Thursday, June 18, 2009

Do gentiles have more teeth than Jews? Do they have less?

There is a famous position of Aristotle.
Why have men more teeth than women?
By reason of the abundance of heat and blood which is more in men than in women.
-- "Of the Teeth.", Aristotle
And the following from Bertrand Russel:
Aristotle maintained that women have fewer teeth than men; although he was twice married, it never occurred to him to verify this statement by examining his wives' mouths.
Bertrand Russell, Impact of Science on Society (1952) ch. 1
British author, mathematician, & philosopher (1872 - 1970)
As someone noted in a comment recently, Rav Kanievsky similarly believes that Jews differ physically from gentiles in the number of teeth, on the basis of a midrash Talpiyot combined with another rabbi's testimony. Midrash Talpiyot was authored by Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Avraham, and was published in 1698. There, in Anaf Aivarim, we find the following (I manipulated the images to make it fit this blog better, but did not change the text):

After a discussion of the kabbalistic significance of the 32 teeth (from כתבו), he records a tradition (from א"ה) he received that this is only for Jews, but that gentiles have 33 teeth. He contrasts this with a rishonim who say there is no physical distinction between Jews and gentiles, so that people do not say there are two reshuyot. Therefore they are physically identical and Hashem gave the heker to Jews via bris milah. A second reason, so that converts would not be embarrassed to join the Jewish people, while the whole reason for the exile is to gather converts. But if according to the first reason of two reshuyot, then there is a physical difference; according to the second reason, there is no problem, because his teeth are covered and so who will check them, or alternatively, anyone who will eventually convert could be born with 32 teeth.

He then answers (אך) according to the first reason given, of two reshuyot, that even though one person can say this, he will not persuade others, for it is only a minor difference which is covered, and if there were two deities, the difference would have been more noticeable in order to proclaim the divinity.

End summary of midrash Talpiyot.

Now, I would note that the number of teeth for Jews is exactly the right number of adult teeth, that is 32. But the weird tradition, of having 33 teeth, which is not in accord with reality, is ascribed to gentiles. Now it is quite possible that confirming or ruling out this 33 tooth tradition was impossible. What gentile would consent for the rabbi to count his teeth? And if he did, did the rabbi study teeth well enough to know for each one where one began and the next ended?

It is possible that this tradition arose out of some kabbalistic theory, given that these teeth are all given roles. It is also possible that whoever started this tradition saw one gentile who happened to have an extra tooth. Here is one woman who has 33 teeth. And here is a Wikipedia article on this condition, known as hyperdontia. And maybe in that area where the tradition started this trait was genetic, as it sometimes can be. People can have a number of supernumary teeth. But it certainly is not true of your average gentile.

Now Rav Kanievsky was asked a question, and made use of this Midrash Talpiyot, in part. The question and answer follow.

The question was:
Question: "I have heard from Rabbi Yitzchak Shinker, zatza"l, that one time there was an incident with a fatal illness, rachmana litzlan, and a great physician came and said "if he is a gentile, he will die, but if he is a Jew, he has hope, for it has been shown that this disease by Jews is not necessarily fatal." And he explained in this what we say in Tefillah, rofei cholei amo yisrael -- that there is a special healing in the Jews.
Now, it is possible that this great physician was a quack trying to market his particular treatment to a limited audience. But it is also possible that there are certain diseases which manifest differently depending on the particular genetic makeup, or respond better to treatments because of genetic makeup. Thus, for example, African-Americans do not respond as well to beta-blockers as do those of European descent. What the physician is saying is plausible. But there are likely other populations that respond better to certain treatments than would Jews.

I am also not sure what the purpose of this question was. It seems to me that the purpose was to get Rav Kanievsky's endorsement of this peshat, so that they could repeat it over in his name, with his haskamah as opposed to the less well-known Rabbi Yitzchak Shinker.

But the way to confirm this reality is not to consult rabbis, who might give other sources in rabbinic literature. To confirm this, consult with doctors! (Unless the intent is to get more force for the rofei cholei interpretation.)

