UPDATE: Why Are Rabbis Less Strict On Smoking Than Mike Bloomberg?

UPDATE: Why Are Rabbis Less Strict On Smoking Than Mike Bloomberg?

5/31- This JTA item caught my eye given the heavy response to my blog post on smoking:

Israeli men and women better think twice before they light up — the government has established a separate Health Ministry unit devoted to combating the dangers of smoking.

The new legislation will strengthen the law against smoking in public places and tightly restrict the advertising and marketing of tobacco products.

It also will ban cigarette sales in automated vending machines and require the inclusion of graphic warnings on tobacco products, including photos of black lungs and stained teeth.

Taxes on cigarettes could rise dramatically following a recommendation of Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz scheduled to come before the Cabinet in 90 days.

The law also singles out teachers, who will be prohibited from smoking in educational institutions.

Given the sad fact that many American teens start smoking during visits to Israel — where cigarettes are cheap, easy to get and popular — and the notorious addiction of Israelis (about 20 percent smoke) this is very welcome news.


Beginning this week, you can be fined for lighting up in New York City parks and on beaches, the latest step in the city’s war on smoking spearheaded by Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Say what you will about the mayor, but he certainly puts his money where your mouth is, investing millions of his own philanthropic dollars in the fight against smoking worldwide and putting the city resources to work reducing second-hand smoke exposure and encouraging people to quit. Those are worthy efforts. A growing number of municipalities around the country are following suit in public spaces smoking bans, and the New England Journal of Medicine looks at the issue here.

Which makes you wonder why modern halachic Judaism, which governs so many aspects of how adherents live their lives — some of which are very personal — seems to largely look the other way at what common sense dictates should be a clear transgression of religious life. (Here is a good analysis of the smoking ban and halacha regarding smoking in public.)

Is it logical that eating dairy soon after meat is viewed as a bigger transgression against God than deliberately inhaling toxins into your lungs, poisoning other people around you and perhaps harming future children?

Yet it’s common to see Modern Orthodox, haredi or chasidic Jews, mostly men (and particularly young yeshiva students) puffing away in public without fear of sanction, often with their own kids nearby. When I studied in Israel it was routine to see people smoking inside yeshivot and I had a few rabbis who not only smoked themselves but even shared their packs of cigarettes with students.

Though awareness of health effects and bans on public smoking have only increased in the decades since, I doubt things have changed much on a practical level. Here is some backgound on recent Jewish law and smoking.

To its credit, the Rabbinical Council of America’s Vaad Halacha ruled in 2006 that "smoking is clearly and unquestionably forbidden by halacha and that this should be made known to all who care about the Torah and their health." But I wonder how enforced that judgment is. How many rabbis ban smoking anywhere on the premises of shuls and yeshivas (indoors and outdoors) or at related events, or offer resources for people who want to quit? And how many influential rabbis in other movements are silent on this issue?

"A lot of prominet rabbis and even poskim continue to smoke, so how to ban smoking has been a continual dilemma," Dr. Edward Reichman, associate professor of emergency medicine at Albert Einstein College who is also a rabbi told me.

A frequent lecturer on halacha and medical issues, Dr. Reichman believes there is no question that smoking is against halacha, but he notes that one loophole often cited is that many people live long lives while smoking without getting sick. So to some, that creates doubt about the direct cause and effect that would make smoking a sakanat nefesh, or direct threat to human life.

A group of researchers are even studying Ashkenazi Jews, some of whom smoke, to see if there is some kind of genetic insulation.

"It would be interesting in years to come if there is a genetic test to see who is immune from lung cancer," says Dr. Reichman. "But in this day and age it is indefensible to allow smoking."

Loving the sinner and hating the sin is appropriate here: As the RCA rabbis noted, "While it is important to make clear that halacha prohibits smoking, it is also important not to condemn those who struggle with this issue. Rather we must offer our full help and support to aid them in their quest for physical and spiritual health." But a rabbi doesn’t have to deny aliyahs to smokers to have an impact. Private prodding and public, general reminders from the pulpit can help.

Rabbis, shuls and religious organizations could do a lot more to encourage healthier lifestyles — more exercise, alchohol moderation, ways to cope with stress and kiddush staples that aren’t loaded with fat and salt. But the best place to start would be a widespread unequivocal declaration that throwing away God-given good health in favor of a destructive vice is completely contrary to a Torah lifestyle.

Why not encourage a National Jewish Smoke-out, beginning on a Saturday night, when Sabbath observers already have a 25-hour head start?

As someone who has showed up at a weekday minyan more times in the past two months than in the previous two years, I can attest to the boost in self-discipline that comes with a religious mandate.

If being spotted buying or smoking cigarettes carried the same stigma as being seen at McDonald’s or driving on Shabbat, numerous lives could be saved.

Want to quit? Check out some resources here, here and here.

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