Reuven Chaim Klein
What's in a Word? Synonyms in the Hebrew Language

Nuances of Teeth

The word shein appears 55 times in the Bible, mostly in reference to a “tooth” as found inside the mouth of a person or animal. In this essay, we explore a whole litany of other words in Hebrew and Aramaic that also mean “tooth”: mitalot, maltiot, kaka, nivi, gallal, and chit. We will pick at these words and try to tease out whether they are truly synonyms, or there are slight, nuanced differences between them.

Although the word shein usually means “tooth,” in others cases, shein refers to things made out of “ivory,” which is a material made out of teeth. Such terms include: Ivory House (I Kgs. 22:39, Amos 3:15), Ivory Palace (Ps. 45:9), Ivory Towers (Song of Songs 7:5), Ivory Thrones/Chairs (I Kgs. 10:18, II Chron. 9:17), Ivory Beds (Amos 6:4), and the like. [For more about the Hebrew terms for “ivory,” see “Elephants Galore” (Nov. 2020).]

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 Mishnah 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/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 Mishnah borrowed the word shein.

In rabbinic idiom, the word shein appears in several flavorful expressions in the Mishnah and Talmud. For example, in the Mishnah an obviously pregnant woman is said to have “her stomach in between her teeth” (Rosh Hashanah 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). And when the Passover Haggadah says that one should refute the arguments of the Wicked Son, it says “you too shall stun his teeth.”

All 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.” He explains that shein relates to this meaning because most people grow two sets of teeth: one as a baby and one as an older toddler/child — thus, the very word for “tooth” relates to “doubling.” Other words Rabbi Pappenheim sees as derivatives of the same biliteral root include shnayim/shnei (“two”), shanah (“repeat”), shinun (“sharpening,” a repetitive action done by rubbing a blunt metal against a stone to sharpen it), shoneh (“change,” because when something is repeated, it inevitably changes, as it is impossible to exactly replicate what was before), sheinah (“sleep,” because when sleeping, one’s brain rehashes a second time all of one’s thoughts from throughout the day), shanah (“year,” an astronomical duration defined by the sun completing its annual cycle and repeating it by starting anew), and yashan (“old,” a person who has experienced many years).

The work Shoresh Yesha actually 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. Interestingly, Rabbi David Chaim Chelouche (1920–2016) sees SHIN-NUN as related to SAMECH-NUN (“thornbush” like in sneh), because the various thorns on a branch resemble “sharp teeth.”

It should also be noted that the letter SHIN might be related to the word shein, because it is orthographically represented by what looks like a rudimentary sketch of a mouth with three teeth.

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

However, Rabbi Pappenheim disagrees with the classical lexicographers about the words mitalot and maltiot. He argues that the letter TAV is not crucial to the core root, which allows him to trace both words 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 (Prov. 23:2), and Rabbi Pappenheim sees mitalot and maltiot as derived from same etymological root on account of the teeth being very close the throat (see below). He also argues that the word tolaat (“worm”) derives from this root because worms consume their food very quickly, as though simply swallowing without chewing. Furthermore, Rabbi Pappenehim even views the word bala (“to swallow”) as related to this root, parsing the triliteral BET-LAMMED-AYIN as a portmanteau of BET-ALEPH (“come/enter”) and LAMMED-AYIN. Of course, the act of “swallowing” is simply the act of causing food to “enter” the “throat,” so it all makes sense.

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). On the other hand, he explains that the terms 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 Prov. 30:14), Radak (Sefer HaShorashim), and Biur HaGra (to Prov. 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/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 three-letter root TAV-LAMMED-AYIN. Rabbi Tedeschi additionally notes that this triliteral root bears an affinity to the triliteral root LAMMED-AYIN-TET (by metathesizing the consonants and exchange TAV for TET), which means “to guzzle/gulp/swallow,” as in the Biblical Hebrew word haliteini (in Gen. 25:30, as noted by Rabbi Tedeschi’s teacher Shadal in his commentary there), or malitin (“force-feed”) in the Mishnah (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 Mishnah Shabbat 19:2, Pesachim 2:7, and Niddah 9:7).

Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Parchon (an early grammarian from the 12th century) in his lexicon Machberet HaAruch writes that mitalot and maltiot refers to especially long teeth that protrude from a wild animal’s mouth (“fangs”). 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., Ps. 3:8, 35:16, 58:7, Job 19:20, 29:17), spelled KAF-KAF-ALEPH, or simply Aramaicize shein into shina but otherwise leave it untranslated (e.g., Ex. 21:24, Prov. 10:26, 30:14, Joel 1:6, Amos 4:6).

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The Aramaic term kaka also appears many times in the Talmud in the sense of “tooth.” For example, 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 (“molars”), implying that shein refers to his outer teeth (“incisors”). 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” (again, “molars”). In a borrowed sense, the Aramaic word kaka is also used to refer to the “teeth” of a wooden key (Shabbat 89b).

