May a Kohen Go to the Dentist?
Yaakov Avinu blessed his sons with brachos appropriate to their future callings in life. They and their children after them for generations engaged in many different professions, some of them even becoming dentists…
Yankel Katz (*Names are fictitious) called me recently with a very surprising shaylah:
“I am scheduled to have a dental implant placed in my mouth. My dentist told me that the procedure may require the insertion of cadaver bone around the implant. Since I am a kohen, I immediately realized that I may have a serious halacha problem on my hands, or more accurately, in his hands and my mouth. May I have these products inserted? May I even go into the dentist’s office knowing he has these remains (parts of a corpse) on hand? Maybe I cannot even enter the building?”
I admit that I was more than a bit incredulous that human remains are commonly used today in basic dentistry and medicine. I did some research and discovered that indeed, Yankel’s information is accurate. Many forms of dental, oral, podiatric and other kinds of surgery utilize cadaver-derived products. Surgeons and dentists use these human products (typically bone, skin, and heart muscle) in various grafting procedures. Similarly, many podiatrists use human remains in the construction of foot implants. Because of this, most periodontists (gum specialists) and dentists specializing in implants store human muscle and bone in their offices. Thus, Yankel’s shaylah is realistic: May a kohen enter an office building knowing that there is probably a dental or foot clinic somewhere in the building that contains human remains? Does this prohibit a kohen from freely entering large office buildings?
Furthermore, a non-kohen who causes a kohen to become tamei will also be violating the Torah. Obviously, the ramifications of these shaylos are ominous, and the potential repercussions could be catastrophic for people employed in most cities. Because of these considerations, I researched this shaylah with utmost seriousness.
There are three potential halachic issues involved in this shaylah:
I. Benefiting From Human Remains (Issur Hana’ah)
II. The Mitzvah of Burial
To address these questions, we first need to gather some factual information. I began by asking Yankel’s dentist the following questions:
1) How extensively are cadaver bones and muscle used?
2) How much material does a dentist keep in his office?
I received the following answers:
1) Every periodontist and oral surgeon has this material in his office. In addition, many general dentists have it too if they perform gum surgery or implant surgery.
2) There is no practical way to answer this question accurately. Specialists such as oral surgeons probably have a lot. I keep between 2-10cc. They are usually stored in 0.5, 1, and 2cc bottles.
And now some background to the halachic shaylos involved:
I. BENEFITING FROM A CORPSE
May one benefit from a corpse or from human remains?
The Gemara rules that one may not benefit from a corpse (Avodah Zarah 29b). However, the Gemara does not discuss whether this prohibition applies only to the remains of a Jew or also to those of a non-Jew.
Why should it make a difference?
The Torah pasuk teaching that one may not benefit from a corpse refers to a Jew. Thus, many poskim conclude that the prohibition is restricted to the remains of a Jew (Tosafos and Rashba, Bava Kamma 10a; Nekudos HaKesef and Gra, Yoreh Deah 349; Shu’t Radbaz #741; Mishneh LaMelech, Hilchos Aveil 14:21). Others rule that remains of either Jews or non-Jews are equally forbidden (Shu’t Rashba 365; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 349:1). Still others compromise between these two positions, contending that the prohibition to use a gentile cadaver is Rabbinic, whereas not using a Jewish corpse is prohibited min haTorah (Pischei Teshuvah ad loc.).
In a circumstance of pikuach nefesh one may of course benefit, as is true with virtually all mitzvos of the Torah. Although tooth replacement is not a life threatening urgency, it is important to use the best quality dental implant.
To quote Yankel’s dentist, himself an observant Jew:
“In my opinion, the severity of this halachic issue should hinge on the detriment caused by tooth loss. Clearly losing one tooth or even all the teeth will not result in death. However, tooth loss often results in dietary/nutritional issues. People who have a difficult time chewing will not have a proper diet. Although people who lose their teeth can still eat, they tend to eat soft foods, which are usually high in carbohydrates and low in protein, vitamins, and minerals. Foods that are high in protein, vitamins, and minerals, such as meat, poultry, grains, and fresh fruits and vegetables, tend to be harder to chew. Consequently, people who eat mainly soft foods may become undernourished. I have seen many cases where people receiving their first set of dentures lose a lot of weight due to the difficulty involved in learning how to use them. Some people adapt and those who do not often seek implants if they can afford it. The only thing preventing most people from having implants is the exorbitant cost, since insurance does not usually pay for them at this time.”
At this point, I think it is important to explain the difference between dentures and implants.
DENTURES VERSUS IMPLANTS
Dentures are removable appliances that replace some or all of the teeth. They are usually not firm enough to allow a proper bite and chew, and thus a patient using dentures usually regains only a very partial ability to chew. In addition, they are often uncomfortable.
