On some lists of quaint holidays celebrated in the month of February, today is marked as National Toothache Day. Anyone who has ever suffered the trauma of an aching tooth may wonder why anyone would want to dedicate a day to toothaches. Alas, that question remains a mystery. It does, however, provide an opportunity for Jewish Treats to examine the Talmud’s sage advice about how to handle dental pain.
It appears that, in the days of the Talmud, vinegar was a commonly used remedy for a toothache. This is understood from the fact that the sages discuss the permissibility of sipping vinegar on Shabbat: “Said Abaye, ‘Come and hear: One who is troubled with his teeth must not rinse them with vinegar [on Shabbat, which means that] if he is only troubled, he must not [rinse them], but if they hurt him very much it is proper [for him to rinse with vinegar]’” (Talmud Avodah Zarah 28a).
The sages further define the type of vinegar that should be used: “Rabbi Ahab Papa pointed out a contradiction to Rabbi Abbahu…Shall we say that vinegar is beneficial to the teeth, but it is written (Proverbs 10:26), ‘As vinegar to the teeth and as smoke to the eyes’ [implying that vinegar is painful to one’s teeth]. There is no difficulty [because] the one refers to vinegar of fruit and the other to acid” (Talmud Shabbat 111a).
An alternate remedy cited in the Talmud: “For a toothache, Rabbah ben Rabbi Huna says that he should take the top of a garlic with one stalk only and grind it with oil and salt and put it on his thumb nail on the side where the tooth aches and put a rim of dough round it, taking care that it does not touch his flesh, as it may cause leprosy” (Talmud Gittin 69a).
These remedies may not compare to the over-the-counter medicines of the modern age. However, it is fascinating to note what people did before acetaminophen.