At any rate, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky responded, and it was not by saying "let us consult physicians or a medical textbook." Rather, we have:
Answer: Indeed, in Midrash Talpiyot (anaf Aivarim) there is that to a gentile there are 31 teeth, while to a Jew there are 32. And the gaon Rabbi Yitzchak Zilberstein related to me that there was a dentist in the United States who hated Jews, and when they brought them to him he counted the teeth, and when he found 32 he did not wish to work on them.
Rav Kanievsky unfortunately misquoted the Midrash Talpiyot, by giving the gentile one less tooth than the Jew, instead of one more.

Now it is quite possible that there is some substance to this urban legend. A dentist does indeed often count teeth, and pushes against them one by one with his dental tools. It could be that the dentist did this, and then later refused to work on a specific patient because of personality issues or insurance reasons, and the Jewish person associated the counting of the teeth with the denial of service, on the basis of the midrash Talpiyot.

But no dentist would refuse service on the basis of the number of teeth. This is not some secret that dentists know. Rather, the number of teeth is well-known, and mentioned in dental textbooks. The assign numbers to each one. And dentists are hopefully not so ill-informed as to think that only Jews have 32 teeth.

Now, Rabbi Yitzchok Zilberstein is Rav Chaim Kanievsky's brother-in-law, and Rav Elyashiv's son-in-law. He is no stranger to medical issues. Thus, to cite Wikipedia:
Rabbi Yitzchok Zilberstein is a Rov and posek in the Ramat Elchanan area of Bnei Brakand the rabbi of Mayenei HaYshua Hospital in Bnei Brak.
Rabbi Yitzchok Zilberstein is an acknowledged halachik authority and is especially renowned as an expert in Medical issues related to Halacha. His expertise is on par with that of his famous father-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Sholom Elyashiv, and brother-in-law, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky.
I know nothing of Rav Zilberstein except for this quote from him and this Wikipedia article. If he is the rabbi of a hospital, one would hope he would have some knowledge of medicine, or be able to talk to doctors about these things. It could well be that since this is a hospital in Bnei Brak, they would not typically be servicing gentiles, and so he would have no firsthand exposure to them in a medical setting.

I also have not read any of his writings on medical issues. And admittedly, if all that you have is one mistake, you can come away with a pretty false impression of a person. Still, this does not exactly inspire confidence in his ability to ascertain the metzius.

Rav Kanievsky did something proper in consulting an accessible (his brother-in-law) person whom he considered an expert in the field of medicine to at least try to confirm a somewhat strange statement. Even so, this rabbinic statement (of 31, or 33 teeth) should strike any modern person as strange and unlikely. Rav Kanievsky presumably does not have an Internet connection in his house, so he cannot do a quick Google search. And he presumably is not really a big fan of Torah UMaddah, such that he would go to a library and consult a standard medical textbook.

But psak arises not just from a great depth and breadth of Torah knowledge, but from a knowledge of the metzius as well. If a Torah great can be this misguided about the facts on the ground (and also be misguided as to believe that the geocentric model of the universe is correct), then are they the best to pasken on issues relating to Torah and science?

There are some who are dedicated to Torah UMaddah, and their intersection. But what of those who consider Torah UMaddah to be an incorrect path, and as a result are woefully ignorant of maddah? As Chaim B. wrote in a comment about weighing the merit of different interpretations,
Agree with you 100% that the issue should be judged on its merits - but the judge should be gedolei yisrael who are experts in the field. Would you be the judge of the best method of performing brain surgery because you took a science class? Would you risk your life by saying that the conclusions of the majority of brain surgeons who lived in the past 200 years is wrong because they are all biased by modern science and you are in a better position to draw an "objective" conclusion?
But how can they really judge this, when they likely would not recognize all the places that Chazal's statements diverge from science, and quite possibly are not familiar with all the relevant sources, not really caring that much about the intersection until it becomes a hot-button issue? And should someone who does care about the issue, and has studied the various shittos deeply, and does have a better sense of just where Chazal seem to contradict science, be mevatel his daas to those who don't consider science important and therefore are not necessarily in a better position to draw an objective conclusion?

Let me add that I would not be putting this forth, which could be seen ch"v as an attack, and an attack on elu ve'elu, if not for the fact that others are declaring that it forbidden to differ from the chareidi gedolim on issues pertaining to the intersection of Torah and science.


Shlomie W. said...

