Thursday, Apr 18, 2024

A Young Avreich and the Cigarette Battle in Israel

On Monday, the Economic Affairs Committee of the Knesset voted to adopt a compromise regarding cigarette advertisements in Israeli newspapers and other media. It is called a “compromise” because the Ministry of Health in general, and Minister of Health Yael German in particular, have been championing a lengthy, draconian legal initiative known as the “Proposed Law for Limiting the Advertising and Marketing of Tobacco Products (Amendment 7) of 5774 – 2013.” The law - or, to be more precise, the amendment to an existing law - includes a lengthy series of bans on advertising and other limitations to be placed on tobacco companies.

For example, cigarette companies would be prohibited from advertising in signs, in printed notices, online, or in newspapers. Advertisements would be permitted only in stores that are intended solely for the sale of cigarettes. Those stores, as well, would be permitted to post signs only inside the store. Furthermore, the law would require cigarette packages to be designed in such a way that the customer will think twice before purchasing the cigarettes. It would be prohibited to display cigarettes in a prominent location in a store, as is done today, and the Ministry of Health would have the authority to decide on the parameters of a “prominent location.”


The law would also prohibit altogether the production and sale of flavored cigarettes, based on the assumption that these products are what primarily cause young people to take up smoking and eventually become addicted. In short, the lives of cigarette manufacturers, and of all the other middlemen who profit considerably from the industry, are about to become much more difficult.


The goal of this law is stated in the law itself: “The purpose of this law is to protect the public health, particularly the health of minors, by creating bans, limitations, and obligations – among other things, prohibiting the advertisement of tobacco products and limiting the activities that tend to increase the initial use of tobacco and smoking products or that make it easier to use them – as well as by providing information to the public, all as a result of the severe, deadly damage to a person’s health that results from the use of tobacco and smoking products.


It is a statement of intent that is both unambiguous and openly fierce.


Could any member of the Knesset oppose such a law, whose intent is solely to save lives? Apparently, someone can. Cigarette manufacturers, as well as the wealthy newspaper magnates, have been shown to be far more powerful than was previously apparent. With the help of top-notch hired lobbyists, who undoubtedly rake in a hefty sum for their services, those parties have succeeded in thwarting the planned legislation.


There is only one person who has attempted to stand up to these powerful lobbyists and newspaper owners: anavreich from New York. Over the past few weeks, this young man has visited the Knesset for every session of the Economic Affairs Committee. He has met with many Knesset members, has attempted to influence party leaders, and has left no course of action untried if it held a glimmer of hope of helping the Health Ministry’s law pass. But this week, it became clear that justice does not always prevail. The law proposed by the Ministry of Health was not passed. Instead, the compromise proposal suggested by the members of the Knesset was approved by a broad majority. That proposal will soon be brought before the Knesset plenum for a final vote. The Ministry of Health was defeated by the media tycoons and, at the same time, Reb Tzvi Hertzig lost his own battle.


– – – – –


About two weeks ago, I was approached by a thin, soft-spoken young gentleman from New York. I was certain that I was facing another Jew who was coming to ask for my help navigating the labyrinthine bureaucracy with which the State of Israel is blessed. But he surprised me by making a strange request: “The Economic Affairs Committee of the Knesset is discussing a law that would ban cigarette advertisements. I would like you to help me convince the chareidi members of the Knesset to vote in favor of this law and to oppose any compromise.”


I said to him, “It’s a shame to waste your energy on this. If the initiative has come from the Ministry of Health, then that means that the entire coalition is obligated to support it. Since every committee in the Knesset is staffed in such a way that the coalition always has a majority, there should be no need to fight for this law. The Ministry of Health will have a majority on its side, just as every minister and every ministry has an automatic majority in the Knesset committees.”


But the man told me I was wrong, and he proceeded to name two members of the coalition who were advocating the compromise and were opposed to the original law.


I still did not believe him. “I won’t presume to teach you Bava Kamma, nor would I try to tell you how to conduct the affairs of the Jewish community in New York,” I said. “As for you, please don’t try to teach me how things work in the Knesset.” He was refined enough that he did not respond. But this week, I saw that I myself had been mistaken. Despite the fact that the proposed law came from the coalition, the majority of the coalition members in the Economic Affairs Committee, including the representatives of the chareidi parties, voted for the compromise.


