Smoking and Jewish Law

As a new parent, I’ve become suddenly and acutely sensitive to smoking. While I used to personally detest it and socially embrace it — never smoking myself, but hanging out with all the “cool kids” who did (later: the amazingly gifted poets who did; and, still later, the semi-famous rock stars who did) — I never really understood the lure. I love playing with fire as much as the next 10-year-old, and I do think that smoking makes you look smarter, well, you’re pretty much killing yourself. Plus, you smell hella nasty and no one ever wants to make out with you.

And yet, most Orthodox Jews will still tell you that smoking isn’t banned outright. The other day, a friend was ranting to me on this subject — saying how rabbis are afraid to tread on the toes of the Torah giants; that this famous rabbi smoked, or that famous rabbi smoked, and we couldn’t possibly forbid something that he thought was acceptable.

A presumptive Google around found this article, by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, who gives a host of reasons that smoking is forbidden by every aspect of Torah, from the Shulhan Arukh, the Ten Commandments, and this:

“Only be careful and guard your soul greatly” (Deuteronomy 4:9), and “You must guard your souls greatly (Ibid. 4:15). And the Torah has commanded us to stay away from anything which might endanger life. Therefore, if one builds a roof or a balcony, there is a Torah obligation to build a guard-rail around it in order that nobody fall from it. Hence we can see to just what degree a Jew is obligated to maintain his health. It follows that the Torah prohibits smoking.

There’s a really interesting discussion of whether, as is sometimes reported, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik ate Kraft cheese. It discourses into all sorts of chumras, kulas, and other words that you wouldn’t know if you didn’t routinely dive into conversations like this — but the general effect is that we can’t judge them until we’ve walked a mile in their shoes. Yes, Rav Soloveitchik may have had an abnormal or straight-up weird halakhic ruling about Kraft cheese. But he also came out really strongly against going to operas (and not because they’re boring), even if you left during all the religiously-inappropriate parts.

Here’s the irony that, I think, sums up all the arguments. Pro-smoking activists say that the Chofetz Chaim smoked. Anti-smoking activists point out that the Hafetz Hayyim, when he found out, wrote that it’s “forbidden for a person to accustom himself to smoking.” But does “accustom himself” mean that people should only smoke when they’re anxious? Or only when they’re out clubbing? Or only at the opera?

It still doesn’t make the dude who walked down Broadway in front of me today, wearing a yarmulke and blowing smoke in my face for 3 blocks, any holier. Gargh.

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