No Smokers for My Daughters

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I always find it amusing when readers of fiction seek to engage the fictional characters – or their creator – in argument. Such was the case, in the Mishpacha Magazine serial “Whispers in the Wind” a few months back, when Binyomin Levine, an outstanding bochur in Lakewood, delivered an impassioned defense of his friends who smoke to his date, Tzippy Hoffer. Binyomin does not smoke and considers it a “foolish” habit. But he nevertheless urges Tzippy to tell her friends not to automatically dismiss a bochur who does, as many of his friends smoke, including “some very accomplished bnei Torah.” The habit must be put in perspective, he explains: It is one of the few outlets that bochurim have for dealing with the extreme pressure of intense learning.

Though I feel a bit silly, I want to urge Tzippy’s friends to ignore Binyomin. Sure, Binyomin is absolutely correct that some fine learners smoke. Still, I would never agree to a shidduch for a daughter if I knew the boy smoked, even if he were the proverbial “best boy” in Brisk. (That threat alone, however, is not likely to turn the tide against smoking, as I have only one daughter, and she is happily married.)

The simplest and most important reason is: I would have no wish to see my daughter a widow or my grandchildren orphans. I will never forget a letter from the wife of a heavy smoker to Dr. Avraham Twersky, in which she sought Dr. Twersky’s help in dealing with her anger towards her terminally-ill husband for leaving her and their eight children without the husband and a father they so needed. (That letter helped at least one long-time smoker kick the habit.)

In the shidduchim process, we leave no stone unturned in our efforts to find out whether there are any health problems on the other side, acting as if we were accomplished geneticists in our weighing of every slight medical problem we uncover. Yet there is no better predictor of future health problems than smoking, which is estimated to claim five million lives annually around the globe. Not by accident does every carton of cigarettes carry in big black letters the logo: Smoking Kills.

Sure, most bochurim who smoke intend to quit after marriage and some of them will – often many times. With respect to the vow to quit after the chuppah, the cigarette companies, which lace their products with chemicals designed to increase nicotine addiction, and the yetzer hara, whose favorite word is “tomorrow,” walk hand in hand.

One of the great challenges facing parents of girls is that it is so hard to gauge the middos of a bochur, even though they are the most important determinant of our daughters’ future happiness. (A wife is unlikely to know whether her husband is the biggest lamdan in his kollel or only the second best, but she will soon learn whether he has a bad temper.) As the Steipler Gaon used to say, “A shtender never yelled back” – i.e., a young man’s middos are not really tested as long as he is in yeshiva.

Smoking is a hint to one important middah: consideration. As Binyomin admits, smoking is an “unpleasant” habit. The smell of a smoker and his garments is off-putting to any non-smoker. In the days when transatlantic flights still had smoking sections, my young children refused to get close to me upon my return from abroad if I had passed through the smoking section once or twice on my way to the rear of the cabin.

And someone who smokes around others rises to the level of real menace. Secondary cigarette smoke has a negative impact on those exposed, particularly young children and pregnant women.

Smoking, as Binyamin rightly tells Tzippy, does not indicate any deep-seated psychological problem. But the ultimate task of every Jew’s life is to enthrone his mind as the master of his body. Starting to smoke is, at the very least, not being roeh es hanolad (anticipating the consequences of one’s actions). Whether or not it is a violation of the commandment v’nishmartem meod l’nafshoseichem, sticking something in one’s mouth knowing that it is injurious to one’s health is, at the very least, stupid. Yes, almost all of us manifest a lack of mind over body control in different ways, but parents of girls in shidduchim must make do with whatever scraps of information they can obtain.

Perhaps I have an unrealistically idealistic view of what it means to be a twenty-two-year-old ben Torah. To me, the term ben Torah conjures up a deep person, who carefully considers the proper course, and, when in doubt, consults with those older and wiser than he. That image does not go well with the trace of a smarter-than-everyone-else attitude in smoking despite the known dangers: “The goy says it’s not healthy to smoke, what does the goy know?”

