Reviewing: “Kesser Dovid: The Halachic Guide to Dentistry,” by Rabbi Dr. David Katz. Feldheim, 2018; 496 pages. ISBN 978-1-68025-329-0.
For the past seven years, while balancing a busy private dental practice along with serving as a department head of oral diagnosis at New York Presbyterian Hospital Queens, clinical professor at Columbia University’s School of Dentistry and, more recently, as the first-ever director of halachic dentistry at Touro College, Teaneck’s own Dr. David J. Katz has been creating a major sefer on the intersection of dentistry and halacha.
His project was fully realized this winter with the publication, by Feldheim, of “Kesser Dovid: The Halachic Guide to Dentistry.” The work is a wide-ranging discussion and analysis, accessible to both practitioners and laypeople, of halacha pertaining to the practice of dental medicine and the maintenance of oral health. Among others, the sefer is endorsed by Rabbi Dovid Feinstein, Rabbi Asher Weiss, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, Rabbi Yosef Carmel and several leading academic physicians including Teaneck’s Dr. Alan Kadish, president of Touro College.
Dr. Katz, in an interview with The Jewish Link, sought to emphasize that the book was not written for nor intended to be read only by dentists and dental students. “Rather, it is my hope that every person to whom halacha is dear will find it relevant and enlightening. It is for this reason that I have tried to present the material in a way that it can be appreciated by professional and layman alike. My sincerest wish is to explain these topics in a way that deepens the desire to understand, live and practice within the framework of halacha.”
The rabbinic comments on the sefer have been uniformly positive. “It is already several years that we have discussed numerous topics of this book, and I have also reviewed parts of the work. I have seen in this sefer discussions, comments and clarifications relating to halacha that I have not found in other books of this type… this book should be well-received by the Torah community—may they learn from it ‘the path they should follow and the deeds they should do’ [Shemos 18:20],” wrote Rabbi Hershel Schachter in his endorsement of the book.
Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter concurs. “Rabbi Dr. David Katz has written an extraordinary book. It is well researched, clear and comprehensive, covering all halachic issues that relate to dentistry. He has analyzed all relevant primary sources and sought out leading contemporary poskim in addressing even the most recent developments in the field. This book will be the most useful and definitive guide for those interested in this subject for generations to come,” Rabbi Dr. Schacter told The Jewish Link.
“To my knowledge, this is the first sefer of its kind since we received the Torah at Sinai, a comprehensive guide to the interface of halacha and dentistry. It’s like a ‘Shemirat Shabbat K’hilchata’ on dentistry, and a vivid demonstration of Rabbi Dr. Katz’s expertise in dentistry and mastery of the applicable Torah sources,” Rabbi Steven Pruzansky told The Jewish Link.
While he had been practicing and teaching dentistry actively since 1982, and is in his third cycle learning Daf Yomi, an idea started to percolate in Dr. Katz’s mind approximately a decade ago that would fuse both dentistry and his learning. Dr. Katz shared that his array of experiences at work and in learning brought him the realization that a definitive guide to dental halacha was necessary, to settle both classical issues relating to more common experiences as well as complex questions related to newer technologies. He explained: “Over the course of time, Jewish patients began to ask me questions related to dentistry that came up. Sometimes they were about dental emergencies on Shabbos, or mikvah issues. I would generally ask others, and would not give psak halacha on my own,” he told The Jewish Link. “I had a few rabbis who I would ask, and they became a network of rabbis, some of the gedolim of our time, to ask questions to.”
In the last 15 or 20 years, Dr. Katz explained, more complex halachic questions have been raised that have required new responses. “With the increased use of implants, bone grafts have become very popular and useful and have involved bone grafts from cadavers. People of a kohanic lineage are concerned with restrictions on ritual defilement, and Jews generally are not allowed to benefit from the dead except in cases of pikuach nefesh. I am a kohain and a lot of my patients and many doctors are kohanim also, so I contacted several of the leading poskim of our time to render opinions.” Definitive psak had been given over to Dr. Katz by Rabbi Dovid Feinstein, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, Rabbi Asher Weiss, Rabbi Yosef Carmel, Rabbi J.D. Bleich, Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, Rabbi Yaakov Neuburger and Rabbi Zvi Sobolofsky, among others.