Reb Tzvi Hertzig was in the Knesset on Monday, as well. He continued trying to fight for the law until the last possible moment, but he failed. I met with him after the debate and learned a little bit more about him. Today, he lives in Yerushalayim. In previous years, he learned in Yeshiva Torah Vodaas and in the Mirrer Yeshiva in New York. During the past few years, he has been learning at Yeshivas Mir in Yerushalayim. He got married just a year ago and he is now an avreich in Yeshivas Mir.


My first question was what impelled him to become involved in this matter.


“Because smoking kills most of the people who smoke,” he said simply. “From a halachic standpoint, there is nothing as valuable as a human life. I see that many yeshiva bochurim think that smoking isn’t so terrible, in halachic terms, and I wanted to raise their awareness.”


He has been involved with the subject for quite a while, and not only in the Knesset. One of his initiatives is an endeavor to publicize the halachic rulings of gedolei Yisroel who have spoken out in opposition to smoking. He makes sure to publicize these rulings in various shuls and, even more, on the bulletin boards of yeshivos. In this way, he has been making yeshiva students and avreichim alike aware of the recent halachic rulings that have been issued against smoking. On more than one occasion, he has even gathered additional piskei halachah from other rabbonim.


For example, he has made a point of raising awareness of a halachic ruling from Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv zt”l. It is not a new p’sak, Rabbi Hertzig points out, nor was it signed by Rav Elyashiv, but a recently published sefer, Shailos Uteshuvos Vayishma Moshe, on the rulings of Rav Elyashiv, by Rav Moshe Fried, a close confidant, discusses Rav Elyashiv’s attitude toward smoking. In that sefer, the author quotes Rav Elyashiv as follows: “I asked if it is halachically permissible to smoke a cigarette nowadays, since it is known with certainty that it causes damage, and he answered that it is forbidden.” Rabbi Hertzig, of course, added this quote to a notice that he distributed containing many rulings against smoking.


He also worked very hard to elicit a clear statement on the subject from Rav Dovid Feinstein. He was aided in his efforts by Rav Dovid’s talmidim, whom he equipped in advance with plenty of scientific research and clear statistics. His efforts resulted in the following quote: “I heard from the rosh yeshiva, Rav Dovid Feinstein shlit”a, that according to the doctors’ statements that almost one out of every three or one out of every two cigarette smokers eventually becomes ill with severe diseases, Rachmana litzlan, it is clear that according to the Igros Moshe (Choshen Mishpat, vol. 2, sec. 76), it is forbidden to rely on the principle that ‘Hashem protects the foolish’ in this situation. It is clear that his father, of blessed memory [i.e., Rav Moshe Feinstein], maintained that one can be lenient on this matter only based on the assumptions of that time, as he himself wrote that the vast majority of smokers are not endangered by it, and ‘only a small minority are in danger of becoming ill.’”


Recently, in the course of his activities, Rabbi Hertzig felt that if he were to solicit a halachic ruling against smoking from the Rishon Letzion, the Sefardic chief rabbi of Israel, Rav Yitzchok Yosef, it would have a major influence on the representative of the Shas party in the Economics Committee of the Knesset. He therefore traveled to Rav Yitzchok Yosef’s neighborhood, where he engaged the rov in conversation after Shacharis. Rav Yitzchok did not require much persuasion; he was enthusiastic and unequivocal in his support. He asked Rabbi Hertzig for a piece of paper, on which he wrote a personal message to the Knesset member: “My good friend, please tell our representatives to do everything possible to prevent advertisements for smoking, which is a terrible thing that causes many diseases, chas veshalom. I have no doubt that you will use the full power of your influence to do this.”


– – – – –


I tried to find out why the chareidi Knesset members voted for the compromise, and I learned that Rav Yaakov Litzman, the previous Minister of Health, in his own time, advanced a proposal similar to the compromise legislation. As a result, he is now remaining faithful to the version of the law that he developed, and the Shas representative followed in his footsteps. Why did the other committee members vote for the compromise? They have explained that they feel it is impossible to take such a massive leap all at once, as trying to accomplish too much at once will result in nothing. And someone else said to me, “We can’t deal a death blow to the newspapers.”


