In light of dozens of scientific studies proving the dangers of smoking, is smoking prohibited by Jewish law? Furthermore, is it forbidden in a public place?
Since the Surgeon General’s report first established the dangers of cigarette smoking in 1964, over forty responsa have been written on this subject. The majority, whether Orthodox, Conservative or Reform, have ruled that cigarette smoking is prohibited by Jewish Law. There are at least thirteen reasons for this conclusion. Six of the most cogent reasons follow:
1. Maimonides rules (Hilkhot Deot Chapter 4) that “a person must distance himself from things which destroy the body and accustom himself to things which heal the body.” In light of what we know about smoking, there is no doubt that it is an activity “which destroys the body” and is therefore forbidden by Maimonides.
2. In Deutoronomy (4:9, 15) God tells the Jewish people: “take utmost care and watch yourself scrupulously”. The Talmud (Berakhot 32b) derives from these verses that a person must scrupulously guard his physical health, and this ruling was codified by Maimonides (Rotzeach 11:4) and the Shulhan Arukh (Hoshen Mishpat 427:8). Thus whoever smokes transgress the prohibition of “watching yourself scrupulously”.
3. In addition to the general principle cited above, many specific activities were forbidden by the rabbis because they endanger human life. Among them: drinking water from an uncovered barrel lest a snake had poisoned the barrel with its venom (Mishnah Terumot 8:4-5), putting coins in one’s mouth lest they transmit dangerous bacteria (Yerushalmi ibid. 8:3), and passing by a shaky wall or a rickety bridge lest they collapse (Rosh Hashanah 16b). These prohibitions were codified by Maimonides and the Shulkan Arukh who emphasize that these are merely examples and not an exhaustive list (Rotzeach 12:6; Hoshen Mishpat 427:10; Yoreh Deah 116:5). Thus there is no doubt that smoking is included in the list of things prohibited by our sages because they endanger human life.
4. According to the Mishnah (Bava Kama 8:6), a person is not permitted to injure himself and his principle was codified by the standard codes of Jewish law (Maimonides, Hovel Umazik 5:1; Shulhan Arukh Hoshen Mishpat 420:31). There is no question that smoking is a form of self-inflicted injury and is thereby prohibited by Jewish law.
5. The Talmud rules: “Hamira sakanta mei-issura” which means: “Regulations concerning danger to life are more stringent than ritual prohibitions” (Hullin 10a). In other words, in case of a doubtful transgression of ritual law we rule in the direction of leniency, but if there is a possibility of one of the physical dangers listed above we rule in the direction of stringency. And indeed R. Moshe Isserles quotes this principle in our connection (Yoreh Deah ibid.). Therefore, even if one claims that cigarette smoking is not necessarily dangerous since not all smokers die of cancer, it would still be forbidden on the grounds of doubtful danger.
6. Lastly, some smokers claim that they have faith in God that He will protect them from the dangers of smoking. But the Talmud has already ruled on numerous occasions that one may not consciously place oneself in a dangerous situation because “one does not rely on miracles” (Megillah 7b and more) and this principle has also been codified in the Shulhan Arukh in our context (Yoreh Deah ibid.). Thus a smoker may not rely on miracles and is required to stop smoking at once.
(There follows a detailed refutation of the approach of rabbis Moshe Feinstein and J. David Bleich who, while discouraging the practice, have consistently refused to prohibit smoking.)
As for smoking in a public place, the following conclusions were reached:
1. Whoever is in the vicinity of a smoker can certainly protest and the smoker is required by Jewish law to move away (Bava Batra 23a).
2. Furthermore, it can be demonstrated that it is forbidden “l’khathilah” (before the act) to smoke in a public place. This is based on the principle that one must build furnaces far away from the city “l’khathilah” (Tosefta Bava Batra 1:10). Similarly, it is forbidden because of the principle of “geirei dilei” or “his arrows” (Bava Batra 22b). According to this principle, one cannot stand in his yard and shoot arrows in the air while claiming that he had no intention of harming others. For the same reason, one must erect an outhouse or a factory that produces dust far enough away from his neighbors to do no harm because the dust and the smell are like his arrows (Maimonides, Hilkhot Shekheinim 11:1). There is no question that cigarette smoke is like his arrows so the smoker must distance himself from others “l’khathilah”.
In conclusion, smoking is absolutely forbidden by Jewish law. Similarly, it is forbidden to smoke in a public place and if one transgresses and smokes he must move away if someone protests.
Rabbi David Golinkin
Approved Unanimously 5750
* An English version of this responsum appeared in Moment, Vol. 16, No. 5 (October 1991), pp. 14-15.