I am a long-time cigarette smoker and have recently become more observant of Judaism. Just as we make blessings over food, is there a blessing to be said when smoking?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
The rabbis speak out very strongly against smoking. Since it is so dangerous, it is a violation of the Torah commandment to guard one's health as decreed in Deuteronomy 4:15.
Unfortunately, since smoking is so addictive, for some it is difficult to stop. So while it is clearly forbidden to start, there is a bit more leniency for someone who is already smoking. Though of course all smokers should put in maximum effort to kick the habit.
As for whether to say a blessing, the Mishnah Berurah (210:17) writes: "Regarding those who place tobacco in a pipe and inhale the smoke, Magen Avrahom questions whether this is equivalent to tasting a substance and then spitting it out. The achronim have decided unequivocally not to say a blessing on smoking." The issue is that pleasure for a blessing must be something that is actually consumed, and smoke is not regarded as “consumed.”
It seems also that the fragrance is not considered the pleasure. Aruch HaShulchan (216:4) writes that since the main reason for tobacco is not the fragrance, we do not say a blessing. In fact, the opposite is true; tobacco has a strong and bitter smell. Therefore even if one adds a pleasant fragrance to the tobacco, it is only to cover up the powerful odor – like a bathroom freshener – which one does not say a blessing on.
I once heard someone say facetiously that if any blessing is said, the appropriate text would be "Borei Samei Hamavet" – Who has created potions of death.
Sources: Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe – C.M. 2:76) and Rabbi E. Waldenberg (Tzitz Eliezer 9:33)
What is the significance of the synagogue in Jewish life today? Do you think that the role of the synagogue has changed over the years? What are some of the challenges facing the modern American synagogue? And how are we responding to these challenges?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
The synagogue is important for Jews to gather together and pray to God, as explained in the verse "A multitude of people is a kings glory" (Proverbs 14:28). In other words, when many people gather together for a spiritual purpose it shows respect to God. In fact, Jewish law requires that prayer services be conducted with a "minyan" of 10 adult men.
The synagogue also serves as a central point of community gatherings – such as lifecycle events and Torah study.
The phenomenon of suburbs is a challenge for the modern American synagogue. For many years, Jews lived together in one small neighborhood, and therefore the synagogue was located within walking distance of each home. This is important because there is a Torah prohibition against driving on Shabbat ("You shall light no fire on Shabbat" – Exodus 35:2).
But with the advent of suburbs, people live far apart, and now they are driving to the synagogue rather than staying home. Some argue that this is an appropriate exception to Jewish law (i.e. surely God would approve!). But in fact, a community driving on Shabbat eliminates the necessity to live close together. There is no longer a need for the neighborhood Jewish school, Jewish bakery, Jewish clubs, etc. The experience of growing up in a Jewish community is lost, and children are absorbed into the melting pot of secular society. The result is that the American Jewish community is experiencing massive assimilation and 60 percent intermarriage, with many Jews being lost to the Jewish people forever.
Fortunately, there are many people today dedicated to doing something about it. Aish branches, community kollels and others are forming core communities that attract young people with a warm, open and intellectually stimulating approach. These communities continue to grow and expand, and are now found in virtually every city around the Jewish world.
If you tell me what city you're located in, I'll be happy to recommend a place for you to contact.
Why is Abraham considered the first Jew?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
When he was three years old, Abraham looked around at the world of nature with all its perfection, beauty, symmetry, precision, timing, balance, integration, coordination, unity – and he concluded that for the world to be designed so perfectly, there obviously must be an intelligent designer. It was then that Abraham discovered God.
Noah also knew about God, and his descendants Shem and Ever even had a yeshiva! If so, in what way was Abraham different that he is chosen to start the Jewish people?
What makes Abraham unique is not just that he recognized God, but that he understood the need to go out and share this with others. The Midrash likens spiritual knowledge to a bottle of perfume. If you leave the bottle of perfume corked and sitting in a corner, what good is it? Shem and Ever were like a closed bottle of perfume, off studying in a corner somewhere.
But Abraham went out and taught people about monotheism. He pitched his tent, which was open on all four sides, in the middle of an inter-city highway. He authored a 400-chapter book refuting idolatry. And he endured all types of mockery and persecution for holding beliefs that were, to say the least, politically incorrect. In fact, the Torah calls him "Avraham Ha-Ivri" – Abraham the Hebrew. HA-IVRI translates literally as "the one who stands on the other side." The entire world stood on one side, with Abraham standing firm on the other.
Abraham distinguished himself as being a lover of all humanity. When God sought to destroy the corrupt city of Sodom, Abraham was willing to stand up against God and argue that they should be spared. He cared about everyone and viewed himself not as an individual trying to perfect himself, but as the progenitor of a movement to bring God's existence into perfect clarity.
That is the Jewish legacy – serving as an inspiration and a role model for all humanity.