Talmud Tips

For the week ending 25 May 2019 / 20 Iyyar 5779

Bechorot 37-42

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
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Call the Dentist!

“Only if the back teeth are completely missing is it a blemish.”

This statement is found in our mishna, which teaches which dental problems render a potential animal offering to be unfit. An animal with a serious blemish of this sort is called a “baal moom,” meaning that it has a blemish that disqualifies it from being fit to offer to G-d on the Altar in the Beit Hamikdash.

Our mishna distinguishes between the front teeth and the back teeth of an animal regarding disqualifying blemishes. The front teeth, which are in the middle and more visible, are considered a blemish for the animal even if they are merely damaged. The back teeth are only a blemish issue if they are completely missing, including their roots.

In a mishna in the next perek of our masechet we are taught which blemishes disqualify a kohen from being permitted to perform the sacrificial service in the Beit Hamikdash. (See Vayikra 21:17) Regarding a kohen we are taught that if he is missing teeth he is not considered blemished according to Torah law, but should not serve due to Rabbinical law. (Bechorot 7:5)

This appears to pose contradiction: Why is a kohen without teeth not disqualified by the Torah for service, whereas an animal offering with no back teeth is indeed considered an invalid offering according to Torah law?

One answer is offered by the commentaries of the Yachin (Tiferet Yisrael) and the Tosefot Yom Tov, based on the Rambam. They write that it is the way of an animal to open its mouth widely when it howls and shrieks, which exposes its missing back teeth — thus constituting a blemished status. A kohen, however, who is a person, does not open his mouth in such a manner that exposes his teeth to this extent.

Another answer is based on the factor of the ages of the animal or the kohen. Although a kohen may be disqualified with physical blemishes, his age — no matter how old — does not constitute a disqualifying blemish. Since it is the nature of the human body (especially in former times, but also today) to lose teeth with advanced age, logic would dictate disqualification of an elderly kohen due to dental problems. Since there is no age limit for a kohen, we see that his dental situation is not an issue that affects his eligibility to serve in the Beit Hamikdash. On the other hand, an animal offering is valid only for a limited number of years, while it is still young. At that early age it should have its teeth in good condition to be considered to be fit as an offering in the Beit Hamikdash. Therefore, certain dental blemishes will disqualify an animal from being an acceptable offering.

A dental anecdote: During my first visit to a dentist as a young yeshiva student in Israel, I noticed a framed decorative quotation on the wall. It said in Hebrew, “Open your mouth wide and I (G-d) will fill it.” (Tehillim 81:11) At first I was happily surprised to see this on his wall, appearing to be a lighthearted sign that indicated the dentist to be a G‑d-fearing person. (But somewhere in the back of my mind I wondered that perhaps the dentist saw in the verse a command to do as much drilling and filling as he could possibly do! “I will fill it!” However, I quickly put that cynical thought aside.) The meaning of the verse in its context, as explained by Rashi, is that we should open our mouths widely in prayer to G-d for all of our needs, And He will fulfill them.

And a Rabbinical anecdote: The great Ponevizher Rav, HaRav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman (Russia-Bnei Brak, 1886-1969) was a kohen. Although he suffered great toothache pain, and the dentist wanted to perform an extraction, the Rav exercised mind over matter and resisted pulling the tooth in order to avoid any question about his fitness to serve in the Beit Hamikdash, may it be rebuilt speedily in our days.

  • Bechorot 39a

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