Dear Rabbi,

My company just transferred me from Chicago to our affiliate office in Israel. There is a chain smoker who sits near me in the new office. Besides the horrendous consequences to my health, my clothes now have a stench that is not coming out in the wash. No one else seems to be bothered by this.

According to Jewish law, am I allowed to ask him to stop smoking?


As we all know, smoking causes serious ailments, which means that it conflicts with the Biblical injunction to take care of our health (Deuteronomy 4:15): “And you shall watch yourselves very well.”

While there are rabbis who say, based on this verse, that smoking is Biblically prohibited,1 many others say that it is not a Biblical prohibition, but “good advice” not to smoke.2 Others say that the responsibility should be left with the doctors to warn their patients not to smoke, based on their specific situations; and what the doctor says should be followed, as in other matters.3

Damaging Others

The above applies to an individual’s right to smoke at all; however, in a case where one would cause another to suffer from the smoke, a prohibition would apply according to Jewish law.4

In the words of Maimonides in his code of Jewish law:

When a person makes a threshing floor within his own property, or establishes a latrine or a place to perform work that creates dust, dirt or the like, he must distance the place of his activity far enough that the dirt, the odor of the latrine, or the dust does not reach his colleague and cause him damage.5

This becomes more complicated in a case like yours, where the person has been smoking for years, and you are the new-comer encroaching on his turf. In Jewish law, this is called a “chazakah,” i.e., there is a precedent for the person’s actions and therefore, in certain cases, the person is allowed to continue these actions.

However, the rule of chazakah does not apply to situations where someone else incurs damage. So, while your co-worker’s smoking may not bother anyone else, the Code of Jewish Law unequivocally states:

When it is known that this person cannot handle the disturbing behavior, even though others may be able to handle it, the rule of chazakah does not apply.6

In the words of Maimonides:

Similar rules apply with regard to a person who has established himself in a profession involving blood, animal carcasses or the like on his premises, and ravens and other birds of that type will come because of the blood, and eat. While doing so, they cause discomfort to the person's neighbor with their sounds and chirping, or with the blood on their feet. For they sit on the neighbor's trees and soil his produce. If the neighbor is irritable or sick, and the chirping of the birds harms him, or his produce is spoiled because of the blood, the person performing the task must cease or must separate to the extent that his neighbor does not suffer any harm because of him.7

These sources refer to situations where someone is bothered by another’s behavior; however, one of the preeminent rabbinical authorities of the 20th century, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, writes that now that we know that second-hand smoke is detrimental to health, when someone smokes in the presence of others, it is as if the person is harming others with his or her own hands.8

Jewish law gives one the right to ask, even if your coworker has been in the habit of smoking in his office for years.

See Health and Jewish Tradition from our selection of Judaism on Health, Illness and Healing.