From Quora: Do Jews smoke?

Among Satmar Hasidic Jews, women never smoke. It’s really unheard of. But quite common for men, even though it’s officially frowned upon. Smoking is seen as deviant and often a way men try to be “cool”, but it’s not the kind of transgression that can push someone out of the fold.

The reason Hasidic men often smoke probably goes back to ‘tabik’, or tobacco. Hasidic rabbis famously thought favorably of tobacco and often smoked/snuffed it themselves.

For example, Shivhei Habesht, [3] the legendary biography of the Baal Shem Tov, refers to the famous lulke [4] which the founder of the hasidic movement used to smoke. While recent scholarship [5] tends to treat this work with less skepticism than did earlier scholars, even if all references to the Baal Shem Tov smoking tobacco [6] are fabrications, it is true that hasidim were known to smoke, for their early opponents, the mitnagedim, repeatedly castigated them for wasting time on smoking, which the hasidim believed prepared them for prayer.[1]

As you can see, the early Hasidim not only didn’t reject tobacco but believed it prepared them for prayer!

I grew up in the US in the 80s in a Hasidic family, and by then it was well known that smoking wasn’t a-okay. It was no longer a part of Hasidic life the way coffee is. Even with cigarettes now seen as a vice, there were remnants of earlier embrace of tobacco. I remember that people still had tabik pishkelech, which were Snuff Boxes. Here are some antique Jewish samples:

Here is a rabbi sniffing tobacco:

In the book “Crossing the Williamsburg Bridge”, which is about a little American Jewish boy who lived with his Hungarian Hasidic grandfather in Williamsburg in the 1950s, the author describes getting curious about the ‘tabik’ that all the Hasidim carried around. He asked to try. He was offered a snuff by one of the men in the synagogue and when the tobacco hit him he responded in such shock, all the adults had a good laugh. (this was long ago, even before Mad Men parenting days.)

I don’t know that Hasidic men really carry tobacco anymore except maybe on fast days, when you are allowed to smell it. It helps ease the hunger pangs. It helps with fasting.

In spite of some objections, snuff-taking was permitted at any time—Sabbaths, holy days, fast-days, and Yom Kippur [2]

On the Yiddish forum Ivelt, in a discussion in 2013 about preparation for a Jewish fast, someone wrote: “און לאמיר לויפן קויפן טאביק!”

“Let’s run and buy tobacco!”


What does the permissiveness vis a vis tobacco in pipe or snuff box mean for men smoking?

Well, once upon a time, back in der heim in Europe before the war, cigerattes made their way into Jewish shtetl life.

When we were Hasidic kids, I knew this Yiddish song, called “koyft zshe papirosen”, which means “buy cigarettes”.

Buy cigarettes…

Dry and from not ruined…

Buy very cheap…

Buy and have mercy…

Save me from hunger now.

Buy matches that are old…

With it you will nourish an orphan…

For naught is my screaming and my running…

No one wants to buy from me…

I will perish like a dog…

Here is an ad from Warsaw, Poland in Hebrew where a Chaim Leib Shpitsz advertises that over the last five years, cigarettes in his factory substantially improved.

Obviously, the papirussen and tabik made its way to Americhke with our immigrant grandparents, albeit not for all of them.

And while in America it became increasingly problematic as its health consequences were understood, relics remain.


Here is a Hasidic rabbi lighting another’s smoke. Although not a common sight, I found it on the Ivelt thread on smoking. All the men there drool as they speak of their next tsigeret’l.


Last I heard (a few years ago), the tradition is still that when a boy gets engaged at about age eighteen, he goes to his yeshiva and to celebrate and share his mazel tov with his friends, he hands out pens and cigarettes. The cigeratte is called a חתן ציגרעטל…A groom cigarette. I’m not sure if the majority people even light it or just throw it out.

Of course there are those who smoke it or their own packs. Young men of marriageable age who want to look cool and be rebellious will often take up smoking.

When I was a still a kid my oldest brother came home one day with his long Hasidic coat drenched in the smell of smoke. We were all sent to our rooms. I remember how terrified I was of what was to come next, fearing my brother was on the road to self destruction. I worried that this was the beginning of his downward slide from smoking to a small yarmulke to trimmed sidecurls to a downward slide into an unrecognizable brother.

I was so relieved when he soon got engaged and didn’t smoke again.

I recently asked a Hasidic restaurateur who was smoking outside his shop why he smokes.

“Why I smoke? You know, because I can’t stop.”

“Why did you start?”

He knows I’m ex-Hasidic, so he nodded like it was obvious. “I was a bochur, nu.” Meaning, he was a young boy of marriageable age. He might have started as a small act of rebellion, but those things from our youths follow you, and now he’s grown and I’m sure hoping his kids won’t do the same.


So Hasidim are more lax about smoking than about many, many other things. And often when that’s the case, you can often look into its history and see that long ago, a seed was sown that made it okay. And once it starts to flow in the cultural veins, it’s much harder to remove.

Footnotes

[1] Tobacco and the Hasidim – Friends of Louis Jacobs

[2] TOBACCO – JewishEncyclopedia.com

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