The total number of lives cut short due to smoking is staggering.1The medical community has long been aware of the dangers,2 and beyond the well known association with lung cancer, there are multiple other related malignancies and chronic health conditions.3 4

The Torah instructs, “And you shall guard your life exceedingly,”5 and, “Just take care of yourself and guard your life exceedingly.”6 According to the general consensus of the classic formulators of Jewish law (halachah), these verses are a broad injunction commanding us to guard our health.7

Assuming that halachah takes influence from current medical knowledge,8 smoking cigarettes ought to be plainly forbidden. Moreover, because the injunction to guard our health is based on Biblical verses, the prohibition ought to be considered a Biblical injunction9 (as opposed to some prohibitions which are Rabbinic in nature).10 Even if one were to argue that the resultant harm from smoking isn’t inevitable, just highly likely, there is an established rule in halachah that a behavior whose outcome is indeterminate (“safek”), and therefore only possibly dangerous, is nevertheless forbidden.1112

Beyond the basic Biblical injunction to guard our health, there are multiple other halachic reasons to forbid smoking cigarettes.13 Given all the above, do we find that cigarette smoking is indeed forbidden by leading halachic experts of the day?

“May G‑d Protect the Simpletons”

The Talmud discusses bloodletting and lists certain times of the week one may not bloodlet due to safety concerns.14 Even though Friday evening was considered an unsafe time, the Talmud omits it from the list, explaining that since the masses had already become accustomed to doing it at that time, rather than forbidding it, we rely on G‑d to protect them, applying the verse in Psalms, “May G‑d watch over the simpletons.”15 This principle is invoked throughout the Talmud in similar scenarios.16 (Of course, it cannot be too broadly applied or the entire Biblical mandate of “guard your life” would be significantly compromised, as will be discussed further.)

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the greatest halachic decisors (poskim) of post-war Jewry, was asked whether smoking cigarettes should be forbidden. He conceded that the data showed cigarette smoking to be dangerous, but stopped short of saying that it was outright forbidden, invoking the Talmudic principle, “May G‑d watch over the simpletons,” because the practice was already so widespread.17

His application of this principle was contested on the grounds that the scope of the principle did not encompass a scenario such as smoking. There is halachic literature that states that this principle, a) cannot apply if the masses are aware of the potential danger18(which they are with respect to smoking), b) can only be applied if there is danger in not applying it (i.e., if there were danger in not smoking, which is untrue),19 c) is so novel that it can’t be extrapolated to any scenario other than where explicitly used in the Talmud,20and smoking cigarettes has not been discussed in the Talmud.21

An additional objection to Rabbi Feinstein’s application of this principle was penned by his contemporary, Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, who argued that one can only invoke “May G‑d watch over the simpletons” if we see empirically that many who have engaged in the unsafe practice have not been harmed, which is not the case with smoking.22 Rabbi Waldenberg draws on Maimonides’ classification of danger to illustrate his position. In Maimonides’ classic encyclopedia of Jewish law (“Mishnah Torah”), Maimonides deals with unsafe behaviors in two sections. In the first, he lists behaviors which are discouraged due to health concerns but not outrightly forbidden (often related to diet and lifestyle). In the second, he lists unsafe behaviors that are unequivocally forbidden.23 Rabbi Waldenberg strongly felt that cigarette smoking was more equivalent to the behaviors listed in the latter section, whereas Rabbi Feinstein implied that it was more equivalent to those in the former.

The Cumulative Effect

The danger posed by cigarette smoking is a cumulative one; there is no one cigarette that can be viewed as the culprit for the adverse health outcomes per se. Some argue, therefore, that smoking cannot be forbidden because no single cigarette is independently effective enough to be forbidden; we cannot point to any one cigarette and say, “This is forbidden because it may kill you”.24 Nevertheless, there are those that believe this argument is insufficient grounds to not forbid smoking, as there does seem to be precedent in halachah for forbidding a behavior whose effect is cumulative. For example, repetitive bloodletting was frowned upon due to its believed cumulative effect,25 and in another branch of halachah we find an analogous discussion, where one may not dig too close to his neighbor’s wall because the cumulative effect of each shovel strike may weaken the wall.26

Additional Halachic Principles at Play

Other rationales put forth to explain why smoking cigarettes should not be technically forbidden include:

A: There is a rule that one is not responsible for coerced behavior,27 and it has been suggested that this can apply to an addicted smoker. This argument has been rebutted on the grounds that coercion only absolves one of punishment, but does not render the behavior permissible.

