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The word shein appears 55 times in the Bible, mostly in reference to the teeth in the mouth of a person or animal. A whole litany of other words in Hebrew and Aramaic that also mean “tooth,” however; these include (but are not limited to) mitalot, maltiot, kaka, and nivi.




Although the word shein usually means “tooth,” sometimes it refers to things made out of ivory, which is a material made out of teeth. The word shein also appears in Mishnaic Hebrew in the sense of a person or animal’s tooth (Shabbat 6:5, 6:10, 10:6, 14:4, 19:2, Beitzah 4:6, Bava Kamma 3:10, Shavuot 5:5, Bechorot 7:5, Chullin 1:2, Ohalot 3:1, Parah 2:2), and in the more abstract sense of a category of tort damage similar to those caused by one’s animals eating another’s property with its “tooth” (Bava Kamma 1:4, 2:2, 2:5).

Elsewhere, the Mishna uses the word shein in a borrowed sense to refer to the “teeth” of vessel or tool, like that of a sickle (Chullin 1:2), hoe/mattock (Keilim 13:2, 18:7), fine-writer (Keilim 13:2), saw (Keilim 13:4, 14:3), lock or key (Keilim 13:6), and comb (Keilim 13:7-8, Tevol Yom 4:6). In all of those cases, the instruments in question use a sharp, tooth-like protrusion, for which the Mishna borrowed the word shein.

In rabbinic idiom, the word shein appears in several colorful expressions in the Mishna and Talmud. For example, in the Mishna an obviously pregnant woman is said to have “her stomach in between her teeth” (Rosh Hashana 2:8). The Talmud says that is better to be genial and friendly than to simply give people presents – “One who whitens his teeth to his friend [i.e., smiles] is better than one who feeds him milk” (Ketubot 111b) – while a person who put himself in a sticky situation is said to have “placed his finger between his teeth” (Ketubot 71a). When the Passover Haggadah says that one should refute the arguments of the Wicked Son, it says “You too shall stun his teeth.”

The classical Hebrew lexicographers like Menachem Ibn Saruk (920-970), Rabbi Yonah Ibn Janach (990-1050), and Rabbi David Kimchi (1160-1235) trace the word shein to the biliteral root shin-nun, but they do not explain how it relates to other roots or words that also use that two-letter string. Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1714-1814) explains the core meaning of shin-nun as “double.” Most people grow two sets of teeth in their lifetimes – one as a baby and one as an older child – and thus the very word for “tooth” relates to doubling, he writes. Other words Rabbi Pappenheim sees as derivatives of the same biliteral root include shnayim (“two”), shana (“repeat”), shinun (“sharpening,” a repetitive action done by rubbing a blunt metal against a stone to sharpen it), and many more. The work Shoresh Yesha argues that shein is more closely related to shinun in the sense that when one chews with one’s teeth, one performs a “repetitive” action meant to break down one’s food, just like “sharpening” entails repetitive motions.


Mitalot and Maltiot

Two more words for “teeth” in the Bible are mitalot (Job 29:17, Joel 1:6, and Proverbs 30:14) and maltiot (Ps. 58:7). Both words always appear in the plural form. The commentaries agree that both words mean the same thing, only that the consonants are metathesized, with lammed and tav switching positions within the word.

Menachem, Ibn Janach, and Radak all trace mitalot to the triliteral tav-lammed-ayin and maltiot to lammed-tav-ayin, with no semantic difference noted between these roots. Rabbi Pappenheim disagrees with the classical lexicographers on this, however. He argues that the letter tav is not crucial to the core root, but rather that both words can be traced to the biliteral root lammed-ayin, defined by him as “the organ of swallowing” (i.e., throat). The word loe is used once in the Bible in sense of throat (Proverbs 23:2), and Rabbi Pappenheim sees mitalot and maltiot as derived from the same etymological root on account of the teeth being very close to the throat.

