I am dentally unstable. Every time I go to the dentist, I discover a new problem with my teeth. Just yesterday, when I went for an appointment to follow up on the extraction of a top tooth in June, I learned that the two teeth next to it have now become infected, and they too will have to come out — leaving me with only two teeth on my top left side. The dentist also reported that in spite of my years of orthodonture, I’m going to need a brace on my top teeth in order to pull down an impacted wisdom tooth. When I heard that news, my jaw dropped. Another wisdom tooth? I had six wisdom tooth extracted when I was in high school. I remember that the dentist seemed to keep finding more of them, assuring me each time that I was exceedingly wise, but that this time he was finally finished. Apparently I am even wiser than he thought.
It is not the wise son, but the wicked one, who has his teeth blunted at the Passover seder. What does all this stuff mean to you, he asks his father; and because he excludes himself from the collective, his father tells him that he would not have been taken out of Egypt. Is this a fitting punishment? He who would not have been taken out has his teeth taken out instead? It is not a fate I would want for myself, though I seem to be losing teeth left and right. The Talmud in Masechet Brachot (56a) relates that if a person dreams of his teeth falling out, then his sons and daughters will die soon. Sounds ominous. I suppose I am lucky that I don’t have any sons or daughters to lose. On the other hand, at this point I don’t have very many teeth left to lose, either.
Perhaps the best example of the connection between teeth and wisdom in the Talmud is the figure of Rav Yehuda, the third-century Babylonian rabbi whose teacher Shmuel nicknamed him Shinana. The term means either “toothy one” or “sharp, brilliant one,” depending on the root (no pun intended), which may be either the Hebrew word for tooth (Shen) or for learning (Shinun). Either Rav Yehuda had incisive incisors or an incisive intellect, or perhaps both. I like to think that he chewed over everything he learned, and maybe even broke his teeth on a few difficult Talmudic passages. This once happened to me. I was learning daf yomi while unconsciously biting my finger, when I inadvertently bit so hard that I chipped my front tooth. The tooth remains chipped to this day, leading me to wonder whether I, too, merit Rav Yehuda’s sobriquet.
I hope that when I broke my tooth on Torah, I was enjoying what I was learning. Because if so, then the harm I caused my tooth could be classified as Shen (tooth), which is the term used in the tractate Bava Kama for one of the three types of damages caused by an ox: Keren, Regel, and Shen. Keren (horn) refers to intentional damage caused by an ox’s horn. Regel (foot) refers to the damage that an animal inflicts while walking. Shen refers to the damage done by an animal in the process of enjoying something, such as eating someone else’s vegetables. For all of these damages, the owner of the ox has to pay Nezek Shalem, the full cost of the damages (assuming like me, he does not have dental insurance).
Far better than damaging one’s teeth, of course, is using them to flash a toothy grin. This is what the children of Israel requested from God. In a midrash on the verse from Jacob’s blessing to his son Judah, “His teeth are whiter than milk” (Genesis 29:12), the Talmud relates an explanation offered by Rav Dimi:
The congregation of Israel said to the Holy One, blessed be He: Lord of the Universe, wink to me with your eyes, which will be sweeter than wine, and show me your teeth which will be sweeter than milk. (Ketubot 111b)
Apparently the children of Israel did not internalize the message that Moses learned after the Golden Calf episode, which is that no one can see God’s face and live. Or maybe they thought that God would make an exception to flash His pearly whites. (Brace yourselves!) In any case, this midrash leads into the following statement from Rabbi Yochanan:
Better is the man who affectionately shows his teeth to his friend than one who gives bins of milk to drink, for it is said in the Torah, “and his teeth white with milk” – don’t read L’ven Shinayim (teeth whiteness) but rather Libun Shinayim (the showing of teeth).
I suspect that Sisera would agree with this aphorism, as would, perhaps, Og the king of Bashan, the mythical Biblical figure who survived the flood because no one could vanquish him – until his Achilles teeth did him in when he tried to destroy Israel. The Talmud (Brachot 54b) relates that Og measured the size of the camp of Israel, found a mountain that was just that size, and plotted to uproot the mountain and throw it upon the camp of Israel. But Og’s plans were foiled by God: Just when the formidable king lifted the mountain over his head, God sent ants which bore a hole in it, so it sank down around his neck, covering his head. Og tried to pull the mountain off, but his gigantic teeth projected into the mountain, and he could not free himself. The proof text for this story is a verse from Psalms (3:8): “You have broken the teeth of the wicked.” Reish Lakish explains, “Do not read Shibarta (you have broken), but rather Shirbabta (you have lengthened).” God miraculously turned Og’s teeth into fangs that bore their way into the mountain. We might say that Og bit off more than he could chew, because the story ends with Moses taking an axe, leaping into the air, and killing the hapless ogre.
When it comes to my own teeth, I can only lament that I wish I were like the lover in Shir HaShirim, who was told, “Ah you are fair, my darling…Your teeth are like a flock of ewes, climbing up from the washing pool. All of them bear twins, and no one loses her young” (4:3). My teeth, though, seem more to resemble the ewes that lose their young than their fertile counterparts. Still, I take some comfort when my dentist assures me that all the teeth he extracts will be replaced with implants and crowns, and that no one who looks at me will notice the difference. Leaving his office, I can’t help but wonder: Is that what they call a tooth for a tooth?