (Bava Metzia 112b) notes without criticism that people risk their lives working high up in trees to earn a living. Apparently, Chazal permit a person to risk his life in order to earn a living, even though such risks would not be tolerated if taken merely for recreation. Accordingly, Rav Yechezkel Landau (Teshuvot Noda Bi’Yhudah 2 Y.D. 10) permits hunting animals to earn a living but forbids recreational hunting. Similarly, since smoking is a recreational activity, Halachah is less tolerant of the risks involved.
Rav Yaakov Ettlinger (Teshuvot Binyan Tzion 1:137, written in the nineteenth century), in discussing the permissibility of embarking on a sea voyage or a trip across the desert, offers a different definition of “tolerable risk.” He distinguishes between an immediate danger and a long-term danger. Whereas an immediate danger is prohibited in all situations, a future danger may be risked if, in the majority of cases, it can reasonably be expected that no harm will result.
The Importance of Avoiding Forbidden Risks
Halachah regards taking forbidden risks very seriously. The Shulchan Aruch (C.M. 427:10) writes that whoever endangers himself and claims, “Why should others care about my endangering myself if I do not care about it?” should receive Makkat Mardut (disciplinary lashes) – but whoever refrains from dangerous activities will receive “a blessing of good.” The Torah does not believe that one can do as he pleases with his body; rather, as we state in Selichot, “HaNeshamah Lach VeHaGuf Pa’olach,” “The soul is Your’s (Hashem’s) and the body is Your handiwork.” In several places in the liturgy, we quote chapter 24 of Tehillim, which begins with the declaration that the entire world belongs to Hashem because He created it. In this vein, the Chafetz Chaim writes (Likutei Amarim chapter 13 and Zechor LeMiriam chapter 23) that if doctors tell someone that he must stop smoking, he must obey the order, because “How may a slave choose to do as he pleases if he belongs to his Master?”
The Be’ier HaGolah, commenting on the aforementioned citation from the Shulchan Aruch, offers an explanation for why Halachah forbids us to engage in dangerous activities. Hashem, in His kindness, created the world to benefit His creations – for them to recognize His greatness, worship Him by observing Torah and Mitzvot, and earn reward for their positive efforts. One who endangers himself spurns the will of his Creator by implying that he does not want to serve Him and to be rewarded by Him. There can be no greater denigration of and disregard for our Maker than this.
Disqualification of a Smoker to Serve as a Witness
Rav Abergel cites the Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 34:1-3) that rule that one who deliberately violates a Torah law for which he is liable to the punishment of Malkot (lashes) is disqualified to serve as a witness on a Torah level. The Rama (ad. loc.) adds that that one who violates a prohibition for which one is not liable for Malkot, he nonetheless is disqualified to serve as a witness on a Rabbinic level. Rav Abergel concludes from the Shulchan Aruch and Rama that even if one is not liable for Malkot for violating “VeNishmartem Me’od Lenafshoteichem”, he nonetheless is disqualified to serve as a witness on a rabbinic level.
Additionally, Rav Abergel marshals the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch (C.M. 34:18) that one who acts in an undignified manner is disqualified to serve as a witness, to invalidate a smoker as a witness. At a time when refined and educated people worldwide almost universally refrain from smoking, smoking reflects quite poorly on the character, intelligence and even dignity of one who chooses to smoke.
The fact that more and more Posekim of stature are emerging to prohibit smoking has led to the point where it is most reasonable in 2014/5773 to state that a smoker should Lechatchilah not be chosen to serve as a Halachic witness. Bolstering Rav Abergel’s ruling is a report from Rav Gidon Weitzman that Rav Dr. Mordechai Halperin stated (at a conference held by the Puah Institute of Jerusalem) that Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach ruled that one who smokes violates “VeNishmartem Me’od LeNafshoteichem” and is disqualified from Eidut.
Nonetheless, the time has not yet come to disqualify a smoker Eidut BeDieved. Shulchan Aruch and Rama C.M. 34:3 and Teshuvot Rav Akiva Eiger 96 rule that one is not BeDieved disqualified as a witness if one violates a prohibition due to his not recognizing it as forbidden. The tragic fact that some otherwise rigorously observant Jews still smoke, misleads some to regard smoking as permissible.
We hope that publicizing Rav Abergel’s ruling and applying in practice will help bring the day in which smoking has been eliminated from the Jewish community.
When this goal is realized, one who chooses to smoke will be disqualified to serve as a witness even BeDieved.
 Note the dramatic change from what Rav Eliashiv wrote in 1981 in a Teshuvah that is printed in Kovetz Teshuvot 1:219.
 For a full discussion of this requirement, see the essay written by Dr. Shalom Buchbinder and Dr. James DiPoce in The Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society 42:70-99.
 Rav Asher Weiss, in his recently released Teshuvot Minchat Asher (number 35) writes that although it is not technically forbidden to smoke one cigarette it is technically forbidden to become addicted to smoking cigarettes. He reasons that since most of those who smoke become addicted and experience great difficulty to escape the addiction, that one should refrain from this ugly habit.
 Rav Weiss bemoans this fact in the responsum cited in the previous footnote.