The Prohibition to Smoke – Part Two by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


Last week we introduced the issue of smoking and Halacha.  We noted that many great Halachic authorities prohibit smoking, including Rav Efraim Greenblatt, Rav Chaim David Halevi, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, Rav Avigdor Neventzhal, Rav Hershel Schachter, Rav Gedalia Schwartz, and Rav Aharon Soloveitchik.  This week, we will continue to work towards our conclusion that smoking is undoubtedly prohibited to all Jews who study and apply modern science seriously.

Hashem Preserves the Fools – When Does it Apply?

Last week we noted that some unhealthy and risky behaviors are technically prohibited and that other such behaviors are discouraged but not technically prohibited.  A possible way to distinguish between the two categories is to see  whether society regards the risk involved in the particular behavior as minimal and/or tolerable.  The Gemara comments that such behavior is not forbidden, “Since the multitudes have trodden upon (this risk), Hashem preserves the fools.”  We shall see how Poskim define the parameters of this principle and how they apply it to the question of the Halachic propriety of smoking.

Two great later Acharonim offer definitions of the parameters of the “Hashem protects the fools” principle.  Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky (Teshuvot Achiezer 1:23) seems to believe that it applies only when the danger is minimal and disaster occurs only in a small minority of cases.  Airplane travel is acceptable according to this standard, as I heard from Rav Aharon Soloveitchik (in a Shiur he delivered at Yeshiva University in 1986).  On the other hand, Rav Aharon Soloveitchik stated, cigarette smoking is forbidden according to the Halacha, since much more than minimal danger is involved.

 It seems, however, that in case of great need the Halacha tolerates greater risk-taking.  For example, the Gemara (Bava Metzia 112b) notes without criticism the fact that people risk their lives and work high up in trees in order to earn a living.  Apparently, Chazal believe that one may risk his life in order to earn a living.  Such risks would not be tolerated if done merely for recreation.  Accordingly, Rav Yechezkel Landau (Teshuvot Nodah B’Yehudah 2: Yoreh De’ah 10) permits one to hunt animals to earn a living but forbids recreational hunting.  Similarly, since smoking is a recreational activity, the Halacha is less tolerant regarding the risks involved in this activity.

Rav Yaakov Ettlinger (Teshuvot Binyan Tzion 1:137) discusses (in the nineteenth century) the permissibility of embarking on a sea voyage or a trip across the desert.  He offers what appears to be a different definition of “tolerable risk” from that of Rav Chaim Ozer.  The Binyan Tzion distinguishes between an immediate danger and a long-term danger.  Immediate danger is prohibited in all situations.  Future danger, however, may be assumed if, in the majority of cases, it can reasonably be expected that no harm will occur.  It is possible, however, that the Binyan Tzion tolerates such risk only for the purpose of earning a living or other great need and not for recreational purposes.

Application to Smoking

Rav Moshe Feinstein (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe Choshen Mishpat 2:76) writes (in 1981) that smoking should be discouraged, as should all other unhealthy habits, as the Rambam states in the fourth chapter of Hilchot Deiot (as we discussed last week).

However, Rav Moshe writes, smoking cannot technically be declared as forbidden since only a minority of smokers is afflicted with health problems as a result of the habit.  In such circumstances, Rav Moshe argues, the “Hashem protects the fools” principle applies.  Rav Moshe’s argument appears to be in harmony with the Binyan Tzion’s criterion for forbidden dangerous activities.

Rav Moshe’s lenient ruling seems no longer to apply, as we know that current research indicates that a majority of smokers will suffer ill effects from their unhealthy habit.  For example, Rav J. David Bleich writes (Tradition Fall 2003 p.97) that according to “presently available evidence, it appears that the cumulative risks of lung cancer, cardiovascular disease and respiratory illnesses will, in the aggregate, foreshorten the lives of a majority of smokers.”  Indeed, Dr. Jeffrey Berman, an Orthodox physician who is an expert on recovery from addiction (including smoking) at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical Center in New Jersey, reports that a staggering eighty-five percent of smokers will suffer health problems as a result of their habit.

Moreover, Rav Bleich notes (ad. loc. p.96) that the “Hashem protects the fools” principle applies only when the behavior is “trodden by the multitudes.”  Rav Bleich observes that although smoking was a path well-trodden by the multitudes when Rav Moshe wrote his original lenient responsum on smoking in 1964 (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe Yoreh De’ah 2:49), “It is more than likely that, at present, that condition no longer obtains.”  I have been informed that only an approximate twenty-five percent of Americans currently smoke, thus supporting Rav Bleich’s argument that smoking is no longer a path well-trodden by the multitudes.

It should be noted that this contrasts sharply with what Rav Bleich wrote in the summer 1977 issue of Tradition: “Since even in light of presently available evidence it appears that the majority of smokers do not compromise their health and do not face premature death as a result of cigarette smoking there is, according to Binyan Zion’s thesis, no halakhic reason to ban this activity.”  In addition, he wrote, “There is little doubt that although the road is fraught with danger it is – at least for the present – indeed a path well-trodden by the multitude.”  We see by contrasting Rav Bleich’s writings from 1977 and 2003 that the reality and available information have dramatically changed between these years, and thus Rav Moshe’s Teshuva from 1981 probably does not reflect the scientific evidence presently available.

