Cigarettes-for-kids Purim habit among Haredim must stop, pleads government campaign

On holiday when norms turned on head, there’s a phenomenon of Haredi kids smoking, despite dismay of some rabbis; Health Ministry says those children risk getting hooked for life

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

An ultra-Orthodox boy dressed up in costume smoking a cigarette on Purim of 2011. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
An ultra-Orthodox boy dressed up in costume smoking a cigarette on Purim of 2011. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The Health Ministry has launched a high-profile campaign against the phenomenon of ultra-Orthodox kids lighting up cigarettes on Purim.

The 25-hour festival, which starts on Wednesday evening, is a day of costume parties. It’s traditional for kids to invert the natural order of things, for example, in some schools, children take the role of teachers for a day ahead of the holiday.

And in this spirit, in parts of the Haredi community, it’s become accepted for children to try the adult habit of smoking. It’s widely seen as a quirky exception to the rules.

But a Health Ministry campaign is urging against the practice, as healthcare providers are running general anti-smoking campaigns tailored to the Haredi community, with the backing of rabbis who say the efforts are saving lives.

Advertisements placed by the ministry across the Haredi media cite research suggesting that one in ten children who smoke got addicted after their first cigarette.

“Don’t be part of the in-crowd at the expense of your health,” it urges.

Two ultra-Orthodox boys dressed up in costume smoking a cigarette on Purim of 2011. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The text suggests that amid the jovial atmosphere of the holiday, and surrounded by friends, there is often a feeling that trying a cigarette is okay, and underage smoking a way of observing the tradition of turning things upside down for Purim.

“But after the first cigarette on Purim, the process of addiction has begun, and people regret this moment,” the campaign says.

The prominent Bnei Brak rabbi Yitzchok Zilberstein sent a message to Maccabi Healthcare Services lauding its pre-Purim anti-smoking campaigning in the religious community.

“If just one young guy refrains from smoking this Purim you’ll have saved a life in Israel and your spiritual reward will be great,” he wrote.

Haredi rabbis have become increasingly assertive in discouraging smoking in recent years. The leading authority on Jewish law, Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman, who died in 2017, signed a letter flagging the dangers of smoking, as did Nissim Karelitz, who died in 2019.

But some experts say the message from rabbis isn’t getting through, and that pressure from the government may have limited success.

Yehoshua Pfeffer, a Haredi rabbi who heads the Haredi Israel division at the Tikvah Fund, a philanthropic foundation focused on education, told The Times of Israel that he believes the campaign will not be hugely successful.

“There is definitely a phenomenon of children smoking on Purim; it’s a relic of the past as this is what happened when smoking was very common in yeshivot and kids are acting like adults on Purim.

“It’s very disturbing but it’s the way it is. But will a government campaign help? It will catch some eyes, but the impact will be limited,” Pfeffer said.

“Perhaps among the more modern-minded Haredim, it will have an effect, but among others who are less engaged with the state and the government — who are actually those more likely to smoke as they’re less influenced by social norms outside Haredi society— people are less likely to listen,” he said.

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