I have also seen a statement by Rav Chaim K. that no animals have ever gone extinct; those that are claimed extinct are just hiding somewhere.

joshwaxman said...

can you give me a reference of where to find it?

i would not that for individual species, this is indeed the case - that scientists operate based on absence of evidence and thought a species to be extinct, only to have one pop up somewhere. but i don't think this is plausible in the general case. where are the dinosaurs hiding?


Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

Personally I am -- not quite disturbed, but more or less dumfounded -- that this even sounds plausible to R. Chaim. Does he think Jews and Gentiles are different species of Homo sapiens? I just don't get it. (Although I actually saw this in print two or three years ago, so I am not dumfounded at the moment, being used to it.)

BTW, only one of my wisdom teeth ever popped to the surface, so I have 29 exposed teeth. In theory, someone examining my mouth -- but not carefully -- might assume I have an extra tooth in the back, not three missing. It might look like I have 33 in that case. But still, you have to think. Is it plausible that Jews and Gentiles differ physically? What happens to converts, do they lose a teeth? What if two converts marry, do their genes not get passed on?

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

Reading further in Wikipedia, I just saw that it says "Ethnicity can also have an impact on the age at which [the appearance of wisdom teeth] occurs, with statistical variations between groups."

Given this, maybe it's slightly less bizarre than it seemed at first glance.

Cue the responses: "When R. Chaim says it you are dumfounded, when Wikipedia says it you accept it."

Well. ;-)

Shlomie W. said...

Does he think Jews and Gentiles are different species of Homo sapiens?

I am sure he does. I have heard it said that there is no evidence that smoking is harmful for JEws, since the tests were done with non-Jews who are a different briyah.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

I know, that's what left me dumbfounded.

Anonymous said...

If this is what are gedolim are like, there is no need to be frum.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

This is what led to the rise of the scorned "Rabbiner Doktor" phenomenon. The disconnect between R. Chaim Kanievsky and many are too wide. In a way it is a shame to make too much out of this, but at a certain point the gap just can't be bridged.

Shlomie W. said...

If this is what are gedolim are like, there is no need to be frum.

An understandable statement, but mistaken. What you mean is, there is no need to be charedi.

joshwaxman said...

"When R. Chaim says it you are dumfounded, when Wikipedia says it you accept it"


except of course that when Wikipedia says it, it is put into a context which makes sense with what we know of the world. and there is a strong implication that there are scientific studies such as this one:
) which have studied it. And it is not that all gentiles are different by having one extra, or on less, tooth, and where all Jews are the ones who have the "famous" number of teeth. And where Rav Kanievsky's evidence is something which is obviously an urban legend, a story about an anti-Semitic doctor in America.

But of course you know this.

If this is what are gedolim are like, there is no need to be frum.
What Shlomie W. said. And of course I could point you to a number of rabbonim whose word should be granted at least as much credence, who either know the science or know where and how to consult for the science.


Baruch said...

This was a beautiful post, a perfect way to prelude Shabbos.

Akiva said...

"I have heard it said" - which is often the problem in these types of concerns. Information is passed from person to person, assumption and interpretations and not hearing every exact detail creeping in, and then we're surprised to find the information inaccurate.

Rav Kanievsky's supposed statements about war in Israel starting during Chanukah, and therefore not to hold a wedding come to mind - which when traced back were found to be multiple "I heard it wrong" errors, come to mind.

I believe Rav Kanievsky's reply at that time was "if you didn't hear it from my mouth, then do not consider it accurate". Similarly we've seen Kol Koreh's with carefully selected 'excerpts' of the gadol's statement.

In an age of information overload, we are also subject to information being adjusted for the desire of the deliverer.

Buyer beware.

yaak said...

Rav Shmueli mentioned it in his latest Shiur at around the 34:15 mark for about a minute or so.

joshwaxman said...

wow. thanks.


Recreational Musings said...

I just wrote a post mentioning how deprived of secular knowledge religious people can be! This just goes to further the point even more...R' Kanievsky I'm sure is a great Torah scholar, but it is a little embarrassing to have a respected Rabbi saying things like this!

Anonymous said...

What's the name of the sefer in which this response from rav Kanievsky is printed?

joshwaxman said...

