Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.
When tobacco first began to be used in Europe there was considerable objection to it on the part of the Church. Rabbis, on the whole, saw no objection to tobacco per se, but its use has been widely discussed by Jewish teachers from various other aspects of the law.
Early rabbis has no objection to tobacco per se
Defining its Legal Status
One of the questions discussed was whether a benediction has to be recited over the use of tobacco. The Talmudic Rabbis coined benedictions for eating and drinking in obedience to the principle that God should be praised and thanked for His gifts. The Rabbis had no knowledge of tobacco but once this new means of enjoyment became available the question of a benediction arose.
An early discussion is that of Abraham Gombiner (d.1683) in his Magen Avraham, a commentary to the Shulhan Arukh. Gombiner remarks: ‘Further thought has to be given to the question of those who place the herb known as tobacco into a pipe which they light and inhale the smoke and then exhale it. The problem is whether this is to be compared to one who tastes food but does not swallow it, in which case no benediction is required. Or whether it should rather be compared to smelling sweet spices over which a benediction is required, and this would apply here a fortiori since there is physical pleasure in that some people are as sated from smoking as if they had enjoyed food and drink. Further thought is required.’
Since there is a doubt, the principle that no benediction is required in doubtful cases applies, and it is the universal custom not to recite a benediction over tobacco.
Mordecai Ha-Levi (d.1684), judge and halakhic authority in Cairo for over forty years, discusses whether it is permitted to smoke on a fast day and on a festival. On the face of it, to smoke on both these days is to be involved in contradiction. On a festival it is permitted to light fire only in the preparation of food. If, therefore, smoking is treated as food and is permitted on a festival, it ought to be forbidden on a fast day when no food is allowed to enter the mouth.
But the author comes to the conclusion that it is permitted to smoke on both these days, his argument being that smoking cannot be considered to be food and is hence permitted on a fast day; however, the definition of preparation of ‘food’ has to be understood as embracing every form of physical pleasure, including smoking.
Jews & Gentiles
In an interesting aside, Ha-Levi remarks that Jews should not smoke in public on a fast day since Muslims do not smoke on their fast days and Jews must not give the wrong impression that they are less scrupulous in their religious observances than their Gentile neighbors are in theirs.
Ha-Levi frowns, however, on smoking on Tisha B’av when even the study of the Torah is forbidden because it is a joyful experience.
In practice, Orthodox Jews do smoke on Yom Tov and on Tisha B’av after midday. It is also a widespread custom to take snuff on Yom Kippur, since this does not fall under the heading of any of the ‘afflictions’ forbidden on the day, such as food and drink.
On the same lines as Mordecai Ha-Levi, the famed German authority, David Hoffman (1843-1921) holds that while, strictly speaking, it is permitted to smoke in a synagogue (not, of course, during the services) it should not be done since Christians would not dream of smoking in a church and it would constitute a profanation of the divine Name if Jews behaved with less reverence in their houses of worship than Christians do in theirs.
Tobacco in Hasidism
In early Hasidism tobacco occupied an important role. Some of the Hasidic masters looked upon tobacco as the modern equivalent of incense in Temple times and many of them used to smoke a meditative pipe before they offered their prayers.
A further idea found among the early Hasidim is that there are subtle ‘holy sparks’ in tobacco which, under divine providence, was brought to Europe so that the masters could elevate these sparks in order to complete the full restoration that would result in the coming of the Messiah.
A later Hasidic master said that tobacco was used by pagan savages before it was brought to Europe. Its use by the Hasidim raises the weed from the profane to the sacred in that no one is ashamed to accept from another a peck of snuff or a pipeful of tobacco and so acts of benevolence are carried out through it all the time.
The smoking of a pipe by the Hasidim must have been a prevalent practice in early Hasidism since, in the polemics against them, there are repeated accusations that they waste hours in smoking.
The lulke (churchwarden’s pipe) of the Baal Shem Tov features frequently in Hasidic legend. Some sources report that the Baal Shem Tov used to recite a benediction before smoking his pipe. The suggestion that the Baal Shem Tov’s pipe contained a substance other than tobacco is completely unwarranted.
Rabbi S. Sevin, in his biographies of famous halakhists, reports a curious episode about smoking in his life of the famous Yeshivah principal, Baruch Bear Leibovitz (1866-1939).
Rabbi Leibovitz had an original way of ‘smoking’ cigarettes. He would place the cigarette in his mouth and chew and suck it without ever lighting it, deriving a certain amount of satisfaction in the process. The reason for his strange behavior was that his father once gave him a cigarette but when his teacher saw him smoking, the teacher said: ‘Why do you have to smoke?’
Anxious to satisfy the dictates of both his father and teacher, he decided that he would take cigarettes into his mouth without actually smoking them.
In Light of Medical Research
In more recent years, when medical research has demonstrated that there is a causal relationship between smoking cigarettes and lung cancer (and heart disease), a number of Rabbis, especially Conservative Rabbis, have suggested that the Halakhah now be invoked to forbid smoking as injurious to health. Undoubtedly, the Jewish tradition is emphatic that health should be preserved but it is somewhat questionable whether the Halakhah can be invoked in this area.
There is a risk as well as advantages in smoking, as there is in imbibing alcohol and in failing to have a sensible diet, and, indeed, in driving a motor car. Each individual should at his own discretion balance the risks against the advantages. To be sure most people will probably decide that the risk is not worth taking and this outweighs any advantages, but such decisions cannot be made a matter of Jewish law. Or, in any event, this seems to be the attitude of law-abiding Jews who do smoke.
Pronounced: khah-SID-ik, Origin: Hebrew, a stream within ultra-Orthodox Judaism that grew out of an 18th-century mystical revival movement.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.