Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Tobacco and the Hasidim and a Comment on Artscroll

Pursuing the Quest: Selected Writings of Louis Jacobs has just appeared. The Seforim Blog is happy to present the following excerpts from the book. (The Note on Artscroll is part of a longer article.)

Tobacco and the Hasidim and a Comment on Artscroll
Louis Jacobs

References in literature to the use of tobacco by hasidic Jews are numerous [1]. Although there is little direct evidence to indicate how widespread it was, the references suggest it was fairly extensive. Let us examine some of these. In his autobiography Solomon Maimon (d. 1800) describes a youthful visit to the court of Dov Ber of Mezhirech, the founder of the hasidic movement. Maimon remarks:
'Some simple men of this sect, who saunter about idly the entire day, pipe in mouth, when asked what they were thinking about, replied, "We are thinking about God".' [2]

There is no reason to doubt the accuracy of Maimon's report, which is substantiated by other early sources. 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 scepticism 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.

One characteristic example in an anti-hasidic polemic is the statement in Zemir aritzim veharvot terurim (published in Alexnitz near Brody in 1772). This work criticizes the hasidim for delaying their prayers in the morning so that they can 'place incense in their nostrils'. [7] In a letter written from Vilna in 1772, the mitnagedim say of hasidim: 'They wait many hours before reciting their prayers . . . and they spend all their days in the smoke which proceeds from their mouth.' [8] In all these early sources smoking as an aid to prayer does not have any special hasidic significance: it is only a means to contemplation. This is probably also true for the hasidic tradition, [9] which holds: 'When the Baal Shem Tov wished to proceed to the upper worlds he would inhale tobacco and at each puff he would proceed from world to world.' [10]

There do not seem to be any references to tobacco in the classical hasidic works of doctrine, the hasidic Torah. Their absence from these sources may be because aids to contemplation (such as tobacco) were considered irrelevant to the ideal itself, although contemplation was clearly important in hasidic thought. Rabbi Phinehas of Koretz (Korzec) (1725-91), an associate of the Baal Shem Tov, reportedly observed:

With regard to imbibing tobacco, anything the body requires for it to be healthy is the same for all men. Therefore, since not everyone imbibes tobacco, it follows that it is not a permanent feature in creation, but only has healing powers for some. It has no healing power, and can do harm, to the majority of men, since it dries up the [bodily] fluid. [11]

Similarly, another reliable source records that Jacob Isaac Horowitz, the Seer of Lublin (1745-1825), used to take snuff during his prayers as an aid to concentration [12] It was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that various mystical and specifically hasidic ideas were imputed to smoking tobacco. While the mitnagedim state that hasidim 'place incense in their nostrils', the reference to this is no more than an extrapolation on the verse 'They shall put incense before Thee' (Deut. 33: 10). It is not itself conclusive evidence that early hasidim associated smoking with offering incense in the Temple. [13] In Sperling's Ta'amei haminhagim (a very late work), [14] however, we find that the disciples of the Baal Shem Tov believe that 'the weed known as tobacco is considered by the zaddikim to be like incense'. Moreover, following from the mystical idea of 'raising the sparks' that had fallen to the realms of the demonic powers [15] smoking was thought to be necessary to elevate the very subtle sparks that reside in tobacco. Unlike the sparks in food, which can be elevated when someone who is in a spirit of holiness eats the food [16] tobacco sparks cannot rise that way. Those subtle sparks can only be rescued for the holy by smoking or taking snuff.

A passage from the Talmud (Keritot 6a) states that a minute quantity of 'smoke-raiser' (a herb that causes smoke from the incense to rise) was added to the incense in the Temple. This passage is interpreted to mean that smoking tobacco raises the very small holy sparks which cannot be raised any other way. Sperling also refers to the healing properties of tobacco, which he calls segulah, a quasi-magical method. [17] If a woman finds it difficult to give birth, she should be given a pinch of snuff and this will help ease the birth. Nevertheless, Sperling was unable to discover a single reference to tobacco in classical hasidic works.

Rabbi Abraham Judah Schwartz (1827-83), a prominent non-hasidic Hungarian rabbi, was eventually won over to Hasidism. In the biography written by Dov Beer Spitzer (Schwartz's grandson), [18] we read:

My grandfather, of blessed memory, used to smoke tobacco (including cigars) to the extent that, occasionally, when he was engrossed in his studies and also when he taught his pupils in the beit midrash, it was as if he stood in the midst of a cloud so that it was impossible to come near to him. His son Naphtali Hakohen, of blessed memory, repeated in his name that the zaddikim intend great tikunim [19] and have the following in mind. [20] The pipe is made of clay, which is a mineral. The wood stem represents the plant. The bone mouthpiece comes from an animal. The smoker is a speaking creature [medaber, a human being, and fourth among the categories of mineral, plant, animal, and human] and he elevates all the stages beneath him (mineral, plant, and animal) to the stage of the speaking creature. For the zaddikim never carry out any empty act, Heaven forbid, but have their hearts concentrated on Heaven.