To install dental implants, the dentist utilizes a surgical screw to which he cements crowns or bridges. Alternatively, he uses the implants as anchors to hold complete dentures in place. In either instance, the resultant bite is much stronger than dentures and allows the patient an almost total ability to chew a regular diet.
Dental researchers introduced implants in the ‘60’s, and they became mainstream practice in the ‘90’s. They are now usually considered the “standard of care” for tooth replacement.
Therefore, one can understand the practical importance of using high-quality implants, assuming, of course, that no compromise of halacha results for either the patient, the dentist, or kohanim in the vicinity.
USE OF HUMAN TISSUE
Rav Moshe Feinstein wrote a teshuvah concerning transplanting human remains in non-life-threatening situations (Shu’t Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 1:229, 230). Clearly, one may transplant such organs as kidneys, livers, and heart because of pikuach nefashos (life-threatening emergency). However, transplanting items such as bone, cornea, muscle, and ligament are not usually for life-threatening situations. As explained above, dental implants relieve a non-life-threatening emergency, although one could argue that these situations are considered choleh kol gufo, where halachic rules are somewhat relaxed. Nevertheless, treating a choleh kol gufo does not permit violating a Torah prohibition.
We noted above that there is a dispute whether one may use remains of a non-Jew; Rav Moshe concludes that, under extenuating circumstances, one may rely on the lenient opinions. A second question now presents itself, which is whether one may assume that the remains used are those of a non-Jew, since using remains of a Jew is certainly prohibited min haTorah. Again, here also Rav Moshe ruled leniently that one may assume that the remains are of non-Jewish source, since most people are not Jewish (Mishneh LaMelech, Hil. Aveil 3:1).
NOT THE NORMAL USE
Some poskim permit the use of human remains for non-life-threatening emergencies because of a different line of reasoning. The Gemara (Pesachim 25b) rules that someone who is ill, but does not have a life threatening condition, may apply a balm made from orlah fruit (that grew in the first three years of a tree’s growth), notwithstanding that the Torah prohibits benefiting from such fruit.
Why is this permitted where the situation is not life threatening?
This is because many prohibitions that are asur b’hana’ah (forbidden to benefit from), are prohibited min haTorah only when the prohibited item is used in its normal way. Smearing fruit on one’s skin is not a typical, normal use. Since orlah is prohibited min haTorah b’hana’ah only when used in its normal way, smearing orlah fruit as a balm involves only a rabbinic prohibition, which is relaxed for an ill person.
However, this leniency does not apply to all prohibitions. For example, the Torah prohibits using kilayim (forbidden fruit of a grapevine) even in an atypical way. For this reason, an ill person may not smear kilayim as a balm, even though he may smear orlah balm.
Where does the prohibition to use human remains fall? Is it like orlah, and is permitted for an ill person to use in an atypical manner, or like kilayim and prohibited.
The poskim dispute whether the prohibition not to use human remains applies to using them in an atypical way, Shu’t Radbaz #979 and Mishneh L’Melech, Hilchos Aveil 14:21 are lenient, whereas Rabbi Akiva Eiger (notes to Yoreh Deah 349) prohibits. If it is permitted, there is a basis to permit the use of human remains from a Jew for someone who is ill when the situation is not life-threatening.
Rav Moshe rules that min hatorah one may not use human remains in an atypical way, although other poskim are lenient (Shu’t Har Tzvi, Yoreh Deah #277). The latter approach might allow using muscle and bone for implants even from a Jewish cadaver.
However, since there are alternative sources for implants, such as bovine tissue, it is halachically unclear whether this justifies use of human implants. Although some dentists feel that the cadaver-based material is superior, others do not agree. Therefore, someone who is considering cadaver implants should ask a shaylah from his or her Rav, whether or not one is a kohen. In addition, although the dentist may have asked a shaylah and been told that he or she may use human implants, the patient’s Rav may feel otherwise. Thus I believe that a frum dentist who received a psak that he may use human tissue should advise his frum patients to ask their own shaylah.
II. THE REQUIREMENT TO BURY THE DEAD
Is one required to bury a small amount of human remains?
The poskim dispute how small an amount of Jewish remains requires the mitzvah of burying. Some contend that one must bury even an amount as small as a k’zayis (Tosafos Yom Tov to Shabbos 10:5). Others contend that one is required to bury only that which could represent an entire body (Mishneh LaMelech, Hilchos Aveil 14:21). However, it seems that all agree that there is no Torah mitzvah to bury the remains of a gentile, except due to tumah concerns. Thus, this question would not affect our shaylah once we assume that the remains involved are of a non-Jew.
