A number of years ago I was approached by a teenage, Haredi boy in the airport who wanted me to buy cigarettes for him. Startled, I looked at him and asked which rabbinic certification he was relying on. It took him a minute to realize that I was not going to buy him the cancer sticks which would bring him years of agony and misery.
I’ve now been shown up. One of the weekly parashat hashvua papers which shows up regularly in my synagogue featured a large, colorful ad advertising five (!) brands of Dubek cigarettes with three different Rabbinic approbations attesting to their Passover kashrut – and, of course, free of kitniyot (legumes shunned by Ashkenazi Jews on Passover.
I don’t know what self-respecting rabbi would give his stamp of approval of a product whose package, by law, proclaims that it causes diseases and premature death. Is it not about time that responsible rabbinic leadership take a courageous, firm, and unequivocal stand prohibiting – once and for all – the use of cigarettes?
I understand the hesitation to take such a stand in the mid-20th century. The medical evidence was just beginning to pile up and many prominent rabbis were already smokers – to ban the product as forbidden would have been embarrassing. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the great halakhic authority in the US, came close to such a ban but stopped short, proclaiming that “God protects the fools,” referring to those who had begun the habit without being aware of its dangers, but stating that one should not begin smoking now that the medical danger is clear. That was 50 years ago!
Fifty years ago the Marlboro man was still an American hero and cigarettes were advertised without hesitation. They were seen as a status symbol; cigarettes were prominently featured in movies. It was cool to smoke. There were even special cigarettes marketed to women celebrating their liberation and independence from male hegemony. But “we’ve come a long way, baby” (from the Virginia Slims brand marketing in 1968). Throughout the Western world cigarettes are banned from buses, airplanes, restaurants, and other public spaces. Many yeshivot have banned smoking from the beit midrash after students fell dangerously ill from second-hand smoke.
The time has come, once and for all, for rabbinic authorities to declare the cigarette as unkosher. Publications priding themselves in their Torah-values should reject ads for cigarettes, just as cigarette ads are banned in other media. And next year, in Jerusalem, without the cancer sticks – even those free of kitniyot.