The Last Smoke
By Rabbi Shabtai A. Rappoport
K. is a prominent lawyer, forty two years old. Recently his office participated in the defense of a tobacco manufacturer, sued by people who came down with cancer after being heavy smokers for years. The manufacturer, it was claimed, was at least partly responsible for this calamitous result of the plaintiffs' habit. K who enjoys an occasional cigarette, as well as excellent health, started wondering whether ethically one is indeed forbidden to market cigarettes, and what about smoking them? Surely one may not risk any life, others' as well as his own, does smoking come under this prohibition?
Certainly, one may not smoke where it bothers other people, let alone where is may pose any health hazard for them. According to the Halacha one may not activate a furnace that constantly issues forth smoke that bothers his neighbors (Shulchan Aruch Choshe Mishpat 155, 36 -37) even when the furnace is used for his livelihood. Hence, one is certainly forbidden from issuing forth smoke that endangers others' health, only to satisfy his appetite. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein rules that an individual person may not smoke in a public place, where the smoke bothers other people, even when he is not the only smoker in that location, and the others refuse to desist (Igrot Moshe Choshen Mishpat Part II, 18). This ruling brought about the cessation of smoking in most of the Batei Midrash and other public halls of the Orthodox Jewish world.
However, is one forbidden from smoking in total privacy, because he might endanger his own health, and are others prohibited from manufacturing and selling cigarettes in order not to support smoking?
As far as health hazards to oneself go, it seems that there are three Halachic categories. In the first category are risks that one may take upon himself because "the Lord preserveth the simple" (Psalms 116, 6) meaning that one may assume divine protection from the results of the risk taken. The second category consists of foods and behavior patterns that are unhealthy and may cause morbidity and premature death. One should avoid these risks by living healthy life, but there is no strict prohibition against taking them. The third category consists of actions, or inactions, that may cause death. These are strictly forbidden, and some are punishable by flogging.
The first category is mentioned in the Talmud, and includes of a woman getting pregnant and giving birth during early puberty (Yevamot 12, b and parallels), and blood letting on astrologically undesirable days (Shabbat 129, b), having sexual intercourse on the ninetieth day of pregnancy (Nidda 31, a) et cetera. These are not brought down by Maimonides, except one – eating grapes or figs at night, without inspection for bite marks - which will be discussed later. It seems that Maimonides regarded these actions as completely permissible, because their definition as risky stems from an esoteric source, and is beyond the perception of human medical knowledge. Hence, the "simple" alluded to in this context, are all humans who abide by the available medical information.
The second category is brought down in Maimonides' code (Laws of Human Traits, chapter 4). Maimonides presents these by saying: "Since keeping the body healthy and unharmed is one of G-d's ways, because one may not understand or know any item relating to G-d while being ill, a person is therefore required to distance himself from anything that may harm his body, and conduct himself in healthful and healing ways". This introduction is followed by many instructions. This second category seems to include what was known about healthy behavior during Talmudic and Maimonides' times, and should be revised according to current medical knowledge and patterns of conduct.
The third category is discussed in Maimonides' Laws of a Murderer and Perseveration of Life, chapters 11 -12. It stems from the Biblical commandment: "When you build a new house, then you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you should not bring any blood upon your house, if any man falls from there" (Deut.22, 8). This instruction includes the removal from one's possession of any item that may pose a threat to life, and abstaining from any action that may risk life. Furthermore, an indirect support of such threats to life, as a sale of weapons to people suspected of using these illegally, is forbidden by the Biblical commandment: "You shall not … put a stumbling block before the blind", in which the term "blind" alludes to a person who does not notice the way of truth because of his hearts faulty desires (Maimonides ibid. chapter 12, 12 – 14).
How can items in the second category, against which there is no explicit prohibition, be distinguished from those of the third?
This distinction does not seem to be statistical. Maimonides (Laws of Human Traits 4, 9) defines some foods of the second category as being "as vile as lethal poison", and it seems that these are statistically more hazardous than water that were exposed for a brief period of time during which a snake that might have been present next to the vessel in which the water was stored, might have drunk from it, and consequently might have spewed his venom into it. However, drinking such exposed water is considered to be a risk of the third category, and is punishable by flogging.
To the same category belongs eating of fruits that may carry bite marks, which might have been caused by a venomous snake, as well as fruits that were punctured by a bird, and that puncture mark may cover a snake bite. Maimonides rules that eating grapes and figs in the dark, when an examination for puncture holes is impossible, is permitted, not because "the Lord preserves the simple" but because, for some reason we do not suspect these fruit when their pedicle was removed, as being tasted by a snake. Here also, the statistical possibility that a punctured fruit will be venomous seems to be indeed very slender.
Thus the distinction seems to be that foods or behavior patterns that belong to the second, strongly recommended against, category, have very little risk when discrete actions are considered. Eating old cheese, or meet that was preserved in salt (Maimonides Laws of Human Traits 4, 9), once, carries no noticeable risk. Only the usual practice of eating such foods was considered risky. The Biblical commandment of building a rampart for the roof, and the Sages following prohibitions against taking hazards, apply to actions and inactions, which one of these may cause sudden and violent death. These actions and inactions belong to the third, strictly forbidden category.
Hence smoking should belong to the second category. Only the habit of smoking poses a risk to an otherwise healthy person. Hence, one should not smoke cigarettes, both because habits of the second category should be discouraged, and because the commandment of a stubborn and rebellious son (Deut. 21, 18) discussed in the last issue of SHALOM prohibits starting an addictive habit.
Hence, manufacturing and selling cigarettes is no different than selling old cheese, which is permitted. However, since smoking may cause health hazards to non smokers - who did not choose to inhale the smoke - which is strictly forbidden and it is well known that not all smokers smoke in total privacy, a G-d fearing person should refrain from taking part in the tobacco business because of the potential infringement of non smokers' health.