Smoking, Alcohol, and Drugs
As a culture that values sobriety, individual responsibility, and health, Judaism is wary of substances that may cause more damage than the enjoyment they may bring their users.
Although there are differences in the degree to which different authorities are vociferous in denouncing or outlawing the use of tobacco, alcohol, and mind-altering drugs, the author accurately represents the consensus of opinion among scholars of Jewish law. This is evident from the source notes that appear in the book from which this passage is excerpted. Reprinted with permission from the author's book Jewish Living: A Guide to Contemporary Reform Practice, published by the UAHC Press (Union of American Hebrew Congregations), 2001.
At one time, smoking was generally considered a harmless, even worthwhile pleasure. Many thought that tobacco was a healthful substance, an aid to blood circulation, to digestion, and the like. A number of rabbis shared this opinion, writing in praise of tobacco’s benefits to human health. Some even wondered whether a blessing ought to be recited upon smoking, since the pleasure derived from it resembled that of eating, drinking, or the smelling of fragrances.
Today, scientific evidence concerning the dangers of smoking is accepted worldwide, and there is no longer any reasonable doubt that tobacco causes disease and death. Reflecting this change, rabbinic opinion now condemns smoking as a threat to human life and health. As Judaism forbids us to endanger our lives needlessly and to treat our bodies with reckless disrespect, so it forbids us to smoke. Those who smoke are under a strict moral obligation to do all in their power to stop smoking. It is wrong as well to encourage smokers in their habit by buying tobacco for them or by offering them a light. Synagogues and other Jewish institutions should prohibit smoking on their premises.
Judaism does not condemn the use, in moderation, of alcoholic beverages. On the contrary: the Bible speaks in praise of wine as a substance that "gladdens the human heart" (Psalms 104:15). Wine has always played a visibly central role in Jewish religious culture. This is evident in the fact that the tradition ordains special blessings to be recited prior to and following its consumption, just as it does for bread. The use of wine is required in such ritual practices as Kiddush [a declaration of the sacredness of a Shabbat or festival, recited over wine], the "four cups" at the Passover Seder, and the celebration of weddings and brit milah [ritual circumcision of a boy]. Other intoxicants can serve in place of wine under certain conditions in some (but not all) of these settings.
At the same time, however, we must treat alcoholic beverages with the utmost caution, since they can be a source of pain as well as joy. Wine may serve as an important element in our ritual, but it is by no means indispensable; one who for medical reasons is unable to drink wine or liquor is allowed to substitute non-intoxicants for ritual purposes, including the Passover Seder. We are told to beware of "wine when it is red," for the color and smoothness hide the reality that "in the end, it bites like a snake" and distorts the workings of the human mind (Proverbs 23:31-32).