The Health Ministry has launched a high-profile campaign against the phenomenon of ultra-Orthodox children lighting cigarettes on Purim.
The 25-hour festival, which begins on Wednesday evening, is a day of costume parties. It is traditional for children to reverse the natural order of things, for example, in some schools children act as teachers for a day before the holidays.
And with that in mind, in some parts of the Haredi community, it has become accepted for children to try the smoking habit of adults. He is widely seen as a bizarre exception to the rules.
But a Health Ministry campaign urges against the practice, as health care providers run general anti-smoking campaigns tailored to the Haredi community, with support from rabbis who say the efforts are saving lives.
Advertisements placed by the ministry in haredi media cite research suggesting that one in ten children who smoke became addicted after their first cigarette.
“Don’t be part of the crowd at the expense of your health,” he recommends.
The text suggests that amidst the jovial atmosphere of the holidays, and surrounded by friends, one often feels that trying a cigarette is okay, and that underage smoking is a way of observing the tradition of upsetting things for Purim.
“But after the first Purim cigarette, the addiction process started and people regret that moment,” the campaign says.
Prominent Rabbi Bnei Brak Yitzchok Zilberstein sent a message to Maccabi Healthcare Services praising its pre-Purim anti-smoking campaign in the religious community.
“If just one young man refrains from smoking this Purim, you will 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 pointing out the dangers of smoking, as did Nissim Karelitz, who died in 2019.
But some experts say the rabbis’ message is not getting through and government pressure may have limited success.
Yehoshua Pfeffer, a Haredi rabbi who heads the Haredi Israel division of the Tikvah Fund, a philanthropic foundation focused on education, told The Times of Israel he thought the campaign would not be a huge success.
“There is certainly a phenomenon of children smoking on Purim; it is a relic of the past as it is what happened when smoking was very common in yeshivas and children behaved like adults on Purim.
“It’s very disturbing but that’s the way it is. But will a government campaign help? It will get some looks, but the impact will be limited,” Pfeffer said.
“Perhaps among more modern Haredim it will have an effect, but among others who are less engaged with the state and government – who are actually those most likely to smoke because they are less influenced by social norms outside of Haredi society — people are less likely to listen,” he said.