My idealized ben Torah doesn’t do anything to be “cool” or part of the crowd. When I see a young man waving around a cigarette, in the manner of popular culture icons of decades ago, when smoking was considered the essence of suavity, I suspect the latter.

Binyomin may be right that smoking is one of the few outlets to release pressure for yeshiva bochurim. But bochurim are not the only ones under pressure. Nor does pressure magically abate after marriage. Young women, who may be dealing with thirty energetic kinderlach by day and hearing non-stop about the shidduch crisis at night, are not without pressures. Yet how would a young woman who felt the need to occasionally blow off a little smoke – just before marriage, of course – fare on the shidduch market?

For those yeshiva bochurim who need a release from the tensions of intense learning, the hypothetical Rosenblum daughters will still be available for those who need to occasionally play basketball, jog, swim, or just go for a walk (the latter two of which were common activities among European yeshiva bochurim) to relax from the pressures of learning.

In conclusion, I write not to hurt the shidduch prospects of bochurim who smoke, but to offer them a she’lo lishma incentive to give up a self-destructive habit. I’m pretty sure the girls agree with me on this one.

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24 Responses

  1. Esther says:

    “The goy says it’s not healthy to smoke, what does the goy know?”

    I just love the way every flaw in frum Jews is ascribed to frumkeit, instead of the other way around. Has R’ Rosenbloom, or anyone here for that matter, ever hear this silly reason from any bochur, or perhaps read it in their thoughts? My community is far to the right of Lakewood, yet medical opinion is respected as if it was min Har Sinai. I’ll bet the smokers are trying to imitate Marlboro Man (or those who are trying to imitate Marlboro Man) much rather than the gedolim who smoked.

  2. tzippi says:

    To Lazer A: re the hypothetical situation of your last paragraph, I would be very, very curious as to why this young man started smoking.
    And I really can’t compare this to obesity. Obese people (especially if the young man has a personal chef in the form of a wife who will try to improve on the dorm/take-out diet of his last few years) can much more easily lose and keep off weight and develop healthful habits than a smoker can stop smoking. Assuming the will is there. If an obese person has absolutely no interest in trying to incorporate some healthful habits into his life – not talking total makeover here – then yes, that would be a red flag too.

  3. cvmay says:

    LAZAR, “likewise, there is no question that smoking is indicative of a flaw in middos.”

    Let it be known that I do not smoke, approve or encourage smoking. YET ‘smoking is indicative of a FLAW in MIDDOS’ – according to who? and when was this decided? Look at photos from the mid 1900’s at European Agudah Conventions where the trail of smoke fills the room. The agreement seems to be, when smoking was determined to be a health hazard then those who started or continued show a tragic flaw in middos. Is that the same flaw as the cell phone users and text message senders? or the non seat belt wearers when driving?

  4. LazerA says:

    First let me state that I agree with R’ Yonasan on several matters. We certainly must do more to discourage smoking by our children and students. Smoking is an unhealthy and unpleasant habit which, in my opinion, has almost no redeeming qualities. The argument that it provides a release from the pressure of yeshiva life (a real concern) is, in my opinion, absurd. (I say this as a man who smoked for a few years as a bochur, quitting (once!) when I got engaged.)

    I agree with R’ Yonason that smoking is, indeed, an indication of a real character flaw on the part of the young men who engage in it.

    Nevertheless, I strongly disagree with R’ Yonasan’s conclusion that young women should “automatically dismiss” any bochur who smokes. R’ Yonason bases this conclusion on two arguments:

    A: “Smoking Kills” – Specifically, that we should be as concerned about smoking as we are about any other health issue in a shidduch.

    B: Smoking is an indication of imperfect middos.

    Now let us consider each of these arguments:

    A: Should we, in fact, automatically reject any shidduch where the possibility of a future health problem exists? Smoking is certainly unhealthy. So is overeating and a wide range of lifestyle issues. Do we automatically reject every bochur with a sweet tooth, a weight problem, or a tendency to over eat or to eat unhealthily?

    According to a recent NYT article, childhood obesity DOUBLES the likelihood that a person will die prematurely (before 55). Do we automatically reject all the fat kids?

