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Thought for the Day: How Big a Fool Does HaShem Protect/What is Called Acceptable Risk?

Living is dangerous.  In fact, we have centuries of incontrovertible proof that death is always preceded by life.  When I was teaching about radiation safety to nurses in a hospital who worked with radiation therapy, I wanted to give them a feel for how dangerous radiation is.  It turns out that the risk of death from the maximum legal yearly dose of radiation is approximately the same as just living for a day and a half at age 60.

Traveling is risky; which is why we have a special prayer when embarking on travel.  I recently asked R' Fuerst if I should say תפילת הדרך when I leave for work in the morning on my bike.  "Is it dangerous?", he asked.  Well... I'm in traffic and I'm on a bike.  R' Fuerst replied in his usual cut to the chase manner, "If it's so dangerous, then you are not allowed to ride your bicycle in traffic.  If it's normal risk, then there is no reason to recite תפילת הדרך."  I decided it wasn't that dangerous... at least not dangerous enough to warrant me changing my mode of transportation to work.

Perhaps you consider that a foolish risk to take.  Perhaps, but we take risks all the time; sometimes less, sometimes more.  We sometimes also don't really think things through and get ourselves (unwittingly) into dangerous situations and -- Baruch HaShem! -- come out unscathed.  (As you may very well consider my bike commute. It's a free country, believe what you will.)  Am I using up merits by relying on a miracle?  I think not; rather, as discussed by Chazal (Shabbos 129b):
 'שֹׁמֵר פְּתָאיִם ה/HaShem protects fools (Psalms 116:6).

I don't smoke and have never smoked.  Both my parents smoked; both my siblings smoked.  How did I escape?  I have no clue; that's just the facts.  Smoking is, of course, risky.  Just how risky turns out to be more difficult to ascertain than you might think.  The topic is so volatile and the results to contentious, that the research is tainted by politics and funding sources.  My conclusion (after a half hour or so of internet research... you are welcome to do your own research) is that a heavy smoker is something like 20 times more likely to die of lung cancer than a non-smoker.  Right, smoking is dangerous.  In turns of raw numbers, though, that comes out to a 1 in 500 chance of dying from lung cancer for a non-smokers versus 1 in 25 for a heavy smoker.

That amount of risk, says R' Moshe on smoking (Igros Moshe, Choshen Mishpat, 76; written the day after Shavuos, 5741/June 10, 1981), is small enough to be covered by 'שֹׁמֵר פְּתָאיִם ה/HaShem protects fools.  Which means to say, that the risk is not great enough to be able to categorically stated that Jewish law forbids someone to continue smoking.  (Though the smoker's defence in the next world will be, "because I was a fool."  I'm not sure that's how I want to face my Creator....)

HOWEVER, and this is a very big however, in the last paragraph, R' Moshe explains why it is categorically forbidden by Jewish Law to start smoking.  There are two reasons independent reasons for this; either one on its own would be enough.

One: Smoking does incur risk and there is no tangible benefit.  Moreover, it is not even pleasurable for someone who is not used to it.  Jewish law certainly does forbid taking a risk for no reason.  (R' Moshe adds that because of this, everyone -- even someone who already smokes himself -- should most certainly dissuade his children from starting to smoke.)

Two:  It is forbidden for a Jew to constantly seek תאוות והנאות/lusts and pleasures.  Quite the opposite, a Jew is expected to looking constantly to decrease his attachment to wholly physical pleasures.  Smoking, which has an addictive component and therefore draws a person to craving the pleasure, is certainly forbidden.

The two reasons can (and should be) applied to every pleasure seeks in life.  We do not eschew pleasure, but we certainly do eschew pleasure for its own sake.

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