The Prohibition to Smoke – Part Three by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


Previously, we have outlined why it is prohibited to smoke.  We noted that Rav Efraim Greenblatt, Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg, Rav Chaim David Halevi, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, Rav Avigdor Neventzhal, Rav Hershel Schachter, Rav Gedalia Schwartz, Rav Aharon Soloveichik, and Rav Eliezer Waldenburg all rule that smoking is strictly forbidden.  This week we shall conclude our discussion by clarifying a number of issues regarding this topic.

Rav Moshe Feinstein’s Prohibition to Begin Smoking After 1981

Last week we cited Rav Moshe Feinstein’s ruling (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe Choshen Moshpat 2:76) in which he did not rule that it is strictly forbidden to smoke.  We noted from Rav J.David Bleich and Rav Efraim Greenblatt that Rav Moshe’s ruling seems not to apply anymore since medical data and societal behavior has changed since the time Rav Moshe wrote his responsum in 1981.

This week I wish to focus on an important facet of this responsum, namely Rav Moshe’s assertion that it is forbidden to begin smoking.  Thus, even according to Rav Moshe it is forbidden to smoke if one has not begun to smoke before 1981.  He explains that it is forbidden to habituate oneself and develop a desire for frivolous worldly pleasures.  Rav Moshe discusses this idea in another responsum (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe Yoreh Deah 3:35), in which he rules that it is forbidden to smoke marijuana or use any other illegal drug.  Rav Moshe cites the Halachot regarding a Ben Sorer UMoreh (see Devarim 21:18-21), a rebellious son who is punished for developing frivolous worldly desires (see Sanhedrin 68b), as a source for his assertion.  It is important to note that Rav Shmuel Wosner (in a letter written in 2000) also writes that it is completely forbidden to begin to smoke and that cigar smoking is included in this prohibition.  It seems that he includes pipe smoking as well, as he writes about smoking “cigars, cigarettes, etc.”  Rav Wosner also writes that one who already began to smoke should make every effort to wean himself from this bad habit.

Indeed, the Sefer Yereim (in the context of his discussion of Ben Sorer UMoreh) supports Rav Moshe’s assertion.  I was told that Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, in the context of strongly criticizing some young men who had spent an evening in a bar drinking alcohol, cited this Sefer Yereim to prove that it is forbidden to develop a taste for overindulging in alcohol.

Is Oness (Duress) an Excuse?

Many smokers seek to excuse their behavior by stating that they are Anusim, in effect coerced to smoke, since it is so difficult to free oneself from this addictive habit.  In general, the Halacha excuses one from sins committed under duress (see Devarim 22:26 and Keubot 3a).  However, smokers were not forced to begin smoking.  The Chafetz Chaim (cited in last week’s discussion) chides the smokers who sought to excuse their behavior on the grounds that it is difficult to stop smoking by arguing that they had no right to begin smoking.  As proof to his assertion, the Chafetz Chaim cites the Gemara (Bava Kama 92) that states that one is not permitted to harm himself.

 One might add that the Halacha forbids one to voluntarily put himself into a situation where it is likely that he will later be forced to violate Halacha.  The Baal Hamaor (Shabbat 7a in the pages of the Rif) writes that one is forbidden to deliberately put himself into a situation where he will be forced to desecrate Shabbat for the purpose of saving a life.  Based on this assertion of the Baal Hamaor, Rav Moshe Feinstein forbids one from choosing to have elective surgery (as I discuss in the soon to be published Gray Matter volume 2).

The Rambam (Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 5:4) strongly condemns those who choose to remain in positions in which they will be coerced to violate the Torah.  In fact, the Siddur HaGra explains the section in the Yom Kippur Vidui (confessional) in which we confess the sins that we committed BeOness as referring to cases where a person initially put himself into a situation willingly and then is coerced to sin.  For further discussion of the prohibition to willingly enter a situation where one will be coerced to sin, see Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik’s responsum regarding the propriety of rabbis volunteering to serve as chaplains in the United States armed forces (Community, Covenant, and Commitment pp. 23-67).