    Similarly, there are a wide range of genetic predispositions for severe illness and early death. As hard as it may be to drop the smoking habit, it is simply impossible to drop one’s genetic background. So, are we to automatically rule out anyone with a family background of serious illness?

    Finally, what do we do with the wide range of risks that arise from occupational choices. Sedentary occupations, in particular, carry very significant increased risk for serious health issues. So, do we automatically reject all of the young accountants, computer programmers, etc. (not to mention kollel yungerleit and mechanchim)?

    The fact is that health risks are ubiquitous. We all accept certain health risks in our lives, and in the lives of our loved ones, because the alternative is obsessive risk avoidance. The fact that we obsess over the health risks associated with smoking over all the other health risks we face in our daily lives is more indicative of our (justified) disapproval of smoking as an activity in of itself, than it is of a real concern over health.

    B: Middos. There is no question that middos is the crucial issue we need to look at when considering a shidduch. And, likewise, there is no question that smoking is indicative of a flaw in middos. So, does this mean that we automatically reject every bochur who demonstrates a flaw in middos? Clearly not.

    The fact is that, with the exception of extreme cases (e.g. a tendency towards violence), no single character flaw can be considered in isolation. Everyone has bad middos to some degree. Are we really ready to automatically reject every bochur who has a tendency to:

    * speak loshon hara
    * oversleep and miss davening
    * waste time
    * shmooze during seder
    * be overly combative
    * avoid confrontation when necessary
    * look down on people
    * rush to judgement
    * speak harshly
    * lose patience with others
    * have a messy room
    * be slovenly in appearance
    * look at or read materials he shouldn’t
    * be stingy
    * be wasteful
    * be excessively interested in other people’s approval
    * be excessively interested in physical pleasure
    * and so on

    If you say that you would, indeed, automatically reject a bochur with any of these flaws (and they are all serious flaws), then you are essentially saying that you will automatically reject any bochur who is not your idea of an “idealized ben Torah” and you are probably setting your daughter up for a very bad situation.

    The truth is that very few bochurim are free of all serious character flaws, and the same thing is true for our young women (as it is for the entire human race). The trick is to find the right match for our flaws.

    Does this mean that we should ignore character flaws, such a smoking? No. It means that we need to look at the whole picture and we need to look honestly at our daughters and ask ourselves what kind of man is the right match for her. If the only answer we can come up is the “idealized ben Torah”, then we are probably fooling ourselves and hurting our daughters.

    Sof davar, if your daughter has been dating an intelligent, hard-working, good-natured, well-liked bochur, who is respected by his peers and his rebbeim, and she finds him attractive and he finds her attractive – you would be a fool to reject him for no reason other than that he smokes.

  5. cvmay says:

    On a personal level, can not figure out the toelles of this entire article/post.

    Some bochurim smoke while the majority do not. There is not a sole reason why a teen begins smoking — there are many; peer pressure, boredom, impulsivity, modeling parents or friends and a dozens more. An outlet for intensive learning stress & pressure quite doubtful that cigarettes was the solution. Life is a pressure cooker, we all find tactics to lessen the daily stress, some solutions are healthier, cheaper, and more creative than others.
    SO WHAT? Remember the ole statement of ‘Different strokes for different folks’…….

  6. Ori says:

    Aaron: The issue isn’t just about health… it’s about encroaching nanny-state attitudes.

    Ori: What does Shmittah have to do with Mt. Sinai? We’re not talking here about anything done by a government. A young woman has the right to allow her parents to vet her marriage decisions. The parents, having been asked to help make that decision, have the right to adopt their own criteria.

  7. Aaron says:

    Traffic fumes from living in a major city are as bad or worse than living in a suburb and having a few cigarettes a day. I’d love to see the frum world wean itself from urban filth.

    I don’t smoke… cigarettes. I enjoy a cigar on occasion, below a threshold that life insurance companies don’t even care.

    The issue isn’t just about health… it’s about encroaching nanny-state attitudes.