Although at several junctures Dr. Katz thought to research and publish a book exploring these issues, he was not able to commit to an endeavor of this scope due to varying responsibilities. However, after finishing his term as president of Congregation B’nai Yeshurun, Teaneck’s largest synagogue, “I wanted to earn semicha while my mind was still functioning at a high capacity. I come from a long line of rabbis and didn’t want the chain broken by me,” he explained. While he has been attending Rabbi Dovid Feinstein’s shiur on the Lower East Side on Sunday mornings for many years, he was ready for something intensive yet flexible. He found a yeshiva program based in Israel, now known as Yeshiva Keter HaTorah, which was able to work with his schedule, and he committed to learning 20 hours a week for two years. He passed his semicha test, endorsed by the Israeli rabbanut, in 2008.
Armed with semicha, Dr. Katz set to work. “My breakthrough came several years ago when the uncharted halachic issues of the new technique of implanting bone graft material in dental procedures presented themselves in our practice and in the practices of my colleagues globally. I became engrossed with trying to solve the issues that were involved, and then, after having consulted with many of the leading poskim of our time, I published the first formally written halachic treatment of the matter,” he told The Jewish Link.
This psak halacha was written in 2011 and published in 2012, said Dr. Katz, and it contained the definitive halachic decision on bone grafts, otherwise known as biological scaffolding. He explained: “You are not allowed to benefit from the dead unless you are saving a life. Having bone grafts in this case is not pikuach nefesh, because the condition you have is not life-threatening; it’s to allow people to keep their teeth, and to allow them a better quality of life. It is not something we would ordinarily have allowed to violate a biblical prohibition. However, seven leading authorities all were in agreement to allow bone grafts in implant dentistry,” he said.
Another topic that has since been addressed through his work has been micropigmentation, which is used as part of the repair process for cleft lips. “Closing the lip you have a white scar that goes across the lip. What we have started to do in the last couple of decades is stain the lip using the same type of stain used in tattoos, to match the color of the lip so you don’t see the scar of the cleft lip,” he said. This, too, has the support of all available authorities.
“It became apparent to me that there were numerous other new halachic issues in the practice of dentistry that deserved to be thoroughly researched, explained and disseminated. There were also many issues that had been explored in other excellent works, but these writings were scattered in books and periodicals, many of which were in Hebrew. Unfortunately, there was no single ‘go-to’ guide that could be used to reference the different topics and their various sources and solutions.” The book, therefore, in addition to addressing these topics previously touched on, also delves into complex topics related to oral hygiene on fast days and Shabbat, kashering dental prostheses and dental products, cosmetic dentistry and forensic dentistry and the applications to halacha in identification of bodies through dentistry. In terms of forensic dentistry, Dr. Katz is also a subject-matter expert; following the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11, Dr. Katz was a member of the dental identification unit set up by FEMA, and was subsequently named to the President’s Commission on Dentistry.
Dr. Katz noted that his goal in the book was to address complex details in as inclusive a fashion as possible. “In the writing of the book I really had to struggle. I had to deal with complicated topics but tried to explain it in as clear a fashion as possible. I wanted to provide as much background as possible, but also to write it on a level that everyone has no problem reading it,” he said. His sefer’s title, even, is a chortle-worthy double entendre that anyone with a little Hebrew can understand, and anyone with a dental crown will immediately recognize.
Dr. Katz added that his wife was of great assistance to him during the writing of the book. “The person who deserves the most credit in this is my partner in life and that’s my wife, Tammy. She deserves as much attention and credit as I do. You can’t achieve anything in life without an understanding and supportive partner,” he said.
Dr. Katz also sought to express Hakarat Hatov for the opportunity “to work with the rabbis who were instrumental in the creation of this sefer and who support me unceasingly. That rabbinic scholars of such renown made themselves available to me on a regular basis is truly remarkable and a testimony to the true greatness in character they possess. These include (alphabetically): Rabbi Yisroel Belsky, zt”l, Rabbi J. David Bleich, Rabbi Yosef Carmel, Rabbi Dovid Cohen, Rabbi Don Channen, Rabbi Dovid Feinstein, Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz, Rabbi Yaakov Neuberger, Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, Rabbi Yonasan Sacks, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter, Rabbi Zvi Sobolofsky, Rabbi Moshe Tendler, Rabbi Mordechai Torczyner, Rabbi Asher Weiss and Rabbi Mordechai Willig.”
By Elizabeth Kratz
Dr. Katz practices restorative and general dentistry in private practice in Teaneck and Forest Hills, Queens.