Friday, December 03, 2010

Were there always 32 teeth?

Of course, individuals might have fewer than 32 teeth, if, for example, a wisdom tooth fails to emerge. Or an individual might have a supernumary tooth or two, and thus have more than 32 teeth. But I wrote a post about the number of teeth people have, and I'd like to preempt any claims of nishtaneh hateva. How far back can I demonstrate knowledge that the typical person has 32 teeth?

(Believe it or not, there is a reason why such a post is necessary. Also, this is a followup post to these posts: one, two, three.)

This is not complete, but here is a rundown of some sources which are earlier than the 20th century.

From chapter 11 of De Humani Corporus Fabrica written in 1543, with a revised edition in 1555:
The number of teeth
Most often, the teeth [dentes permanentes] are thirty-two in number, sixteen in a row on either jaw, arranged like a perfectly aligned row of dancers. 11 Because the first four (nos. 1, 2, D) cut in opposition, they are called incisors, for they are broad and sharp so as to cut away readily by biting, like a knife, food put in their way, and break it up. 
Here is a summary of ancient skulls, dug up, or found in mummies. "From Dental record: a monthly journal of dental science art and literature, Volume 4,"

Note the two I underlined. Surely we should not expect a mummy to be Jewish! Nor is the skull of a Gurani, an Indian race in Paraguay, the skill of an Israelite. Yet, both have 32 teeth! Of course, someone dedicated to declaring that gentiles have 31 teeth or 32 while Jews have 32 will always have an answer. For example, that this evidence was planted by evil scientists in order to disprove the kabbalistic assertion. Or that when nishtaneh hateva hit, it also hit existing skeletons. Or that these must be members of the 10 lost tribes.

The following from the late 1700s, I think, from "The excruciating history of dentistry":

Note that he speaks of extracting 32 teeth, not 31 or 33.

The following summarizing a work by Pierre Fauchard, the father of modern dentistry, 1678-1761:

Thus, normally, there are thirty-two teeth, although there are deviations from the norm.

Here is another one, from "A history of dentistry from the most ancient times until the end of the Eighteenth Century". It discusses Galen's writings on teeth. Galen lived about the same time as Chazal, 129 -199 CE.

That is, Galen accurately described the number of teeth. He gives the correct number of incisors, canines, and molars. He lumps the premolars and the molars together. Usually, the molars of each jaw are five on each side. What does this mean? I believe that it means as follows: Teeth #4, #5, #6, #7, #8, on the upper teeth, and its reflection also on the upper teeth; and teeth #9, #10, #11, #12, and #13 on the lower teeth, and its reflection also on the lower teeth, for a total of ten teeth. Now, in some adults, the wisdom teeth, which are a type of molar, do not come in. This would then make only four on each side. Or, sometimes someone can have supernumary teeth. Modern dentists acknowledge this as well.

(The rest of the paragraph has to do with roots of various teeth and so is irrelevant to the present discussion.)

So this means that at least as far back as Chazal, the number and type of teeth was well known. And, it seems, the "standard" number of teeth was 32, just as it is today. And they were not talking about the dental configuration of only Jews. And we cannot say nishtaneh hateva, for this was known even back then. Similarly, it doesn't make sense to make use of "Rebbe-stories" (in the sense of stories about Rebbes) to prove the existence of anti-Semitic dentists who won't operate on patients with 32 teeth, which are anecdotal and may have changed or been reinterpreted slightly in the retelling. After all, this anecdote hits up against the established metzius, which may be confirmed by both dentists and historians. The same goes for repeated assertions of the difference in number of teeth between Jews and gentiles in many, many Jewish sources, be they Rishonim or Acharonim. This doesn't serve to prove the metzius! The metzius proves the metzius! The most it would do is undermine faith in all the Rishonim and Acharonim who asserted this, as well as make contemporary frumkeit a joke. (It shouldn't, but that it a tangential point.)


E-Man said...

Here's one answer that will annoy you and it comes straight from the Maharal type thinking. true, the Rishonim, achronim and many others said this, but it had a deeper meaning even though it wasn't true on the surface. 32 teeth has a special meaning and hameivin meivin.

joshwaxman said...

actually, in this instance, i like this answer!

after all, it *seems* as if this is coming from kabbalistic sources, which are often explicitly esoteric. and the teeth correspond to a group of channels of spiritual energy, which is, i think, why they said that this is only true for acheinu kol beis yisrael.

however, here is where i don't like it -- where this idea is explicitly used in a non-esoteric sense. rav chaim kanievsky's use does not fit the pattern. there was also, historically, an incident in which they found a circumcised corpse but were unsure whether it was an Arab or a Jew. based on the number of teeth, they were prepared to give the corpse a proper Jewish burial. and this in a halachic context. so this Maharal-type thinking will only annoy me when we apply it across the board, even to sources which I think CANNOT be channeling only this deeper meaning.

kol tuv,

Maverick said...

The problem with "symbolic/deeper meaning" statements would be they are meaningless and a tautology. Why? Whenever there is something in contradiction to the statement, the claim is made that that is not what it meant. This can be extended to all instances of contradiction, leaving only that which would agree with the statement as its meaning. This eventually reduces to "the meaning of this statement is what it means."

juda said...

i think the worst aspect of this marha"l style mehalach is that it is like a lot of apologetic dogma its simply not true but since it can not be 100% refuted and it "may" be true therefor i can insist that this is really what was meant despite the deafening silence being a most resounding refutation of these wishful flights of fancy


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