By contrast, the Targumic rendering of mitalot and maltiot in Aramaic is nivi (Prov. 30:14, Job 29:17, Joel 1:6, Ps. 58:7). This Aramaic word appears several times in the Talmud. For example, 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. While shein refers to what we generally call “teeth,” the meaning of nivi in this context is not readily understood. Rashi (to Chullin 59a) 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”?), while 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 (to Chullin 59a) 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). [A similar word, niv, exists in Biblical Hebrew and is also associated with the mouth (Isa. 57:19, Mal. 1:12). However, the Hebrew niv refers to “speech,” as I explained in “Prophets and Visionaries” (Dec. 2018).]

The prophet Ahijah the Shilonite foretold of the destruction of House of Jeroboam by saying that they will be annihilated “like the gallal consumes until total obliteration” (I Kgs. 14:10). The Talmud (Bava Kamma 2b) explains that gallal refers to a “tooth.” Technically, in context it refers to any type of damage similar to that caused by the tooth (for example if one’s animal eat somebody else’s produce). There are three ways of explaining the connection between gallal and “tooth”:

  1. Rabbeinu Chananel (cited by the Tosafists there) explains that the word gallal literally means something “rock hard” (see Ezra 5:8, 6:5), and therefore it can refer to “teeth” which are rock hard.
  2. Rashi (to Bava Kamma 3a) explains that gallal is related to the word gilui (“revealing”), and refers to a part of the body which is sometimes revealed and sometimes not — an apt description of “teeth.”
  3. Alternatively, Rashi (there) explains that gallal literally means “dung” (often in round fecal pellets), and refers to “teeth” because one of the body’s tools for consuming food and converting it into bodily refuse.

When detailing the bodily blemishes that disqualify/exempt an animal from being offered as a bechor (“firstborn”), the Mishnah (Bechorot 6:4) and Midrash (Sifra, also known as Torat Kohanim, to Emor Parshata 7:12) mention the chit (spelled CHET-(YOD)-TET), saying that if the “outer chit” is deficient or otherwise cut, or the “inner chit” is totally uprooted, then this is considered a blemish. But, if its “inner chit” was merely deficient but not totally uprooted, then this is not considered a blemish (Bechorot 6:12).

What is a chit?

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Rashi (to Bechorot 35a) explains that it refers to the animals’ “gums,” wherein the teeth are expected to be. Based on this, he clarifies that the “outer chit” refers to the part of the gums where the incisors ought to be, while the “inner chit” refers to the part of the gums where the molars ought to be. The Mainz commentary ascribed to Rabbeinu Gershom (to Bechorot 35a) explains it differently: chit actually refers to the “teeth” themselves (incisors and molars, respectively), not the “gums” in which the teeth are set. This latter explanation is also adopted by Rabbi Nosson of Rome (1035–1106) in his classical work Sefer HaAruch. [Maimonides (to Bechorot 6:4) and others have a different version of the Mishnah, wherein the word is read as chut, spelled with a VAV.]

Until very recently, the word chit was not attested to anywhere in the Bible or Rabbinic Literature save for that one reference in the Mishnah and Midrash. However, in 2022, an international group of archeologists led by Dr. Daniel Vainstub from Ben-Gurion University reported in the Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology that they had discovered an interesting find at the site of the ancient city of Lachish. They found an ivory comb with an inscription written in Canaanite script that has been reconstructed to read: “May this chit root out the lice of the hair and the beard.” The author of this inscription referred to the comb as a chit both because it was made of ivory — that is, an elephant’s “tooth”—  and because as a comb it uses “teeth” (in a borrowed sense, as per above). Amazingly, in this inscription, we find evidence of the fact that Rabbinic Hebrew even preserved ancient Semitic (Canaanite) words that predate the Bible, yet are not found in the Bible.

An alternate reading proposed by Professor Bob Becking of Utrecht University suggests that the word chit relates to the triliteral root CHET-TET-TET (“dig,” engrave”) and does not refer to the teeth on the comb, but actually refers to the inscription on the comb itself!

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Dr. Alexander Kohut in HaAruch HaShaleim argues that the word chit derives from the root CHET-TET-TET, which means to “dig/peck” and refers to the tooth’s role in digging into food and helping cut it into smaller digestible bits. However, I was thinking that perhaps chit is related to the word chitah (“wheat”). In fact, if you look at a stalk of wheat, you might notice that the spikelets protrude from the rachis in a way that somewhat looks like teeth protrude from the gums.

About the Author
RABBI REUVEN CHAIM KLEIN is a researcher and editor at the Veromemanu Foundation in Israel. His weekly articles about synonyms in the Hebrew Language appear in the OhrNet and are syndicated by the Jewish Press and Times of Israel. For over a decade, he studied at preimer Haredi Yeshivot, including Yeshiva Gedolah of Los Angeles, Yeshivat Mir in Jerusalem, Beth Medrash Govoha of America. He received rabbinic ordination from multiple rabbinic authorities and holds an MA in Jewish Education from the London School of Jewish Studies/Middlesex Univeristy. Rabbi Klein authored two popular books that were published by Mosaica Press, as well as countless articles and papers published in various journals. He and his wife made Aliyah in 2011 and currently live in the West Bank city of Beitar Illit. Rabbi Klein is a celebrated speaker and is available for hire in research, writing, and translation projects, as well as speaking engagements.
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