Q. What did our ancestors do when they had a toothache?
A. They went to the dentist. Concern for one’s teeth was known from a very early period in Israelite history. The Bible abounds with passages about healthy teeth of good appearance. In Genesis (49:12) we read that it is a blessing to have teeth whiter than milk; in Exodus (21:27) we learn that even a slave’s teeth are so important that if you knock them out he must be emancipated; the Book of Numbers warns us that it is terrible if something occurs to you whilst food is still unchewed (11:33). Teeth that are even and of the same size are beautiful (Shir HaShirim 4:2, 6:6); when a person gets old, “the grinders cease” (Kohelet 12:2); and vinegar irritates the teeth as smoke upsets the eyes (Prov. 10:26).
Teeth are a common metaphor. To take your flesh in your teeth is to risk your life (Job 13:14). To trust an unreliable person is like having a broken tooth (Prov. 25:19). To break an enemy’s teeth means to render him harmless (Ps. 58:7). What we do affects our children: if fathers eat sour grapes, their children’s teeth are set on edge (Jer. 31:29).
Talmudic literature has many references to methods of teeth care and oral hygiene, and indeed the sages recognised that there is a relationship between the condition of your teeth, your diet and the state of your health generally: Rabbi Nachman said, “Toothache begins in the mouth and ends in the intestines” (Yoma 84a). In cases of toothache, a garlic clove and/or salt or vinegar was often applied (Gittin 69a, A.Z. 28a, Shab. 65a, Shab. 111a). Pepper was used to counter bad breath (Shab. 65a).
It is clear that there was a rudimentary form of dental profession, and one of their skills was the insertion of false teeth; there were various views about gold teeth, with some expressing fears that affluent people would acquire them for show, though silver teeth were regarded as similar to natural teeth and therefore not problematical (Shab. 60a). The extraction of teeth was known and practised, though people warned each other against having their teeth pulled (Pes. 113a).