Halachic Musings

By Rabbi Yair Hoffman

Let’s picture the true story of a wonderful Bais Yaakov girl in high school. She has friends; she loves her Torah classes; she does well in limudei chol. She has a life. We shall call her “Shaina.”

Little does she realize that, not too far away, there is a yeshiva that has a policy that will help ruin Shaina’s life forever.

Let’s fast-forward a few years. We see Shaina crying. She is carefully taking care of her soon-to-be-deceased husband, “Chaim.” Chaim is lying in the ICU section of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital in Manhattan.

Her two kids are at home with a babysitter. This time it is a babysitter, instead of their grandmother. The grandmother is too fatigued from watching them the past two weeks.

At the levayah, the rabbanim speak about how wonderful her husband Chaim was. It is all true. Chaim was a masmid. He had good midos. They do not mention that there was a policy in place at Chaim’s yeshiva high school that helped contribute to Chaim’s death.

It is now a few years after the funeral. Shaina is struggling financially. Her children are suffering from the fact that she is a single parent. They also suffer from the fact that neither parent was there for them while Chaim was sick.

Shaina needs to work hard to provide the bare essentials. She receives assistance from the community, but things could have been different. Our once pretty, vivacious, vibrant Shaina is now no longer pretty, vivacious, and vibrant. The toll of the past few years has left its mark.

What was this policy of the yeshiva with such far-reaching repercussions for Shaina? Chaim looked up to older bachurim in the beis midrash. These older bachurim smoked. The yeshiva allowed that situation to continue. The role models smoked.

It is time for us to demand drastic change in our yeshivos. It is time to stop the madness. It is time to no longer tolerate smoking among the “older bachurim” either.

Smoking is the largest preventable cause of mortality in the United States. It is also not bashert. Smoking is halachically considered a makom sakanah, and one needs a lot of zechuyos to remain healthy when one chooses to follow the appeal of smoking. Sixty percent of cases of heart disease are caused by smoking. Ninety percent of lung cancers, Rachmanah litzlan, are caused by smoking.

Recently, Reb Dovid Feinstein, shlita, paskened that were his father alive today he would clearly state that it is completely and entirely forbidden from a halachic perspective. Rav Elyashiv, zt’l, ruled that there is now an additional prohibition of havarah to smoke on yom tov, because it is no longer halachically considered “ochel nefesh”–universal consumption. The gedolim of Eretz Yisrael forbade the practice. We would not tolerate chillul Shabbos in our beis midrash bachurim. Why are we tolerating this act which has such harmful repercussions?

Notwithstanding all we hear about the deleterious effects, yeshiva kids are smoking. The fact that high-school kids are doing so is disturbing, since aside from the effects on the lung and heart, smoking actually reduces the rate of lung growth in teens. This ends up causing a number of other abnormalities.

Why are kids smoking? There seem to be two factors: character and social influence.

In terms of the social-influence factor, we must keep in mind that the most influential factor in why a kid begins to smoke is because his or her friends smoke. It requires a lot of character strength to avoid this influence. And no matter how strong our kids feel they are, many just don’t have the strength of character to resist the peer pressure. The experts say that if your friends smoke, you are twice as likely to start smoking by the next year.

Another factor is if the parents, rebbeim, teachers, or other role models smoke. This is called modeling the behavior. When parents smoke, the accessibility of tobacco is much greater. Sometimes it is merely an older person (four to ten years older than our kids) who is modeling the behavior, such as a beis midrash bachur. Often the accessibility issue is coming from the role model. Someone out there is giving our kids cigarettes. Their rationale is, “Look, the kid will get it anyway, so I am just making it easier.” This enabler is wrong.

Another high-risk factor is parenting style. Authoritative parenting works to reduce smoking in teens. According to Dr. James Sargent, writing in Pediatrics (2005, Mosby), authoritative parenting is characterized by (1) combining behavioral control with supportiveness; (2) monitoring where your child is; (3) monitoring whom your child is with; and (4) validating and listening to your child, but at the same time having no problem making demands and setting expectations.

If parents do not have an authoritative style, it is more likely that their kids will smoke. The problem is that when kids are away all day or in a dormitory, it is very hard to monitor these things.

The final factor is whether there is a strong anti-smoking message in the home and in the yeshiva. According to the Monitoring of the Future Survey conducted in 2000, 38% of white 12th-graders had tried cigarettes in the previous 30 days. Only 14% of black 12th-graders had tried it, however. Some experts feel that the reason is that black parents tend to be able to communicate their strong anti-smoking sentiments to their kids more effectively than white parents do. Clearly, we should tone up our anti-smoking message. When a yeshiva allows bachurim in the beis midrash to smoke, this entirely undermines the anti-smoking message.

There are also personality characteristics that make one more likely to smoke. If a child is a risk-taker or thrill-seeker, he or she may be more likely to start smoking. Rebelliousness and poor school performance are also strong factors.

So what can we do about it? There is something called bechirah–everyone has the freedom of choice ultimately to do as they want. We as parents and mechanchim can only do two things:

We can educate and create the environment where hopefully our children will make the right decisions, but we cannot make decisions for them. This idea can be frustrating for a parent.

We can also create and manipulate the logistical aspect of the environment to minimize or eliminate the behavior. This actually can be effective, but we must remember that it does not always work. Sometimes it even creates a backlash. The logistical manipulation, however, does severely reduce the incidence of many undesirable behaviors.

Concerned parents need to help effectuate this change. The yeshivos need to implement the change. One suggestion might be that any beis midrash bachur (or high-school student) who smokes should be penalized with a $500 fine. The fine or k’nas should be paid by the bachur–not the parent. And it could be paid to the yeshiva.

Perhaps this fine should also be accompanied by a visit to a cancer ward and some bikkur cholim to be done. The visit to a cancer ward would not be “bittul Torah.” Research has shown that regularly smoking cigarettes on average takes some 11 to 13 years off a person’s life. Imagine how much Torah could be learned during those years!

The fact that role models are engaging in a behavior that on average takes off 11 to 13 years of life is horrifying. It is something that should not be brushed aside. This is an issue where the yeshivos and the parent body should work together in order to implement a permanent stop to the madness. v

The author can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.


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