As the world changes, the modern day sages must often reevaluate the application of Jewish law in order to correlate it with the findings of contemporary medicine. One of the best examples of this challenge is cigarette smoking. Originally, smoking was assumed to have many health benefits. After all, smokers seemed to feel refreshed and relaxed, a beneficial physical side effect. From a Torah perspective, the only apparent problem with smoking was lighting a cigarette on Shabbat (prohibited).
Toward the middle of the 20th century, however, scientists and doctors came to better understand the true effects of the cigarette. It is now common knowledge that smoking has many negative effects on the body. By the time this information became common knowledge, however, smoking was a common vice, and rabbinic authorities understood that an outright ban on smoking would be too difficult to enforce (especially given the addictive nature of nicotine).
When the issue of cigarette smoking was raised with Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, regarded as one of the greatest Jewish legal minds of the 20th century, he strongly discouraged the habit but did not outlaw it outright.* His primary source against prohibiting smoking totally was from Yebamot 72a: “Since many people are in the habit of disregarding these precautions, ‘The Lord preserves the simple’ (Psalms 116:6). This statement has always been understood that there are some dangerous practices that are not prohibited because it is already the custom of too many people, but that those who are wise should certainly abstain from this behavior. Today, however, there are many strong calls to ban smoking entirely.
*This ruling was given in 1981. He included in his ruling a prohibition against starting to smoke.
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