The adage “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire” is more than just a metaphor. According to halachah, the liability for the damages caused by a fire usually include the damages caused by the smoke as well.

If you intentionally or negligently lit a fire that could be spread by a normal breeze, you are liable for damages it—and its smoke—causes if the fire spreads to the property of another.

So, what happens when we’re talking about a smoky BBQ or bonfire, which does not actually burn your neighbor’s property but can potentially wreak havoc through smoke and odor?

Distancing the Potential Damage

According to Jewish law, if you want to do something on your own property that may damage your neighbor's property, you need to make sure to distance it from their property.1 For example, the fire in an old-fashioned oven should be at least four handbreadths away from a shared wall to prevent the wall from heating up.2

Generally, if you begin such an activity and your neighbor demonstrates that they don’t mind (for example, if they help you install the oven close to the shared wall), they may not object at a later date.

The fundamental principle here is that one has the right to continue an activity once it has been established.

How About Smoky Cooking?

The sages tells us, however, that steady smoke produced by bakeries and workshops is different. You can never establish a precedent to habitually emit a significant amount smoke into another person’s space, even if they were silent for years. This is because it so disruptive that no one would stomach it.3 Thus, the only way that a person could forgo their right to protest regular smoke is by making a kinyan (“act of acquisition”) formally waiving their right.

But the law regarding individuals who only produce smoke occasionally is different. So if you’ve had a few cookouts and your neighbor never protested, you can assume that they’ve waived their right to future objections.4

Furthermore, some even say that the neighbors can’t even protest it to begin with (although this is subject to debate).5 However, the Shulchan Aruch Harav seems to rule according to the opinion that one can indeed protest initially.6

Smoke-Blackened Wall

In the course of learning these laws, we glean a fascinating insight into how much our standards of living have changed.

The Code of Jewish Law differentiates between smoke that can cause injury and smoke that merely may cause property damage, stating that “even if the smoke reaches the neighbor’s house and darkens the walls, if the neighbor saw it and remained silent, we assume they forgive the neighbor and cannot subsequently object.”7

This statement may seem extreme to us, for who could be expected to sit on their hands while their home is being blackened by smoke?

Indeed, contemporary commentators explain that this halachah originated during a time when smoke damage was common in homes. Drab wall colors were often chosen to mask the soot and dust that would inevitably accumulate.

However, in today’s world where a smoke-blackened wall is not the norm, this is considered major damage. One can hold their neighbor liable and protest the smoke-causing fires at any point.8

The Bottom Line

In some ways, smoke is considered more damaging than other nuisances, and one can never establish the right to engage in activities that will blow steady smoke into another’s property. On the other hand, when it comes to something relatively harmless like a pungent BBQ, if you have already been grilling for a number of weeks without anyone protesting, then you’ve established precedent and may continue to do so. (Still, it’s important to be considerate.)

Of course, this rule generally applies to healthy neighbors who just don’t like the smell. In cases of illness, extreme sensitivity, or actual property damage, the ruling would be different.9