Tobacco

Jewish authorities have much to say about using, and abusing, this substance.

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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.

cigarettes in judaism

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.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.