Can you spare some change for a cup of tea?” Hopefully most of us try to help the needy, but we may feel differently when one hand is outstretched begging for money while the other is clutching a lighted cigarette. Must we pay for the next packet of fags?
Jewish tradition teaches that we must give beggars “whatever they lack” (Deuteronomy 15:8). This means that charity is not just about staving off starvation; it must take into account a person’s psychological and spiritual needs. Some talmudic rabbis took this to extremes, funding luxurious lifestyles of rich men who had fallen on hard times in order to preserve their self-esteem (Ketubot 67b).
The smoking beggar presents a particularly tricky conundrum because in our well-intended efforts to help him, we may be harming his health.
Rabbinic attitudes to smoking developed alongside scientific knowledge. As our knowledge of its dangers has increased, attitudes have hardened. Lord Jakobovits, Chief Rabbi from 1967 to 1991, smoked a pipe, but when he read the halachic ruling that smoking was no longer permitted, he put it down and never picked it up again.
In 1984, Rabbi Chaim David Halevy, Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, was approached by a man who wanted to know if cigarettes needed a hechsher — rabbinic supervision for Passover. The rabbi was not impressed. He had already ruled that due to its injurious effects, smoking is forbidden at any time of year. Now he added: “In enlightened countries smoking is banned in public places, commercial tobacco advertisements are banned and manufacturers of cigarettes are compelled to print health warnings on every packet of cigarettes. Should we whose holy Torah affirms life lag behind?” (Aseh Lecha Rav 3:18).
The rabbi was more sympathetic to a young person whose father asked him to buy him cigarettes. Did his obligation to honour his parents extend to fulfilling a harmful request? Just as in English law, it’s illegal to aid and abet a criminal, there is a biblical prohibition of “placing a stumbling block before the blind” (Leviticus 19:14) — which the rabbis understood as putting a person in a position to do something forbidden by Jewish law.
In formulating his answer, Rabbi Halevy referred to a legal precedent of a hospital patient whose doctor had forbidden him from eating certain foods. When the doctor’s back was turned, the patient slipped some money into his son’s pocket, asking him to buy the very things that the doctor has just proscribed.
The confused child turned to his rabbi. Did the mitzvah of honouring his parents require him to obey his father’s instructions or should he refuse the request? The rabbi ruled that the son should not buy the forbidden items (Aseh Lecha Rav 6: 58).
All this makes sense for father and sons, but is there a difference when it comes to beggars? A talmudic discussion offers clues. At ancient dinner parties, it was customary for guests to share their food with the waiters. Jewish law requires us to wash our hands before eating bread and to thank God for everything we eat. What if your waiter refused to make the requisite blessings? By placing the food in his hands, knowing that he would not fulfil his religious obligations, would you not similarly be “placing a stumbling block before the blind”(Hullin 107b)?
While the rabbis forbade offering food to those who would not bless, they made exemptions. Some ruled that if refusal to share food with a friend would create tension and resentment against Judaism, then one should overlook the religious omission. That’s why today, this law tends to be observed in the breach. When it came to beggars, the rabbis were even more emphatic. Charity, they felt, was so important that it should not be withheld with the excuse that the recipient might not carry out the requisite rituals.
Drawing on these precedents, and given the possibility that the smoker may not be fully aware of the health risks or he may be addicted to smoking, Rabbi Halevy ruled that one should not withhold their charity. If you want to be sure that your contribution is put to good use, you might choose to buy food and drink for a beggar rather than hand over cash (Aseh Lecha Rav 5: 77).
A recent article in The Times reported on Britain’s homeless who live outside in oppressive heat and freezing rain. If they are lucky, they are ignored by the public. If they are not so lucky, they are bullied, harassed and even urinated on. Should we judge them for wanting a cigarette?
Gideon Sylvester is the United Synagogue's Israel Rabbi