It is also reported that Rabbi Henikh of Olesko (1800-84), son-in-law of Rabbi Shalom Roke'ah of Belz (1779-1855), would take his snuff-box in his hand and inhale the snuff on Friday nights when he recited 'Kegavna', the kabbalistic prayer. [21] He would sing certain tones as he inhaled, and if any people were present who were ill or possessed by a dybbuk, a wandering soul which enters the body of a human being as a refuge from the demons which pursue it, they would begin to dance and move while the rabbi inhaled the snuff [22]. Those close to him realized that it was an especially propitious time. Further, Rabbi Eliezer Zevi of Komarno (d. 1898) was reported to have said that the letters of the word tabak have the same numerical value (112) as those of the word yabok, which stands for yihud, berakhah, kedushah ('unification', 'blessing`, and 'holiness') and also ya'anenu beyom korenu ('He will answer us on the day we call'). [23] Thus, he believed that tobacco helped the zaddik to achieve union, bestow blessings on his followers, and raise himself to greater heights of holiness, as well as predispose God to answer his prayers.

Although the hasidic master Rabbi Solomon Shapira (1832-93) is reported to have smoked only at the close of Simhat Torah, on Purim, and on Shushan Purim, [24] on those occasions he would smoke heavily. In his later years he was also reported to have smoked at the festive meal to celebrate the completion of a talmudic tractate and during Hanukah. At the celebratory meal following a circumcision he was also known to have smoked. Besides the reports of smoking on religious holy days, when Shapira was under severe stress he would smoke cigars in moderation to calm him and keep him from having a nervous breakdown. On the other hand, he was known to have smoked heavily when he travelled: on those occasions he never took a book with him to read and would seldom speak. As he smoked he appeared to be lost in contemplation.

A hasid who knew that Shapira had smoked heavily in his youth once asked him why he gave up the habit when he grew older. The hasid added that since Rabbi Hayim Halberstam of Sanz (1793-1876) used to smoke very heavily, he wondered why Shapira did not follow his example. [25] Shapira replied that Halberstam was reputed to have been 'one of the serafim' (Isaiah 6: 6); he was a seraf (fiery angel) and none could match him. But the real reason for giving up smoking, Shapira said, was that it wasted time; it was better to achieve union through study of the Torah and follow its precepts, engaging in practices essential for bodily strength rather than in luxuries like smoking, which one can live without.

There is a tendency among hasidic masters and hasidim generally to minimize the importance of smoking. In Rahamei ha'av, [26] a short work that first appeared in Lvov in 1868, the author, Jacob Klein (d. 1890), states that young men should not smoke cigars because such a practice is only vanity. [27] Klein also refers to the suggestion 'in the holy books of the disciples of the Baal Shem Tov' that tobacco is like incense, even though that motif cannot be found in the classical hasidic works. He adds that although Rabbi Shalom Roke'ah of Belz used to smoke as a young man, he gave it up when he noticed that a colleague in the beit midrash spent a great deal of time cleaning his pipe, while he (Shalom) could study an entire page of Talmud in the time his colleague took to clean his pipe. Klein also reports that the hasidic master Rabbi Moses ben Zvi Teitelbaum of Ujhely (1759-1841) never smoked.

Rabbi Israel of Ruzhin (1797-1850) was known to have been a heavy smoker. [28] When Rabbi Moses ben Israel Polier of Kobrin visited the rebbe of Ruzhin on the eve of the Sabbath, he found him with a pipe in his hand in a smoke-filled room. Noticing his guest's surprise, the rebbe of Ruzhin told the following story. A pious Jew lost his way just as the Sabbath was about to begin. Seeing a house in front of him, he went inside. To his alarm he saw there a notorious bandit sitting at a table upon which there rested a frightening blunderbuss. The man thought: if I try to run away, the bandit will shoot me in the back, but if I stay here he will probably kill me. The only way out seemed to be to seize the gun and fire at the bandit. If I succeed in killing him, he thought, well and good. But, even if I miss, the room will be filled with smoke and I will be able to escape in the confusion. Then the rebbe of Ruzhin laid his pipe aside and said: now it is the Sabbath. Thus, for the rebbe of Ruzhin the pipe was a smoke-screen against the blandishments of the yetzer hara (the evil inclination). Smoking is a diversion, a risky indulgence through which the zaddik can gain the upper hand over his enemy, the yetzer hara.