In the context of the Halachot regarding Gittin (Shulchan Aruch Even HaEzer 134:4, and see Pitchei Teshuva E.H. 50:8) the Rama rules that a husband is not regarded as being coerced to give his wife a Get if he does so based on an earlier commitment.  Even though the husband currently does not consent to give his wife the Get and is giving the Get only because of the earlier agreement that he entered into voluntarily, the Halacha regards his giving the Get as voluntary.  The Taz (134:6) explains, “There is no coercion, since he voluntarily entered into this agreement.”  The Biur HaGra (134:14) cites Bava Batra 47b as the Talmudic source for the Rama’s ruling.  Accordingly, we see that one cannot claim that he is coerced to smoke, since one initially chose to smoke.  This is especially true in light of the fact that there are many medicines and therapies that have helped numerous smokers quit their deadly habit.  Finally, even Rav Moshe Feinstein ruled in 1981 that it is forbidden to begin smoking.  It seems obvious that Rav Moshe would require one who began smoking after 1981 to quit smoking.

A Father’s Request to Purchase Cigarettes

Rav Chaim David Halevi (Teshuvot Aseih Lecha Rav 6:58 and 7:65) was asked whether one must honor his father’s request to purchase cigarettes for him.  Normally, the Halacha requires one to fulfill a parent’s request for service (Kiddushin 31b).  On the other hand, one is not required to follow a parent’s order to violate Halacha (Bava Metzia 32a).

The Beit Lechem Yehuda (commenting on Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 240:15) addresses a situation where doctors ordered someone not to drink water or eat a certain food.  The individual subsequently asked his son to bring him water and the specified  food and told the son that he would not forgive him neither in this world nor in the next if he failed to do so.  The Beit Lechem Yehuda rules, based on Bava Metzia 32a, that the son is not obligated to obey his father’s command.  Rav Chaim David Halevi explains that the Halacha forbids assisting another to sin (“Lifnei Iveir Lo Titein Michshol” [Vayikra 19:14]).  Accordingly, bringing very unhealthy food to someone to eat would violate the prohibition of Lifnei Iveir.  Rav Halevi argues that it follows from the Beit Lechem Yehuda’s ruling that one should not give his father cigarettes if he requests them.  Rather, one should politely and gently explain to one’s father (in accordance with Shulchan Aruch Y.D. 240:11) that smoking is very dangerous and the Torah obligates us to preserve our bodies.

Criticizing the Practices of Earlier Generations

In general, the Halacha frowns upon calling into question the Halachic practices of earlier generations (Motzi Laaz, see Gittin 5b).  Indeed, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe Y.D. 2:49) writes (in 1964) that we cannot pronounce that smoking is technically forbidden since great Torah scholars of previous generations smoked.

There are a number of potential responses to this argument.  First, the Pitchei Teshuva (E.H. 125:12) cites opinions that limit the cases when one should not be Motzi Laaz on the practice of earlier generations.  One is that this rule applies only to when we seek to introduce a mere stringency (Chumrah BeAlma) and not when we regard the behavior as essentially forbidden.  Another opinion believes that this principle applies only to matters of family law (Ishut) that are particularly sensitive, such as calling into question the validity of Gittin executed by prior generations.  According to these two approaches, if a Poseik believes that smoking is forbidden, considerations of Hotzaat Laaz on the practices of the past do not impede issuing a stringent ruling.

