Several weeks ago, a young husband and father wrote a letter to Dr. Yael Respler, columnist for The Jewish Press and a psychotherapist, asking for advice on how to stop smoking. He mentioned that his father, a heavy smoker had died of lung cancer. The young man wrote that he loved his wife and children and hoped he’d be zoche to have a long life with them. His problem, “I am also a chain smoker since my time in yeshiva as a bochur.”
As I read his words, I found myself distressed by the fact that his enslaving, smelly and life-shortening addiction was all the more tragic, because it was totally preventable. All that was necessary was for poskim to employ the same zeal and determination as they have in issuing edicts forbidding the drinking of unfiltered water in New York or the eating of certain raw fruits and vegetables because of the difficulty in seeing and removing bugs.
In many of these situations, there have been contradicting opinions and therefore various degrees of acceptance. However, there can be nothing but unanimous agreement that cigarettes and other tobacco products are lethal; it is an undisputed fact that smoking can lead to various deadly cancers and heart and lung diseases.
And this knowledge did not just come to the public’s attention yesterday. The horrific price people pay for smoking has been known for decades. As early as the 1960’s, cigarette boxes were labeled with warnings about the dangers of smoking. In the very near future, the US will be joining dozens of countries in having large and very graphic images and messages depicting the ravages of smoking on all cigarette packages.
Why then, has there not been a unified, across the board rabbinical geshrie (verbal outrage) against smoking? Surely obeying the Biblical injunction of watching over one’s soul (life) should be the over-riding focus of halachic attention.
The Torah commands us to do what is humanly possible to maximize the days of our lives. In fact one of the three most crucial requirements halachically mandated on a father is to teach his children to swim, a life-saving skill in the days before flotation devices and snorkels/oxygen tanks. We are exhorted to be safe and avoid situations or activities that are risky or dangerous and can lead to death. Some roshei yeshiva have forbidden activities such as hiking, swimming or boating during bein hazmanim because bochrim have drowned or fallen to their deaths. Why hasn’t smoking been included on this list of dangerous and therefore forbidden activities?
Had a rabbinical prohibition against smoking been put in place years ago, this young man – and thousands like him – would not be in the unfortunate situation of trying to rid himself of a deadly addiction. (Anyone entering a hospital no doubt has walked by sickly patients sitting in wheelchairs outside, tethered to IVs, puffing away on the cigarettes that they cannot give up – even though smoking is undermining their recovery, so chained are they to their habit).
Had cigarettes been rendered treif, this young man and his many peers would never have taken that first ensnaring puff. The same way it would have been repugnant and unthinkable to these teenage, erlich bochrim to eat a ham and cheese sandwich, so would smoking, and they would not even have had the slightest temptation to try it.
Instead so many are hooked on a filthy, costly and ruinous habit that will undermine their health, (and very likely their spouse and children’s); their appearance, (rotted teeth and gums and stained fingers); their finances (cigarettes are quite expensive, especially when one chain smokes: The cost in terms of medical expenses when smoking-related illness hits is in a category of its own.). Smoking can also destroy a family’s shalom bayis.
Not only has there been no wide spread rabbinical prohibition issued making it assur to smoke, but there seems to be a very unfortunate mindset in some circles that it is a necessary vice. A young relative of mine was asked by a rebbetzin in her seminary what she was looking for in a shidduch. A non-negotiable requirement, she stated, was that the boy be a non- smoker.
To her deep shock and disillusionment, the teacher she so admired chided her, saying that bochrim were under so much pressure, how she could begrudge a boy one of the few outlets he had to relieve stress and tension. I hope this was an isolated opinion.
Ironically, this silly misguided woman uttered a statement of fact that greatly supports the need for a “geder” or fence, to stop these vulnerable, bored, and stressed teenagers from adopting a very destructive and life-threatening habit. Is smoking not a form of involuntary suicide? And involuntary murder (via second -hand smoke.)
As to the argument that boys need an outlet for their excess energy and stress – whatever happened to EXERCISE? Sadly, there is a narrow-minded attitude that equates sports with bitel z’man. You can’t learn when dribbling a basketball, but you can with a cigarette dangling from your mouth, (especially when the soothing nicotine calms you down, helping you to focus).
The fact is, it is not too late to prevent future generations of our young boys and men from becoming slaves to a life-destroying habit. All it takes is one strong halachic voice, fortified with Torah, to say what needs to be said.