The early hasidim undoubtedly used tobacco as an aid to concentration; their smoking was only unusual in the amount of time they allotted for it. Although tobacco was brought to Europe from the New World, where it had been used as part of the American Indian religious ceremonies, [29] the hasidim (and Western smokers in general) did not use it in this sense. Rather, the early hasidim smoked tobacco as an aid to concentration. It was only much later that the incense motif and the idea of raising holy sparks were introduced. Zaddikim such as Hayim Halberstam of Sanz and Rabbi Israel of Ruzhin were heavy smokers, while others such as Rabbi Shalom Roke'ah of Belz and Rabbi Moses ben Zvi Teitelbaum either gave up smoking or had never smoked at all.

Today, despite the acknowledged health dangers of smoking, there is no evidence that the hasidim have given up the habit, and it is too early to say if they will (a speculation equally valid for those who are not hasidim). In any event, smoking tobacco was always peripheral for the hasidim; in the hasidic literature it had no special significance.

A Note on Artscroll’s Commentary to Psalms ch. 137

On verse 1: “By the rivers of Babylon”, the Artscroll refers to the Midrash Pesikta Rabbati (28) where R. Johanan says that the Jewish people, accustomed to the pure water of their homeland, were now forced to drink the insanitary waters of the Euphrates from which many of them died. Here again the Artscroll fails to see the historical background to R. Johanan’s saying. To anyone with an historical sense it is obvious that R. Johanan, a Palestinian, was reading homiletically into the Biblical text the superiority, even in matters of health, of the Holy Land over Babylonia, the land of the rival Babylonian Rabbis. There are numerous instances of the Rabbis applying the Biblical texts to conditions of their own day. R. Johanan’s comment tells the historian nothing about what the Psalmist meant by “the rivers of Babylon” but everything about R. Johanan’s views, in the third century CE, regarding the desirability for Jews not to leave the Holy Land to reside in the apparently more salubrious Babylonia. It is not so, declares R. Johanan, the Holy Land is superior not only with regard to the study of the Torah but also with regard to its health-giving properties. R. Johanan’s comment has its place in a study of third-century Jewry. It has no place at all in a commentary to the Bible.


