click here to jump to start of article
  • Torah Reading: Naso
Join Our Newsletter

Get latest articles and videos with Jewish inspiration and insights​

The Jewish Ethicist - Addiction: An Obstacle Before the Blind

The Jewish Ethicist - Addiction: An Obstacle Before the Blind

I'm helping an alcoholic support her habit


Q.I run errands for neighbors for a living. One neighbor sends me to the liquor store. Since she's an alcoholic I'd like to stop, but I know she will just find another errand boy. What should I do?

A. Addiction is a major source of concern, and contemporary rabbis have found a number of profound ways of understanding it in the light of Jewish tradition. In this column I will outline and apply one approach, and next week an additional, complementary view.

All agree that we have an obligation to help keep others from destructive and self-destructive behavior, including harmful addictions such as alcoholism. Jewish tradition asserts that we are merely caretakers of our bodies, not their owners, and therefore we are obligated to give them proper care and maintenance so that they can fulfill their appointed task of carrying out God's revealed will. A famous story tells how Hillel the Elder, one of the greatest sages in Jewish history, considered proper care of the body to be a great mitzvah (commandment):

All your actions should be for the sake of Heaven, like Hillel. Once Hillel was going about, they asked him, "Where are you going?" [He replied:] "I'm going to do a mitzvah". "What mitzvah, Hillel?" "I'm going to the bathroom". "What, is that a mitzvah?" He said to them, "Yes, to keep the body from ruin". [Another time they asked:] "Where are you going, Hillel?" "I'm going to do a mitzvah". "What mitzvah, Hillel?" "I'm going to the bath house". "What, is that a mitzvah?" He said "Yes, to clean the body. I will prove it, for even the statues of kings in the public square, the caretaker gets a salary and admiration for keeping them clean. We, who are created in the image and the likeness [of the Almighty], as it is written 'For in the image of God He made man (Gen. 9:6), so much the more'." (1)

The Torah commands us, "Don't place a stumbling block before the blind" (Leviticus 19:14). Our tradition is that this verse forbids encouraging or enabling someone to act improperly. The example the Talmud provides is extending a glass of wine to a Nazirite, someone who has sworn not to drink wine. (2) (See Numbers, chapter 6.) The truth is that this example itself hints at a connection to addiction, because the vow of a Nazirite is not an ordinary one. Many commentaries explain that this vow is appropriate for someone who loses control of his behavior when he drinks. Rashi explains that grammatical root of the word "nazir" is a word meaning "abstention". So the prohibition to encourage someone's addiction is not just "one more" example of the general rule against enabling impropriety, rather it is closely related to the example chosen by the Talmud.

However, this Torah prohibition is limited to someone who actually enables the wrongdoing. The Talmud gives the example of a Nazir who is on one side of the river where there is no wine, and someone from across the river extends him a cup. But if there are plenty of other people who would give the Nazir a cup of wine if you did not, you would not be guilty of this transgression.

An additional consideration here is that an addiction is a syndrome. The "obstacle" is not a single cup of wine or a single pill, etc. but rather the overall phenomenon. I'm not an expert in addiction treatments, but to the best of my knowledge some therapies involve immediate cessation of the behavior ("cold turkey") while others involve gradually diminishing the dose. So it is not appropriate to view each individual drink as a separate transgression you are abetting.

According to your letter, you are not enabling this woman to keep up her habit since she can find other individuals to buy liquor. If it is no more difficult for her to use others, then you are not actually providing an "obstacle to the blind". Your question should be: To what extent can you make a constructive contribution to helping this woman with her problem? Jewish law and tradition would take a practical and not an ideological approach. A blanket prohibition, without limiting availability of substitutes, will not accomplish much.

It may be that your best contribution is indeed to stop working for her. If your service is worth a lot to her and having to work through someone else is giving her second thoughts about drinking, then your refusal to deliver drinks will tend to reduce her dependence on drink.

Conversely, it may be that your best contribution would be to continue working for this neighbor. It's not a good feeling to be delivering liquor to an alcoholic, but perhaps your ongoing connection will enable you to influence her purchases, encouraging her perhaps to buy fewer drinks or beverages with less alcohol in them.

Given every person's obligation to take good care of the Divine form expressed in our bodies, it is certainly an ethical obligation to avoid destructive addictions and to help others do so. However, an unyielding refusal to run errands to the liquor store may not be the best way of achieving this goal. What you need to do is to make a realistic evaluation whether such a refusal will be a constructive step in helping your customer overcome her abuse problem. Discussing the issue with a professional with expertise in understanding addiction will help you make the right decision.