    There ARE people (not in MY political party) who’d raise taxes substantially on your single malt scotch, high-fat kosher pizza, deli sandwich, kosher salted meat… of course exempting themselves from the standards they’d impose on others.

  8. Fred says:

    I have two comments: The first is that it seems to me that this should be up to
    the young lady in question. If she needs her parents to make these sorts of decisions
    for her, she isnt mature enough to get married.

    The second is that why is it that no one speaks here about women who smoke?
    The assumption is that only men do. This is not so. Would you uhm, “let” your son
    go out with a woman who smokes or this is only a problem for your daughters?

  9. rak says:

    “(A wife is unlikely to know whether her husband is the biggest lamdan in his kollel or only the second best, but she will soon learn whether he has a bad temper.)”

    why do people say this? Exactly why do you think women are too stupid to figure this out? Do you think learning skills don’t show up in regular conversation and that women have no idea what’s entailed?

  10. rachel w says:

    Yes, in my circles, when the girl is still relatively young, the shidduch and seeking information are done by the parents. (And, yes, we do ask information about every shidduch before considering it.) Obviously, drinking wine for Kiddush is not a problem. I wouldn’t even go so far as asking how drunk a Bachur gets on Purim-plenty oof wonderful ones do. As long as it doesn’t stretch to the rest of the year.

  11. David says:

    “I would NOT let my daughter date a young man who drinks”

    How do you define “drinks”?
    You mean someone who drinks any alchohol ever? We are not Muslims. Most frum Jewish men are not tee-totallers.

  12. Fred says:

    I am intrigued that, in your world, you control who your daughter dates. Really?
    (I told my kid to stay away from Kollel types. Did she listen? Nope….) Must
    be nice to control your kid like that.

  13. tzippi says:

    Correction: the last paragraph should have read that the kids “are intelligent enough to…still use them as role models,” NOT chalila not use them as role models in every other way. Just the smoking.

  14. rachel w says:

    I would NOT let my daughter date a young man who drinks. It is something I check out right along with the smoking. Drinking is so NOT cool-it is destructive and can destroy a relationship before it even gets off the ground.

  15. Arnie Lustiger says:

    My daughter in seminary heard the same Shmuess by her macheneches as Binyomin gave her date. I was initially very upset, but then realized that just like Yosef Hoffer, I had veto power over my daughter’s dates. I am embarrassed to admit that I also read “Whispers in the Wind”.

  16. Yeshivishe Liberal says:

    A little off-topic, but it had got me thinking:

    “That image does not go well with the trace of a smarter-than-everyone-else attitude in smoking despite the known dangers: ‘The goy says it’s not healthy to smoke, what does the goy know?'”

    This is what frustrates me about this attitude towards scientists and professionals, and sometimes against those with different political views. Can we accept that some people have studied a subject more than us and might have better insight? I remember a Rebbe of mine making fun of scientists, comparing them to weathermen who often made wrong predictions. But even weather isn’t (anymore) mere soothsaying. There is a chochmah behind it. We can accept the medical doctors have a level of expertise, but why not from other disciplines? Would we advocate going to a mediocre doctor? Then why state that we know more than economists or scientists?

    If you ask me, anti-elitism in the chareidi world and throughout the country has chipped away at how we look at our leaders. If you doubt that a “goy” can achieve a deeper level of knowledge and understanding, then it’s not too far an argument to say that about the gedolim, too.

  17. Ori says:

    The habit must be put in perspective, he explains: It is one of the few outlets that bochurim have for dealing with the extreme pressure of intense learning.

    If the pressure of intense learning is so extreme it is literally causing them health problems (smoking, drinking, obesity, etc.) doesn’t it mean it is too intense?

  18. tzippi says:

    I understand those like JO who feel that smoking (and I’m going to lump drinking with this) are not the only destructive behaviors. But there is a qualitative difference between destructive, reckless, addictive behaviors, and, for example, poor diet.