It is in Derech Sicha, page 227, Bnei Brak, 5764.

juda said...

this idea is also alluded to in the verse " LO=31 asa chein lechol goy umishpatim BAL=32 yeduim"

also has any one substantiated the fact that Dr issac Betech is actually the source through which r zilberstien heard about this dentist in America?

juda said...

I have been intrigued by this subject for many years and I just stumbled on your post so I am adding my findings which you can feel free to edit and turn this comment into a come lately follow up post or leave it in the obscurity of this comments box.
First a side point r’ chaim in asichah, bnei brak 2012 (this is yet another one of these recently popularized seforim were the mechaber writes an entire shctickel torah followed by r chaims 1-2 word response which usually doesn’t add anything to the shtickel and is sometimes followed by a second lengthy shtickel of the mechaber being “mevvar” his holy word(s)) on page שפ"ו r’ chaim is asked for the source of the idea that jews have 32 teeth and gentiles 33 and his response is medrash talpoit so apparently he now knows the correct version.
The “mistaken” version of the medrash talpioth that a Jew has 32 teeth and a non-jew 31 is already quoted and understood in a very literal fashion, to be used for determining if a circumcised corpse is Jewish on page koof vav of the sefer reah maseh which was a popular Childrens sefer printed in yerushalim in 1902 he is quoting from the chachmie ashkenaz and he brings many “remazim” to this idea including the “remaz” from “hen am lvadad yishkon” however he does not elaborate by saying that dad is Aramaic for teeth (presumably a jew in yerushalim 110 years ago knew Arabic). The chachmie ashkenaz mentioned in this source are presumably the shl”ah quoting from the rokeach "בישראל יש ל"ב שינים" (without any contrast to non-jew) “and these 32 are aligned with the 32 roots of wisdom”.
There apparently was at least one “rational” rabbi who heard this legend and tried to make it fit with his knowledge of the world in kol yehuda, masolton, kahir, 1937 the author writes that while it is possible non-jew have 31 teeth while all jews have 32 (this particular version makes me a little uneasy as I indeed have only 31 teeth (one of my wisdom teeth never developed at all even below the gums ) however I am willing to be megiur mesafek if need be)
However the “mistaken” version of the medrash talpiot is far from new and in fact has an earlier source that is probably the source of the modern day version and is recorded in a sefer that predates the first printing of the medrash talpoit, 1737, izmir (I am not sure where r waxman got his earlier date of 1698 see here pg. 19) however it is clearly even older than that sefer, as he is quoting it as the shitah of mekubalim and arguing on it. the sefer is zera berach shlishi (a grandson of the original zera berach, Krakow 1646) in his chidushim on mesachtas brachos, Amsterdam 1726 dated based on approbation of ZH from levov he explains the pussak in tehilim “sheinie reshim shebarta” as hinting to the fact that jews have 31 teeth (good for me) and non-jews have 32 I didn’t get the remaz). And then he says “and all the mekubalim have already been astounded by this as they say that it would have been fitting for jews to have 32 teeth aligning with the 32 roots of wisdom (similar to shlah in name of rokeach) and non-jews 31”. Unfortunately the HebrewBooks scan of this sefer is corrupted (the first 39 pages are a rescan of part of the zera berach shlishi’s other sefer on drush they only have this sefer starting from page 40 and this sefer is numbered like a gemara with 2 amudim and they only scanned the amud alefs this particular piece is found on lamed beis amud beis first column a properly scanned full version of this sefer is available on otzer hachimah page 68 however from page 40 and on is paywalled (you can see the proper format of the sefer in the first 40 pages)
K.T. Juda

juda said...

One more point regarding Aristotle’s assertion it is possible he wasn’t discussing how many teeth grow but was discussing the amount of teeth that are lost in the course of a lifetime (it was very common for teeth to rot as the field of dentistry was limited to extractions and most people did not have a full set of teeth in the ancient world) so he was explaining what had been observed that an adult male generally retains more teeth intact into adulthood than an adult female.

joshwaxman said...



there is also a whole article in Hapaamon, Chanukah 5771, defending this idea. (parshablog gets blasted in a footnote. :)

juda said...

thanks josh i am not defending the idea i just was filling in a few missing points in the article do you have a link/copy of that article?

joshwaxman said...

i believe that it can be ordered from hapaamoin [AT] gmail [Then a Dot] com for $5 plus shipping


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