Personally, though, I felt that we could. And that we should, that it is a mitzvah. The chiloni media, after all, is especially deserving of such a blow.


“It takes a lot of courage and determination to leave kollel during bein hasedorim and run around in the halls of the Knesset,” I remarked to Rabbi Hertzig. “I am sure that it is not a natural place for someone like you.”


He laughs. “You are right, but when there is something going on that turns women into widows and their children into orphans, there is no place for hesitation or personal calculations. And my efforts will also prevent tremendous amounts of chillul Shabbos among the chilonim.”


Rabbi Hertzig himself has never really smoked; at most, he has had four or five cigarettes throughout his life – as a child, on Purim, or when a friend became a chosson. But even that, he feels, is not acceptable. “There is no justification for smoking a single cigarette.”


He was officially admitted to the Knesset building. He contacted the Economic Affairs Committee, which extended an invitation to him and officially approved his admission. He told them that he worked for the organization “Ubacharta Bachaim,” which labors to combat cigarette smoking, including the advertising and aggressive marketing that entices young people to begin smoking and leads them to become addicted. “I founded the organization myself,” he reveals to us, “and I use it to publicize my collection of piskei halachah.”


I ask Rabbi Hertzig what explanation he might offer for the Knesset vote, and he responds, “Money is the answer to everything. The people with vested interests in these matters know how to persuade the members of the Knesset. One of the newspapers reported that a tobacco company has been supporting a charitable organization that is tied to one of the Knesset members who participated in the vote.”


“What you are saying is a very severe accusation,” I tell him. “Do you have any evidence?”


“I am not pointing to any specific person or organization,” he replies, “but these are things that were discussed behind the scenes. One newspaper even mentioned a specific name and amount. I can’t say for certain that that is the reason, and if you find me a different, logical reason, I’ll be happy to hear about it. There is a person in America named Jack Abramoff, who used to be the leading lobbyist in America and who wrote a book about government corruption. Simple people would not believe how much power large companies and other such entities possess.”


On Monday, Rabbi Hertzig was present for the debate and when the votes were cast, and he was deeply pained. It pained him to see so many politicians rallying behind the compromise proposal. It pained him to see the media tycoons emerging victorious, when they are concerned solely with the huge profits they stand to earn from cigarette advertisements and not with the lives of people who become seriously ill as a result of those products. He watched the vote and he found it difficult to believe what was taking place before his eyes.


Rabbi Yaakov Litzman voted for the compromise. Originally, it had been Rabbi Yaakov Asher who represented Yahadut HaTorah on the committee, but Rabbi Litzman took his place and voted instead of him. Rabbi Yaakov Margi of Shas replaced Rabbi Yitzchok Vaknin, who is currently out of the country, and voted for the compromise.


The original Shas representative was Rabbi Ariel Attias. Even Dovid Rotem (originally Rottenberg; his father, Reb Shachne Rottenberg, was a senior official in the Ministry of the Interior and aided the Torah world for decades), a kippah-wearingmember of the Yisroel Beiteinu party, also voted for the compromise and against the Ministry of Health. Rotem himself, incidentally, quit smoking only recently; previously, he was a heavy smoker.


Originally, Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu had been represented on the committee by Moshe Feiglin, but when he announced that he would vote in favor of the proposal of the Ministry of Health, he was replaced by Rotem. Ayelet Shaked, the chiloni member of Bayit Yehudi, the national religious party, also voted for the compromise. Ultimately, as we mentioned, the compromise was approved by a large majority.


– – – – –


Rabbi Tzvi Hertzig has returned to his kollel. The Steipler Gaon once commented on the posuk, “Avrohom returned to his place,” that Avrohom Avinu returned to his bais medrash immediately after fighting a battle. It made no difference to him whether he had won or lost. He had been obligated to fight, and he fought. The rest was up to Hashem. The Steipler, in his time, made this comment to Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach, and it sums up how Rabbi Hertzig feels today.


Despite it all, though, does he harbor a sense of failure?


“Absolutely,” he confirms. “It is a failure that, unfortunately, will result in more widows and orphans, chas veshalom, and in lives of greater sorrow and suffering for many people.”




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