III. TUMAH AND A KOHEN
A human cadaver (meis) of either Jew or gentile conveys tumah when a person touches remains or carries them. Although these halachos do not affect most Jews nowadays, a kohen is still forbidden to come in contact with human remains in a way that he will become tamei.
Jewish remains convey tumah through ohel, which means that a kohen may not be under the same roof or in the same room as the remains. However, if all the doors and windows in the room holding the remains are closed, the tumas ohel is probably contained within that room (see Nekudos HaKesef on Taz, Yoreh Deah 371:3; see also Shu’t Noda BiYehudah, Yoreh Deah #94). However, there is a lesser form of tumah, called sof tumah latzeis (lit., the tumah will eventually leave), that extends beyond the closed doors or windows, though only in the direction that one will eventually remove the tumah.
OHEL AND A NON-JEW
The poskim dispute whether non-Jewish remains convey tumah through ohel; i.e., does someone in the same room as non-Jewish remains become tamei? According to those who contend that non-Jewish remains convey tumas ohel, a kohen may not enter a room containing a gentile corpse or part of a corpse. Thus, a kohen should be careful not to enter any hospital except for a life-threatening emergency, since there is likely to be human remains somewhere in the hospital. Similarly, a kohen may not enter a museum without carefully verifying that it does not contain any human remains — an unusual circumstance. According to those who contend that non-Jewish remains do not convey tumas ohel, a kohen may enter a hospital when one may assume that it contains no Jewish remains.
The Shulchan Aruch rules that non-Jewish remains do not convey tumas ohel, yet a kohen should still be machmir not to be in the same ohel as gentile remains. Thus, a kohen should not visit someone in the hospital unless there is an extenuating reason, i.e., there is something important that only he may accomplish. Similarly, a kohen should not enter a museum without verifying that it does not contain human remains. [This discussion is limited to a case where the remains in the hospital are of a non-Jew. In a situation where there are likely to be Jewish remains in the hospital, a kohen would be allowed to enter the hospital only for a life-threatening emergency (pikuach nefashos).]
Thus, if we assume that the remains contained in the dental office are a non-Jew’s, then a kohen entering the office would not entail a halachic violation, but would be something that should be avoided (according to the above ruling of the Shulchan Aruch). However because of other halachic factors (too complicated to explain in this article), there is a basis to be lenient and allow a kohen to enter the dentist’s office and certainly the building. Personally, I would encourage the dentist to store the remains in a way that guarantees that there is no tumas ohel, a procedure that I will gladly explain to any dentist on an individual basis, but that is too complicated to elucidate in this article.
WHAT ABOUT YANKEL KATZ’S IMPLANT?
So far we have discussed whether one may use human remains as an implant and whether a kohen may enter the office. Assuming that Yankel’s Rav rules that he may rely on the remains being of a non-Jew and that one may use gentile remains, the shaylah is still not completely resolved. Because Yankel has the bone graft installed in his mouth, he will now be touching and carrying the remains, and a kohen may not touch or carry non-Jewish remains. Is there any possible solution to this issue, or must Yankel opt for a non-human product? The answer to this question lies in a different direction.
IS THERE A MINIMUM AMOUNT OF REMAINS THAT CONVEYS TUMAH?
Here the issue is, how small an amount still conveys tumah? Although the amount of flesh that conveys tumah is one k’zayis, the amount of human bone that conveys tumah in this situation may be as small as a k’se’orah, the size of a barleycorn, which is tiny (Ohalos 2:7; Rambam, Tumas Meis 4:4).
How big is a k’zayis? The estimates of the poskim range from as little as 3 cc. to as much as 25 cc. A dentist typically uses less than this amount in a patient, although sometimes he might use a larger amount. Thus, one should verify this information in order to ask a shaylah. However the amount of bone used is certainly greater than the size of a barleycorn, thus precluding a kohen from receiving a dental implant of human origin.
There is one other aspect about dental offices that one should know: Some dentists keep a human skull on hand for explanation and education. A kohen should clarify in advance before visiting a dentist whether he is a skull-bearer, and should make similar research before scheduling an appointment at the podiatrist and other physicians, who often also use human remains in their surgeries or have cadaver models on hand for visual explanations. A concerned practitioner will procure plastic replicas rather than genuine human parts to minimize difficult situations for a kohen.
A kohen has the privilege of blessing the people, in addition to serving in the Beis HaMikdash, may it be built speedily in our day. Concurrent with these privileges come many responsibilities, including the requirement of avoiding tumah. This necessitates an awareness of possible tumah situations and being aware of new developments in our constantly changing society.