1. On the halakhic problems connected with smoking, see I. Z. Kahana, 'Hatabak besifrut hahalakhah', in his Mehkarim besifrut hahalakhah (Jerusalem, 1973). The earliest discussion of these questions is found in the works of the Turkish rabbi Hayim Benveniste (1603-73), and Mordecai Halevy (d. 1684), who was dayan and a halakhic authority in Cairo for more than forty years. They discuss the issue as part of their treatment of the Turkish narghile, or hookah, in which the smoke passes through water, hence the expression (later used for smoking a pipe and taking snuff) 'drinking titon' (the Turkish (and Polish) name for tobacco).
2. See Gershon David Hundert (ed.), Essential Papers an Hasidism: Origins to the Present (New York, 1991), which contains an Eng. trans. of Maimon's account, pp. 11-24. The reference to the pipe-smoker is on p. 17.
3. On this discussion, see the less than adequate Eng. trans. of the Shivhei Habesht in In Praise of the Baal Shem, trans. Dan Ben-Amos and Jerome R. Mintz (Bloomington, Ind., l970).
4. Ibid. where the Persian word is transliterated incorrectly as lolkeh. On p. xxvi, puzzled by the reference to 'one lulke' in the story related on p. 105 (no. 80), Mintz interprets lulke to mean 'a hand-rolled cigarette'. The lulke is really a pipe with a long stem-a churchwarden's pipe-and 'one lulke' simply stands for a single pipeful or a single turn at the pipe. See ibid., index, s.v. lolkeh for a list of all references to the pipe of the Besht and others.
5. Murray J. Rosman, 'Miedzyboz and Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov', in Hundert (ed.), Essential Papers on Hasidism.
6. Yaffa Eliach, 'The Russian Dissenting Sects and their Influence on Israel Baal Shem, Founder of Hasidism', Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research, 36 (1968), 57-88, suggests that the Baal Shem Tov's lulke was a kind of tube filled with a far less innocent substance than tobacco (pp. 80-1). There is no foundation for implying that the Baal Shem Tov took drugs.
7. Mordecai Wilensky, Hasidim umitnagedim (Jerusalem, 1970), i. 54. In the first letter quoted in Joseph Perl's Megaleh temirin (Vienna, 1819), 3a, an imaginary hasid tells how he handed the zaddik his lulke but did not have the merit to light it for him.
8. Wilensky, Hasidim umitnagedim, i. 36-9. Cf. Wilensky's index, s.v. ishun bemikteret, and his note on hasidim and smoking on p. 39 n. 20.
9. Simeon Ze'ev of Meyenchov, 'Doresh Tov', in Sefarim hakedoshim mikol talmidei habesht hakadosh, i (Brooklyn, 1980), no. 17, p. 111.
10. On the ascent of the Baal Shem Tov's soul, see the letter at the end of Jacob Joseph of Polonoye, Ben porat yosef (Korzec, 1871). There is a translation of this in Louis Jacobs, Jewish Mystical Testimonies (New York, 1977), 148-55. There is, however, no mention that the ascent was achieved through smoking a pipe. On the ascent of soul, see Moshe Idel, Hasidism: Between Ecstasy and Magic (Albany, NY, 1995), 104-5.
11. M. Spiegel (ed.), Tosefta lemidrash pinhas (Lvov, 1896), no. 167, p. 16a.
12. Samuel of Shinov (Sieniawa) (ed.), Ramatayim tsofim (Jerusalem, 1970), 51a n. 13.
13. That Jews have not used incense in the synagogue is probably intended to distinguish worship in the synagogue from worship in the Temple. Nevertheless, the later hasidic identification of smoking with incense suggests that some hasidim did see smoking as similar to the incense of the Temple. I knew a hasidic rabbi who would regularly smoke a Turkish cigarette before reciting the afternoon prayer, in which in hasidic practice the biblical and talmudic passages about incense are recited.
14. Abraham Isaac Sperling (ed.), Ta'amei haminhagim umekorei hadinim (Jerusalem, n.d.), 102. Cf. Aaron Wertheim, Halakhot vehalikhot behasidut (Jerusalem, 1960), 224-5. Wertheim, like Sperling, can produce only very few references to smoking among hasidim.
15. On the Lurianic doctrine of the sacred sparks, see I. Tishby, Torat hara vehakelipah bekabalat ha'ari (Jerusalem, 1965).
16. Louis Jacobs, 'Eating as an Act of Worship in Hasidic Thought', in Siegfried Stein and Raphael Loewe (eds.), Studies in Jewish Religious and Intellectual History Presented to Alexander Altmann (Tuscaloosa, Ala., 1979).
17. Sperling (ed.), Ta'amei haminhagim, 581.
18. Eliezer Ehrenreich (ed.), Toledot kol aryeh (2nd edn. Brooklyn, 1976), no. 36, pp. 27-8.
19. As in kabbalistic thought generally, the doctrine of tikun, that human activities have a cosmic effect and can 'put right' the flaws on high, looms large in Hasidism.
20. This is probably the meaning of the expression po'el bedimyono.
21. Zvi Moskovitch, Otzar hasipurim, xiv (Jerusalem, 1955), no. 6, pp. 70-1.
22. See Gershon Winkler, Dybbuk (New York, 1981), on the dybbuk and exorcism.
23. Moskovitch, Otzar hasipurim.
24. Ibid. p. 32, nos. 8 and 9.
25. On Hayim Halberstam as a heavy smoker, see Yosef David Weisbert, Rabenu hakadosh mizantz (Jerusalem, 1976), 197, 211, and Yosef David Weisbert, Otzar hahayim (Jerusalem, 1978), 20. In Isaac Landau's account in Zikaron tov (Piotrkow, 1882), 16-17, no. 17, Isaac of Neskhiv was another hasidic rebbe who smoked in his youth but gave it up later. This account contains a puzzling statement that when Isaac did smoke in his youth he was advised not to use Turkish tobacco by Levi Isaac of Berdichev, possibly because of the association with the Turkish pretender Shabbatai Zvi.
26. (Jerusalem, 1977), no. 11, pp. 8b-9a, under ga'avah.
27. Although the book was first published anonymously, it later became known that the author was Klein, a Hungarian rabbi with hasidic leanings, though not himself a follower of any particular zaddik. The passage is also quoted by Moskovitch, Otzar hasipurim, no. 7, p. 31.
28. Reuben ben Zvi David (ed.), Keneset yisra'el (Warsaw, 1905), 16.
29. See Mircea Eliade (ed.), Encyclopedia of Religion (New York, 1987), s.v. 'smoking', vol. xiii, pp. 365-70, and 'tobacco', vol. xiv, pp. 544-6.

1 comment:

Philip E. Miller said...

What were the sources of tobacco available in Europe during the.late 18th and into the 19th century? Turkey, as mentioned in the article was one source. But the bulk of tobacco in Tsarist Russia (especially in the 19th century) came from eastern Ukraine, where Karaites (of Crimean origin) cultivated it on large estates. Indeed, tobacco processing and cigarette manufacture were very much in the hands of the Karaites. Might this have affected the use of tobacco among Jews in the Russian Empire? Where did the tobacco consumed in the Austro-Hungarian Empire come from? I have no answer(s), merely these thoughts.

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