Furthermore, Rav Moshe’s student Rav Efraim Greenblatt (Teshuvot Rivevot Efraim 8:586, printed in 1998) observes that society no longer regards smoking as a tolerable risk.  He notes that society even outlaws smoking in bars, even though imbibing considerable quantities of alcohol is tolerated.  Accordingly, Rav Bleich’s and Rav Greenblatt’s writings clearly demonstrate that Rav Moshe’s somewhat lenient ruling regarding smoking is no longer in effect, as medical information and society have changed.

Indeed, Rav Greenblatt argues, “Who would lie down in the middle of the street and claim ‘Hashem protects the fools?!’”  Rather, he concludes, smoking is a suicidal act and is prohibited.  Rav Chaim David Halevi (Teshuvot Asei Lecha Rav 3:18) similarly writes that smoking is “slow suicide.”  Rav Greenblatt writes, “Smoking is definitely forbidden and there is no justifying it and I have spoken to Gedolim and Poskim who agree with my conclusion.”  Rav Avigdor Neventzhal writes (Asyah 5:261) that we cannot apply the “Hashem protects the fools” principle in a situation where we clearly witness that it is not Hashem’s will to protect [smokers].

 Rav Eliezer Waldenberg (Teshuvot Tzitz Eliezer 15:39) cites the Chafetz Chaim who writes (Likutei Amarim chapter 13 and Zeicher LeMiriam chapter 23) that it is forbidden for “weak individuals” to smoke, since doctors in his time conclude that smoking further weakens and endangers those who already “weak.”  Rav Waldenberg argues that the logical conclusion from the Chafetz Chaim’s assertion is that since doctors currently believe that smoking endangers everyone – including those who have a strong constitution – the Chafetz Chaim would rule that all should adhere to the doctors’ warnings and refrain from smoking.

The Halacha regards taking forbidden risks very seriously.  The Shulchan Aruch (C.M. 427:10) writes that whoever endangers himself and argues, “Why should others care about my endangering myself if I do not care about it?” should have disciplinary lashes (Makkat Mardut) administered to him.  On the other hand, the Shulchan Aruch writes that whoever refrains from dangerous activities will have good blessings bestowed upon him.  The Torah does not believe that one can claim, “It is my body and I can do whatever I want with it.”  We state in Selichot that  “HaNeshama Lach VeHaguf Pa’olach,” our souls and bodies belong to Hashem.  We often quote Tehillim chapter 24 which begins with the declaration that the entire world belongs to Hashem, because He created it.  Indeed, the Chafetz Chaim writes 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 Bei’er HaGolah, commenting to the aforementioned citation from the Shulchan Aruch, offers an explanation for why Halacha forbids us to engage in dangerous activities.  He writes that Hashem in His kindness created the world to benefit His creations – for them to recognize His greatness, to worship Him by observing Torah and Mitzvot, and to be rewarded 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.  The Bei’er HaGolah asserts that there is no greater denigration of and disregard for our Maker than this.

Why Do  Some Pious Jews Smoke?

When I inform people who smoke that so many great rabbis rule that smoking is forbidden, I am inevitably posed with the question of why some pious Jews smoke.  I believe that the answer might be that these pious Jews belong to a community that strives to recreate life as it was in the Shtetl in Eastern Europe.  For example, many members of these communities do not even speak English.  In these communities, science is not studied in school in a serious manner.  Accordingly, some in these communities smoke since this was the norm in the Eastern European Shtetl.  Perhaps the rabbis of these communities do not object to their members smoking since they perceive that a majority of the smokers in their communities are not afflicted with health problems as a result.

In other words, the principle regarding a behavior that the multitudes have trodden upon might vary from community to community.  While in Jewish communities that study science seriously, smoking is not a well-trodden path and is therefore forbidden, perhaps smoking is a well trodden path in those communities, and so is not forbidden for them.  Accordingly, we may not extrapolate to our communities from the behavior of those pious Jews do not study science seriously.  Finally, we should note that the reality in these communities might be changing, as many Chareidi Poskim (for example, the Debrecziner Rav, Teshuvot Bei’er Moshe 6:160:9) have either declared smoking to be prohibited or have stated in a public letter that one is obligated to make all efforts to stop smoking.  The Gedolim who have signed this letter include Rav Yosef Shalom Eliashiv (note the dramatic change from what Rav Eliashiv wrote in 1981 in a Teshuva that is printed in Kovetz Teshuvot 1:219), Rav Aharon Yehudah Leib Shteinman, Rav Nissim Karelitz, and Rav Shmuel Auerbach.  Indeed, Rav Shlomo Wolbe (in a letter dated 1987) makes an impassioned plea to cease smoking.  He stresses the point that each cigarette that one smokes reduces one’s life expectancy by five minutes.

 Next week we shall conclude our discussion of smoking and further explain and support our contention that cigarette smoking is forbidden.

The Prohibition to Smoke – Part Three by Rabbi Chaim Jachter

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