Rabbi Moshe Tedeschi Ashkenazi (1821-1898) in his work Otzar Nirdafim on Hebrew synonyms argues that the word shein refers specifically to one of the eight “incisors,” which are the teeth closest to the front of the mouth (used for initial biting and cutting of one’s food), while mitalot/maltiot refer specifically to the ten molars in the back of the mouth. As Rabbi Tedeschi explains, the molars are used for chewing and grinding food right before one swallows, and in light of Rabbi Pappenheim’s argument that those words are related to the root lammed-ayin, everything dovetails quite nicely. This is also in consonance with Rashi (to Joel 1:6 and Proverbs 30:14), Radak (Sefer HaShorashim), and Biur HaGra (to Proverbs 31:9) who all explain mitalot and maltiot as “thick teeth” that are deeper inside the mouth than a shein.

Taking this a step further, Rabbi Tedeschi explains mitalot as a portmanteau derived from the two biliteral roots tav-lammed (“hanging” or “suspending,” because a tooth hangs onto the gums inside the mouth) and lammed-ayin (“swallowing”). In fusing these two biliteral roots and not repeating the lammed, one is left with a seemingly triliteral root tav-lammed-ayin. Rabbi Tedeschi additionally notes that this root bears an affinity to the triliteral root lammed-ayin-tet, which means “guzzle,” “gulp,” or “swallow” (see Genesis 25:30, as noted by Rabbi Tedeschi’s teacher Shadal in his commentary there, or Mishna Shabbat 24:3). He also relates these roots to another triliteral root, lammed-ayin-samech, which in Rabbinic Hebrew refers to the act of “chewing/masticating” (see Mishna Shabbat 19:2, Pesachim 2:7, and Niddah 9:7).

In his lexicon Machberet HaAruch, Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Parchon writes that mitalot and maltiot refers to especially long teeth that protrude from a wild animal’s mouth. A third way of differentiating between shein and mitalot/maltiot is by positing that shein is a general term for all different types of teeth, while mitalot/maltiot refers to specific teeth, whether fangs, tusks, or molars.

The difference between shein and mitalot/maltiot is also evident from the Targumim who use different Aramaic terms when translating those Hebrew terms. The Targumim consistently translate the Hebrew word shein into the Aramaic kaka (e.g., Psalms 3:8, 35:16, 58:7 and Job 19:20, 29:17), spelled kaf-kaf-aleph, or simply Aramaicize shein into shina but otherwise leave it untranslated (e.g., Exodus 21:24, Proverbs 10:26, 30:14, Joel 1:6, Amos 4:6).


Kaka and Nivi

The Aramaic term kaka also appears many times in the Talmud in the sense of “tooth,” like when Rabbi Chiyya recommended his son not to get his sickly “tooth” removed (Pesachim 113a) and when Rabbi Yochanan had a dangerous “tooth” disease (Yoma 84a). In one of the dreams that Rava related to the infamous dream interpreter Bar Hedya, Rava said that he saw all his shein and kaka fall out (Brachot 56a). Rashi (there) explains that in that context kaka refers to Rava’s inner teeth, implying that shein refers to his outer teeth. Elsewhere, the Tosafists (to Avodah Zarah 28a and Gittin 69a) dispute the notion that kaka could refer to the gums instead explaining that term as referring to “large teeth” like molars. In a borrowed sense, the Aramaic word kaka is also used to refer to the “teeth” of a wooden key (Shabbat 89b).

The Targumic rendering of mitalot and maltiot, in contrast, is nivi (Proverbs 30:14, Job 29:17, Joel 1:6, Psalms 58:7). This Aramaic word appears several times in the Talmud. When discussing the possibility of determining an animal’s kosher status by looking at its teeth, the Talmud (Chullin 59a) mentions two types of teeth: shein and nivi. In this case, shein refers to what we generally call teeth, the meaning of nivi in this context is not readily understood. Rashi (there) offers two explanations as to what nivi are. In his first explanation, he clarifies that nivi are two specific teeth that stand out from the rest of the teeth in an animal’s mouth (possibly fangs?); in his second explanation, he claims that nivi are actually indentations in animal’s gums where one would have otherwise expected there to be actual teeth. The Tosafists favor Rashi’s first approach, although the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah §79:1) cites both explanations (see also Rashi to Shabbat 63b and Bava Kamma 83a).


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Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein writes The Jewish Press's "Fascinating Explorations in Lashon Hakodesh" column.