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Going Up In Smoke

Walking along a Brooklyn street recently, I saw a scene that could very well be used in a dictionary to explain the word nachas. A young father, who appeared to be in his later 20′s, was pushing a stroller, occupied by a wide-eyed baby who looked about 8 months old. Beside him walked a toddler, who judging by his long golden curls was about 2½. On the father’s other side was a little girl who looked under four.

It doesn’t get better than this I thought – until I saw him lift his hand to his mouth and he took a puff out of a cigarette.

What I felt could best be described as looking down at a peaceful pastoral landscape – a lush green countryside, lazy cows peacefully grazing, when all of a sudden, a warplane whirls into view.

How sad that this young father had taken up a nasty addicting habit – probably in his yeshiva days - and was ruthlessly controlled by it, to his and his young family’s detriment. I have no doubt he had tied to quit. Once his responsibilities as a husband and father became a part of who he is – and being aware of the health risks of smoking – I am sure he had tried a number of times to free himself of this life-threatening habit. It is impossible, in this day and age not to be aware of how deadly smoking is. Besides cancer and lung disease, smokers in their 30′s are five times as likely to get a heart attack as those their age who don’t smoke. Appearing to be a loving, involved father to his beautiful children, I know that he would like to be around to escort them to the chupah and be a part of their children’s lives. But emancipating himself from nicotine was a battle he had fought unsuccessfully.

Now there are some misguided folk who would argue that there are no guarantees in life and will point out that everything is m’hashamayim (decreed in heaven) and if one is fated to live a long or short life, it is out of one’s hands and therefore any effort to try to elongate life is not necessary. They gleefully point out people in their 90′s who are going strong – despite having been chain smokers for over 70 years. Likewise we all know people who routinely exercised, watched their weight, never smoked and nonetheless died of disease at a young age. While our lives are in G-d’s hands, the Torah does admonish us to watch over ourselves. You just can’t jaywalk across a 10-lane highway and say that if it’s bashert (meant) for you to die – than you will.

Hashem wants us to do what we possibly can to extend the days of our lives. That is why we are allowed to desecrate Shabbat and the laws of kashrus if it doing so increases the odds of survival.

That is why I cannot understand why the past few generations of rabbinical leaders have not declared cigarette-smoking treif.

When it became clear without a shadow of doubt that smoking is extremely dangerous to one’s health, a rabbinic decree should have been issued making smoking as forbidden as eating pig meat or shellfish.

Allowances perhaps could be have been made to those older, long-term smokers who were already heavily addicted to nicotine to continue if they – despite all their efforts – could not quit. These would unfortunately include teachers, rabbanim, educators and other role models who unfortunately have been poor role models for their impressionable students.

But once smoking was halachically banned, upcoming generations, especially yeshiva bachurim, would no sooner pick up a cigarette than they would a ham sandwich. It would be disgusting to them and not even be a temptation. And the current crop of rebbeim and teachers would themselves be non-smokers.

Many young people view smoking as a means to look “cool” or they puff away to rid themselves of stress. They start smoking as teenagers. But if today’s young shomer Shabbos smokers had been raised knowing smoking was not kosher – if they were taught to consider smoking as a chillul Hashem – than they would never start in the first place. And they would not end up as young fathers taking their little ones for a stroll out on the avenue, cigarette in hand, leaving a trail of smoke for the Angel of Death to follow.

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