SOURCES: (1) Avot deRabbi Natan chapter 30. (2) Babylonian Talmud Avodah Zarah 6b

The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

January 27, 2007

Give Tzedakah! Help create inspiring
articles, videos and blogs featuring timeless Jewish wisdom.
The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 3

(3) David Lee Vail, B.S.S.W/MDiv, October 24, 2013 11:30 PM

I appreciate the wisdom given by Rabbi Dr Asher Meir just as he presented it.

I think Rabbi Dr Asher Meir's article contains some the deepest theological thought I've seen on the subject. I've sent a lifetime working with delinquent Youth, a tremendous number who struggled with chemical abuse, and spent a great deal of time in various recovery programs due to their abuse. Although I prefer the 12-Step approach in learning to overcome the abuse, and the addiction. BUT, I don't think the Rabbi should be addressed,....or, rather "dressed down" as if his approach is incorrect, & invalid because he is not a "certified" drug/ alcohol counselor. Most I knew were recovering addicts themselves p,...and, trained in the Addiction is a Disease Model of Instruction. That model is accepted by many,....but, it is only one model of a Treatment Approach to Addiction. Another model is the Biblically-based "Addiction is a Sin"-approach. After working with people with addictive behaviors, including chemical abuse,...I STILL cannot tell you which approach I profess. And, I think that is because I see value in BOTH approaches, and, I have seen people CHANGED, and ADDICTIONS BROKEN by EACH of these approaches...when the OTHER had not worked for them. The Rabbi's profound insights were approached from primarily the ETHICAL standpoint,....and, at 63-years old I saw a new and richer ethical approach than I've ever seen before. I applaud the Rabbi on his well presented wisdom. You have helped an old man grow spiritually as I continue to try and bring God's love to those with addictive problems!

(2) moshe mones, August 27, 2009 8:23 PM

Advice on Alcoholism

Dear Rabbi Meir, As a Torah Observant Jew who has been in 12 Recovery for 7 years B'H and works with many newcomers and those who need to become newcomers IH'Y, I must say with all due respect, that it'd be fantastic if you and Aish had someone who truly understands the disease of addictions. Torah does. In fact the 12 steps were taken from Torah in the 1930's and given by righteous gentiles. Please provide a service via someone involved in Recovery for these questions. It has save millions upon millions of lives, including my own. Humbly Moshe Mones

(1) Carl Hokanson, February 15, 2007 2:28 PM

Enabling the alcoholic

I'm afraid I must disagree with Rabbi Meir's interpretation of the mitzvah on this issue. While not a Talmudic scholar by any means, I am a trained and certified addiction counselor (with comparable degrees and a lifetime of experience, btw).

Alcoholism is a progressive and fatal disease. Abetting (enabling) it in any way is, in my opinion, a severe contravention of more than one mitzvah. I realize the difficulty this poses to the deliveryman, but believe he should stop supplying her regardless of her other potential suppliers. One cannot avoid the intent of a mitzvah simply because others could or do. Would Rabbi Meir give the same advice for delivering, say, heroin? I think not.

In attempting to advise the deliveryman, I would first ask him whether the woman acknowledges or denies her alcoholism. This would merely be to determine the degree of diplomacy to be used in confronting her.

The gist of my advice to this man would be to approach her along these lines.

"Ma'am, our Jewish tradition holds that we are merely the caretakers of our bodies. As such, we are forbidden to damage our bodies or to assist others in doing so to theirs. I'm sorry ma'am, but I can't help seeing that you have a progressive and ultimately fatal disease in your consumption of alcohol and simply can't be a party to destroying your life. I realize that you have other choices for your deliveries, but would much prefer that you seek help for this problem. While you may find that you need additional treatment, permit me to suggest that you start with Alcoholics Anonymous, where you will find friendly people who know exactly what you are going through and how difficult - but rewarding - it is to change. Here* is the main phone number for AA in (city). They can advise you of meeting schedules of nearby AA venues. [(Optional) If you like, I'd be happy to take you to your first meeting.] In any case, I do hope you'll understand that I can't continue delivering alcohol to you."

* call the listed number first, describe the problem, and ask if this is the best number for her to call.

Whether or not she accepts his advice is beyond his control, but I believe this is the better alternative for his Jewish life. At worst, he will lose one customer and will have performed a mitzvah.

Submit Your Comment:

  • Display my name?

  • Your email address is kept private. Our editor needs it in case we have a question about your comment.

  • * required field 2000
Submit Comment