There have long been questions about the potential health consequences from vaping, or using e-cigarettes. Recent reports of serious lung illness among teens who vape, and in particular reports of at least 5 related deaths, have led to increased debate about the wisdom of vaping. Rabbinic authorities are considering the issue from a halachic point of view. Is vaping an allowed or prohibited behavior according to Jewish law? Much of the discussion has focused on previous decisions regarding cigarette smoking, with most authorities stating that the issues are the same. And most agree that smoking is prohibited as a “safek sakana,” meaning that it is at the very least a possible danger. A more complicated issue is whether a cigarette smoker could switch to vaping as a step towards cessation of all smoking, and on this authorities are still quite divided. There is rabbinic precedent that allows substitution of a less serious halachic violation for a more serious violation, i.e., that vaping, while harmful and generally forbidden, would be acceptable when replacing cigarette smoking, which is more dangerous. Authorities in this debate point to what other example where rabbis might allow a less serious transgression of Jewish law in lieu of a more serious one?
A. Among Conservative rabbis discussing vaping, many reference the Conservative movement’s Law Committee decision in the 1950’s that it is acceptable to drive on Shabbat, but only to and from synagogue, as this minor violation is much preferred to the alternative for many, which would be to skip shul completely (which potentially would lead to other violations such as watching television).
B. The Jewish debate regarding the lesser crime of vaping vs. the greater crime of smoking has been informed by the concept of the Shabbos goy, the non-Jew who was hired to perform tasks for Jews on the Sabbath, such as lighting the fire in the synagogue for heat (before electricity), or more recently, turning on the lights and air-conditioning or heating systems. In fact, it is considered a violation of Jewish law to hire someone else to perform forbidden Sabbath tasks; however, most rabbis agreed that this was a lesser sin than a Jew performing those tasks, which might well happen if those attending synagogue found the conditions simply unbearable.
C. Orthodox rabbis debating the acceptability of vaping in lieu of smoking have referred to a bet din (rabbinical court) under the auspices of the Orthodox Aish HaTorah movement that ruled in the early 1980’s that it is acceptable to use hearing aids on the Sabbath and high holidays. This discussion had begun in regard to the shofar ceremony, where the blessing which is recited states, “Blessed are You… who commanded us to hear the voice of the shofar.” Based on this bracha, the bet din decided that the minor violation of turning battery-operated hearing aids on was the better choice than violating the commandment to hear the shofar, and this decision was extended to allow use of hearing aids on all holidays and the Shabbat.
D. The halachic question regarding substituting vaping for cigarettes has led some rabbis to reference the rules regarding hunting, which was always seen as a violation of Sabbath rules. However, in the 1800’s, rabbis in the Pale of Settlement in Russia ruled during times of great famine that in some cases hunting on the Sabbath was permissible. Specifically, they noted that when Jews were starving, they sometimes found themselves in the position of having to steal food to live and feed their families. The rabbis said that if the person were able to hunt on the Sabbath (an activity that is permissible on other days), this would be a better alternative to stealing food, an activity that is always a violation, as clearly delineated in the 8th commandment.
E. Rabbis discussing vaping noted that in the middle ages, many authorities argued that in order to prevent men from having affairs with a married woman, a major transgression, it would be acceptable to establish brothels staffed by single Jewish women, as sex with a single woman was a lesser sin.