Furthermore, previous generations did not have the access to medical data that we have today.  Thus, they did not violate the prohibition of endangering themselves, since they did not perceive smoking as dangerous.  It is also possible that in earlier generations the health of the majority of smokers was not impaired, because in those years most people did not live past sixty-five in any case.  For example, my father (who smoked) died at age sixty-nine of lung cancer.  In pre-modern times most people would have died before the age of sixty-nine.  Today, when (Baruch Hashem) the average life span is much longer, the majority of smokers will have their lives shortened specifically because of smoking.  Thus, smoking may have indeed been permitted for earlier generations and but is forbidden beginning in modern times.  Finally, we are not being Motzi Laaz on Rav Moshe’s rulings, since he was basing himself on data that were relevant when he wrote his responsa but are not longer up to date.

Finally, the Debrecziner Rav (Teshuvot Be’er Moshe 6:160:9) explains that cigarette smoking is more dangerous nowadays than it was in previous generations because of the polluted air that we breathe.  He also writes that previous generations were stronger than people today (see Megillah 21a) and therefore smoking is more dangerous for us and prohibited.

The Chillul Hashem Argument

 Rav Chaim David Halevi (Teshuvot Asei Lecha Rav 3:18) advances another argument to forbid smoking.  He writes, “In enlightened countries, smoking is banned in public places, commercial advertisements of smoking are banned, and manufacturers of cigarettes are compelled to print health warnings on every pack of cigarettes.  Should we, whose holy Torah is a ‘Torat Chaim’ (a life giving Torah) lag behind?”

In a number of places, the Torah presents us with the mission of serving as a role model for other nations (see Shemot 19:6, Seforno’s comments ad. loc., and Devarim 4:6).  Indeed, part of every Jew’s role is to emulate the Kiddush Hashem created by Avraham Avinu who is referred to by his Hittite neighbors as “a prince of God amongst us (Bereishit 23:6).”  It seems that Chazal regard a Chillul Hashem as such a major infraction (see, for example, Rambam Hilchot Teshuva 1:4) because setting a positive example for others is at the core of the mission of the Jewish People.

Accordingly, the sight of an observant Jew smoking in our time appears to constitute a Chillul Hashem.  It seems to me that in this country, smoking (for the most part) is common only among lesser-educated and cultured individuals.  The sight of an observant Jew smoking does not create the impression of “knowledge and wisdom in the eyes of the nations.”


The Rama (Shulchan Aruch Y.D. 116:5) should dispel any doubts that smoking his prohibited.  The Rama writes, “One must avoid dangerous activities because we treat danger even more seriously than Issurim (forbidden behaviors, see Chullin 9b).  We must be more concerned about even possible danger than about possible violations of Issurim.”  The fact that so many prominent Poskim have issued rulings forbidding smoking raises the issue at the very least to the level of being possibly forbidden.  Thus, smoking is forbidden even if one is uncertain as to whether it should be technically forbidden or not.

Indeed, we can discern three stages in the development of the attitude of contemporary Poskim towards smoking.  Rav Chaim David Halevi was the first major Poseik to state publicly that smoking is forbidden (in 1976).  Rav Eliezer Waldenberg and Rav Hershel Schachter followed suit in the early 1980’s.  The third stage was in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, when Poskim such as Rav Ovadia Yosef, Rav Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, and Rav J. David Bleich, who previously stated that it is technically not forbidden to smoke, have concluded that it is forbidden to smoke based on changing societal behavior and medical data.  Accordingly, at this point one may safely affirm that the age in which smoking was permissible has passed and that at this point it is indisputably forbidden.

Parents and educators must present to their children and students in an unequivocal manner that smoking is forbidden according to the Halacha.  There are sufficient major rabbinic figures who have issued stringent rulings to remove any doubt of the fact that Halacha forbids smoking.

Hashem has privileged us to live in an age where it is common for Chatanim and Kallot to enjoy the presence of grandparents and even great grandparents at their weddings.  What a shame for one to engage in smoking and very likely miss the opportunity to bestow the great joy of his or her presence at the weddings of his or her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.


Divergent Family Customs Between Husband and Wife by Rabbi Chaim Jachter

The Prohibition to Smoke – Part Two by Rabbi Chaim Jachter