    But I think the point of the article isn’t smoking per se as much as the rationale behind it. How did we get to a point where this could be at all acceptable? Why are other outlets not kosher or consigned to the nebach boys who need such outlets as music, shop, etc.? (A generation ago some of the top boys in Lakewood spent their Friday afternoons performing for nursing home residents.) Why do we accept such hubris? Why has the anti-smoking curricula that many middle schools have fail so dismally?

    (Side note:I think our kids are intelligent enough to see older rabbeim who smoke and not use them as role models, AND still maintain their respect for them. If they do use them as role models, let them first strive to emulate every other aspect of their lives, including the kind of dedication that got them to the gadlus they have. Such a campaign will have to somehow be carried out in a way that will not impact the honor these rabbeim, etc. still deserve.)

  19. Shua Cohen says:

    > Jewish Observer wrote: “statistically it’s not THAT significant compared to…other potential threats to a marriage”

    >> A simple Google search reveals that almost half-a-million Americans die from smoking related diseases (particularly the top two killers, heart disease and cancer) each year. So, “death” to you is not a significant threat to the prospect of a long term marriage?

    > “balance your pet health concern against all others; balance health concerns in general against ALL factors relevant to a happy life.”

    >> Right. A woman should balance between the “satisfaction” her potential husband gets from smoking, versus the “joys” of widowhood and children/grandchildren prematurely losing their tatties/zaidies.

    > “Something to note: the author would have excluded from his shidduch list such physically enduring luminaries as Rav Shach, Reb Yakov, and many many others.”

    >> Oh, please. They were of a different generation who started smoking long before it was recognized as a notorious health hazard and ultimately, a killer.

    In this day and age, any bachur who smokes — and refuses treatment to kick the habit — should be reciprocally kicked out of Yeshiva, no less than if he were a mechallel Shabbos.

  20. L. Oberstein says:

    When I see bochurim smoking here it is usually Israelis. Very few bochurim in Baltimore smoke. It is not socially acceptable. I wish drinking were also not socially acceptable. How strict would you be with a boy if he sat at the Shabbos table drinking wine all through the meal and had a few beers and then some whiskey for Kiddush a few times with various friends and groupings before lunch. That is much more typical nowadays than smoking. At weddings one sees bochurim drinking too much and it has gotten to the point where several shuls do not allow alcohol even for kiddush. Smoking is ugly and low class, drinking is cool. Why?

  21. Orthonomics says:

    No smokers for us either. It is a disgusting addiction and we’d prefer suitors who are not addicted to any of the above. This is an easy addiction to test. If the bochurim can give up their smoking so easily, let them do so before they date.

  22. Jewish Observer says:

    Here’s my problem with the spirit of the article:

    True, smoking is not good for you. But statistically it’s not THAT significant compared to, for example, other potenteial threats to a marriage, such as:

    – Sh’lom bayit
    – Poverty and squalor
    – All the other potential health issues combined, incuding: obesity, alchololism, anxiety, high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, etc.
    – infertility
    – etc., etc.

    The danger of becoming too worked up about any one issue is, as the author alluded to regarding genetics, that it can cause us to think we have solved the problem, without realizing that:

    – the problem we solved is still statistically insignificant compared to the portfolio of other potential eventualities
    – it is beyond human capacity to engineer the perfect shidduch, life, etc. This is in g-d’s province.

    I’m not saying not to look for good traits and health patterns in a shidduch. Rather, just:

    1. balance your pet health concern against all others
    2. balance health concerns in general against ALL factors relevant to a happy life

    Something to note: the author would have excluded from his shidduch list such physically enduring luminaries as Rav Shach, Reb Yakov, and many many others. Seems a bit imbalanced a crierion.

    Love,

    JO

  23. joel rich says:

    Look at the stastics on obesity and consider adding that to your “no fly” list
    KT

  24. Menachem Lipkin says:

    It is one of the few outlets that bochurim have for dealing with the extreme pressure of intense learning.

    Isn’t it a tad ironic that going to a baseball game in Lakewood is “treif”, yet engaging in a behavior that is both suicidal and injurious to innocents is an “outlet”. Maybe there’s a problem with the prioritization of their “outlets”?