B: There is a rule that halachic authorities will not institute a new decree if, in their assessment, the masses will not be able to abide by it.28 It has been suggested that as a result of this rule, cigarette smoking should not be declared forbidden. However, a rebuttal to this position is that prohibiting smoking would not be a completely new decree per se, but rather a decree stating that cigarette smoking falls under the already established basic injunction to guard your health, and as such not protected by this principle29. Moreover, even if prohibiting smoking would be considered a new decree, the very premise that the masses would not be able to withstand it is called into question, because we see that Torah-observant Jews manage to cease smoking every Shabbat.

C: In certain cases, it is halachically preferable not to notify people that what they’re doing is wrong, because it is better that they do it inadvertently than transgress knowingly.30 It has been suggested that we should not ban smoking for this reason, but this rationale, too, falls short, because it only applies if it is certain that people will not listen.31 In our case, we can’t be sure of that; on the contrary, we see that when it comes to Shabbat, people do cease smoking out of respect for halachah.


Does addiction play a role in this discussion? The Chofetz Chaim, one of the great Jewish leaders of pre-war Europe, wrote (in the early 20th century) that anyone who is ill or weak may not smoke, in line with medical advice of the time.32 He insisted that even if such a person were already addicted, they are not absolved, because they are responsible for becoming addicted in the first place. From his comments we see that he did not view addiction as adequate grounds for absolution of responsibility. (Of course, this is not to minimize the struggle of those working to break the addiction and quit smoking.)

Conflicting Halachic Precedent

The Chofetz Chaim himself, in his halachic work “Mishnah Berurah,” discusses the permissibility of smoking on Jewish holidays,33and some question whether cigarette smoking can therefore be categorically forbidden considering his apparent condoning their use. However, based on his comments in the preceding section, it seems clear that he forbade smoking in any scenario that was considered dangerous; in his time, it was not considered dangerous for healthy people and it’s possible his ruling in Mishnah Berurah is merely a reflection of that.34 Given that we now know how dangerous cigarettes are to everyone, not just to the ill, it can be assumed that the Chofetz Chaim would more broadly forbid smoking.35

The Rebbe’s Approach

Following the approach of his father-in-law, the sixth Rebbe, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, strongly discouraged smoking. He also wrote a number of letters addressing this topic. The Rebbe reiterates the basic premise that anything dangerous to one’s health is already forbidden under halachah and no new specific decree is technically needed.

But the question still remains whether the current halachic leaders should expressly declare cigarette smoking forbidden. The Rebbe noted that such a declaration would become part of the eternal body of Jewish law, and thus immutable.36 Given that cigarettes are dangerous in their current form, but as technology evolves it may be possible for cigarettes to be manufactured without the health risks, the Rebbe felt that an eternally binding resolution may be premature.37 Nevertheless, as long as cigarettes in their current form are dangerous to one’s health, they are of course forbidden under the broad mandate to guard our health.

Secondhand Smoke

We’ve thus far extensively discussed smokers and the effect they have on their own health, but what about secondhand smoke, which has been shown to have long term effects for those exposed?38

This question was posed to Rabbi Waldenberg, who stated unequivocally that if someone is smoking in a communal area such as a school, workplace, etc., they can be asked not to, and they must accede the request. This right is never relinquished; even if years have passed without complaint, one may, at any time, exercise the right to request the smoker stop smoking.39

Beyond the Letter of the Law

Even those who are skeptical whether smoking cigarettes can be forbidden on technical grounds unanimously agree that it should be soundly discouraged. For example, while Rabbi Feinstein stops short of expressly forbidding it, he goes to great lengths to discourage the practice, and exhorts parents to be exceedingly careful that their children aren’t drawn into the habit.40

Guarding our health is a fundamental value in Jewish theology, as Rabbi Moshe Rivkes, a prominent 17th century halachic authority, summed up: “It appears to me that the reason the Torah cautions us to safeguard our health is because the Holy One, Blessed be He, created the world in His kindness, to bestow goodness upon His creations, by enabling them to recognize His greatness and serve Him with Torah and mitzvot… and thereby reward them for their efforts. Therefore, one who endangers himself is as though he is rejecting the will of his Creator, and desires neither to serve Him nor receive His reward…”41

From the above discussion, it appears that smoking cigarettes is antithetical to Jewish values; many halachic experts expressly forbid it, while others stop short of that for technical reasons. May it be G‑d’s will that we are all blessed with complete and lasting health, and may we speedily usher in the era when “Death will be swallowed up forever, and the Almighty G‑d will wipe the tears away from all faces.”42