A Cigarette and a Cup of Coffee [1]

In reading these days about how Ottawa is adding ever-more stringent restrictions to the marketing of cigarettes in Canada, my mind tends to stray to the "good old days" of 20 or 30 years ago when people could enjoy their simple physical pleasures, before we were educated to the fact that just about everything is injurious to our health.

Traces of these changes can be discerned in traditional Jewish lifestyles as well. Judaism has generally encouraged people to enjoy the pleasures of God's world, and it comes as no surprise that from the first discovery of tobacco, questions begin to blossom forth from the halakhic codes and responsa regarding such matters as its possible use in the havdalah ceremony at the conclusion of he sabbath, where a blessing is customarily recited over a fragrant herb or spice.

Those of us who have prayed in old-style Ashkenazic shuls will certainly have memories of the passing around of a snuff-box during the Shabbat services. Somewhat more disturbing is the widespread custom still in vogue in Hasidic circles in Israel, of encouraging young children to smoke cigarettes on Purim.

Holy Sparks of Tobacco

The Hasidic movement has always cultivated a special attachment to the pleasures of nicotine. This is of course entirely consistent with their general philosophy of accentuating the simple joys of life, especially those that appealed to the lower classes of society. As with many other such folk practices, however, smoking came to be looked upon by Hasidism as a religious ritual in its own right, and a mystical one at that!

This point is emphasized in a recent study by the distinguished English Judaica scholar, Louis Jacobs.

In his article, Jacobs traces the mystical theme of the "uplifting of the sparks" as developed in the literature of the Kabbalah.

According to this conception, our world consists of a mixture of holy sparks scattered among profane "shells." The goal of Jewish religious life then becomes one of elevating the hidden sparks by performing everyday activities and religious rituals in awareness of their mystical importance.

This idea was given special prominence in the doctrines of Rabbi Isaac Luria (known as the "Ari") and the mystics of 16th-century Safed, and was inherited by the Hasidic movement in 18th century Russia and Poland.

Jacobs notes how the early Hasidim applied this mystical doctrine to the act of smoking. The Hasidic fondness for cigarettes was well-known, and became the target of criticism from their opponents, the "misnagdim". The Hasidim justified their habit on theological grounds. Smoking was after all a way of elevating the holy sparks.

Some Hasidic masters were conscious that a special privilege that had been granted to their own generations: Tobacco had been unknown to the great "Ari" himself, "because the time had not yet come for the very subtle sparks in tobacco to be released by smoking." But now that almost all the coarser sparks had received their restoration, God sent us tobacco so that the Hasidic masters should elevate these "new" and subtle sparks!

Reprinted from the Calgary Jewish Star
It was told of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov, the founder of the Hasidic movement, that he once waxed enthusiastic about a student who interrupted his prayers by stooping to retrieve his fallen pipe. The Baal Shem-Tov justified this apparent breach of decorum by explaining that there are subtle souls who can only achieve their perfection through this most ethereal of substances.

The Ba'al Shem-Tov went on to compare cigarette smoke to the "sweet savour unto the Lord" exuded by the sacrifices, and to the incense that was burned in the Temple.

As Rabbi Jacobs understands this story, it alludes to the Kabbalistic belief in reincarnation. Some righteous souls cannot bear to return to earth unless they are allowed to reside in tobacco.

One wonders how many such souls continue to hover over the Calgary bingo halls.[2]

Midnight Vigils

Another recent study attempts to trace a connection between the Jewish mystical tradition and yet another injurious habit, the drinking of coffee. The current issue of the Association for Jewish Studies Review contains a fascinating article on this theme by historian Eliott Horowitz of Beersheba.

The very origins of coffee-drinking, Horowitz notes, are rooted in mystical practices. The beverage was evidently introduced by 15th-century Muslim mystics (Sufis) in Yemen as a means for producing the wakefulness necessary for their nightly devotional exercises. In Jewish mystical circles caffeine performed a similar function.

The practice of midnight vigils in mourning for the destruction of the Temple, and in prayer for its rebuilding (known as Tikkun Hatzot), was popularised by Rabbi Isaac Luria's circle of mystics in the second half of the 16th century. Such rituals had been known before, but only now did they achieve widespread acceptance.

Horowitz suggests that this fact should be understood in connection with another piece of information, mentioned in a responsum of Rabbi Moses di-Trani: Coffee was at this time being introduced to that part of the world, and at least one coffee-house is documented as existing in Safed by 1580, whose clients were known for staying there well into the night (though not for prayer or mystical devotion).

The Caffeine Connection

This raises the question: Are we justified in suggesting a correlation between the two phenomena? Does the sudden increase in the popularity of the midnight vigil, a custom which had been introduced with little success centuries before, have any connection with the recent availability of coffee in Safed?

Horowitz tests this hypothesis by trying it out on another historical setting, that of 17th and 18th century Italy. Here, as distinct from Safed, there existed a strong local pietistic tradition of Shomerim la-Boker, i.e., rising before dawn for penitential prayer.

As the currents of Lurianic Kabbalah began to reach Italy from the Holy Land, devotees made efforts to introduce the Tikkun Hatzot into communities like Venice and Mantua--with no immediate success.

It was not until the mid-17th century that the Lurianic midnight vigils began to achieve widespread acceptance, at the expense of the Shomerim la-Boker societies. Over a relatively short period of time, the Mantua Shomerim la-Boker club, a venerable and once-populous organization, quietly disappeared from history for want of members. Similar patterns characterize other communities.

The reason for this change? Of course there are many considerations to be taken into account, but the introduction and spread of coffee-drinking seems to make an appearance here at the crucial time: the first coffee-house was established in Venice in 1640, but the drink remained a rare luxury there until the turn of the century. Consumption of coffee became common during the first half of the 18th century (and Jews were prominent in its commerce). Now they were able more easily than before to stay awake at night. This is precisely the time when the Tikkun Hatzot achieved dominance and the Shomerim la-Boker faded into oblivion.

No, we are not suggesting that either tobacco or coffee are habits to be encouraged by Judaism now that we are aware of their dangers to health. What we can however appreciate from the above examples is that a religion does not develop without interacting with the surrounding environment, and that Judaism has always had a special talent for discerning the religious significance of even the most profane activities.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

Return to Index

My e-mail address is elsegal@ucalgary.ca

First Publication: JS February 9-22 1990, p. 4.


[2] This reference is a familiar one to most Calgarian Jews. The government-sponsored Bingo parlours which serve as an important source of income for community institutions (and which are mentioned and satirized elsewhere in this collection) are nototious for the quantities of cigarette smoke which they exude.