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Is smoking cigarettes a sin?

November 4th, 2015 Posted by Ask the Rabbi No Comment yet

Question:

Many years ago, you could go to church and might notice the large numbers of cigarette butts in the parking lots. Today, in most Christian circles, smoking and use of tobacco is said to be sin. 

I have searched the Bible for an answer and clarification to the question about tobacco use. Is there anything in the Old Testament to clarify the question, “Is tobacco use sin or is it just an unhealthy habit?”

 Thank you for your ever thoughtful answers and insight you share weekly. And may the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob bless you.

∼ Linda O.

Answer:

Dear Linda,

Your observation about church parking lots is apt and your question is a good one for all Bible-believing religious people to ask; we know it is much discussed in Orthodox Jewish circles.   We’d like to start our answer by asking, “What is a sin?”

Because there are many Hebrew words for the act of disobeying God, there are many instances in the Bible of wrongdoing all using different words.  However, English doesn’t have too many words other than the word sin.  So many so-called ‘sins’ in the Tanach have different Hebrew words signifying different types of wrongdoing.  There are Hebrew words meant to distinguish between sins that are deliberate rebellions against God and sins that are accidental. There are other words for the entire range in between (It was an accident but if I had cared a little more and paid more attention, I wouldn’t have done that…I was upset but I wasn’t conscious of wanting to disobey God…).So we see there are many nuances for God, just as between human parents and children.  Not all bad behaviors are equivalent.

Smoking seems on the lesser end of the spectrum of sin.  After all, there is no Biblical commandment, “Do not smoke”.  It might well be more of a lapse in observing the requirement in Deuteronomy 4:15 to guard our lives. Certainly, we accept the permanent principle that our bodies are on loan from God and we need to take good care of them.

The difficulty is that we can each find areas in which we individually fail such as eating too much sugar, biking without a helmet, not exercising, not sleeping enough, getting upset, etc., etc.

There is even a legitimate concern that if we obsessively worry about our physical health it will come at the price of our spiritual health. The gym rat is not an ideal any more than the couch potato. Incidentally, Nazi Germany had a very vigorous anti-smoking campaign based on the idea that the government owned everyone and had a right to demand that its Aryan bodies stay healthy.

As you see, the issue isn’t black and white. For some people, smoking may even help alleviate other vices such as anger problems or uncontrolled eating.  If smoking was unequivocally condemned by the Bible, there is a good chance that our increasingly secularized society would not oppose it so strongly for fear of appearing pro-Biblical. Smoking is a good target for social virtue, partially because there is no direct religious commandment forbidding it.

Here is a frightening experiment we urge you to perform, Linda.  Ask a wide variety of friends and acquaintances, “If you had a child who was absolutely going to do one of these two things, which would you rather he or she did—smoking a cigarette or cheating on a school exam?”

We think you’ll be as bothered by the results as we were.  A disturbingly high proportion of people are more concerned with their kids’ bodies than they are with their souls.  This distorted sense of priorities has helped the popular culture demonize cigarettes way beyond what their obviously deleterious impact deserves.

So, we do not encourage smoking but neither do we think that it is the greatest evil of our times. Cigarette butts carpeting church parking lots is surely bad but so is arrogant condemnation of those who smoke.

Tending towards the sin of chocolate ourselves (or at least Susan),

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

 

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