Ketuvot 75a ~ Halitosis

 תלמוד בבלי כתובות עה, א  

תנא, הוסיפו עליהן זיעה ושומא וריח הפה

[The following defects are grounds for divorce:] Excessive perspiration, a mole, and bad breath...(Ketuvot 75a)

Bertrand's Bad Breath and Jane AUsten's Sufferings

In his autobiography, the great British philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell (d. 1970) wrote of his personal ills, and how they affected Lady Ottoline Morrell (one of the women with whom he was an affair):

I suffered from pyorrhea although I did not know it, and this caused my breath to be offensive, which I also did not know. She could not bring herself to mention it, and it was only after I had discovered the trouble and had it cured that she let me know how much it had affected her.

Jane Austen, the genteel author of Pride and Prejudice, did not suffer from bad breath, but she does  seem to have suffered from the bad breath of others. In one of her not so genteel letters, she wrote that "Miss Debary, Susan and Sally made their appearance and I was as civil to them as their bad breath would allow me."  (This sentence proves, once more, that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword.)

The Causes of Bad Breath

Bertrand Russell and Jane Austen were not alone. Overall, about one in four adults suffers from bad breath on a regular basis. There are a large number of causes of  bad breath (or halitosis, from the Latin halitus, meaning exhalation). In the young it is usually caused by a coating of the tongue, whereas in older people, the cause is more likely to be tooth decay or gum disease. Whatever the proximate cause, the final pathway to halitosis is usually microbial action in the mouth (most commonly by gram negative anerobic bacteria,) which release volatile sulphur compounds including hydrogen sulphide. It's these compounds that cause the odor we know as halitosis.

From Seemann R. et al.  Halitosis management by the general dental practitioner—results of an international consensus workshop. Journal of Breath Research. 2014: 8: 1-6.

From Seemann R. et al.  Halitosis management by the general dental practitioner—results of an international consensus workshop. Journal of Breath Research. 2014: 8: 1-6.

Dentists have been encouraged to grade the halitosis based on the distance at which it can be detected, or the strength of the smell.  So Grade 3 halitosis on the Distance Malodor Scale is when the breath can be clearly detected "if the observer approached to a distance of about 100 cm to the mouth of the patient". (Really. I'm not making this up.) 

Morning Breath: Due to the reduced saliva production during night, anaerobic putrefaction will increase, causing the typical morning breath. This is a non-pathological form of halitosis. The problem will disappear as soon as oral hygiene measures are taken...women manifest higher VSC levels than men in the morning. This phenomenon needs to be further investigated to understand its impact.
— Bollen C. Beikler T. Halitosis: the multidisciplinary approach.International Journal of Oral Science (2012) 4, 55–63

Bad Breath in the Talmud

The passage on halitosis in this daf has achieved a certain notoriety, as evidenced by this newspaper snippet from the Curiosity Shop column in The Victoria Advocate, a daily newspaper out of Victoria Texas (Jewish population: about twenty families):

The Victoria Advocate, October 14, 2000.

The Victoria Advocate, October 14, 2000.

Options, Other Than Divorce

Bad breath is not only grounds for divorce. It is also a condition that renders a Cohen unfit to serve in the Temple. The Talmud suggests that a Cohen with halitosis should chew on peppers, which were considered to be antidote to bad breath. In this way he could become eligible to serve once more.  As for a woman so afflicted, such a cure would not be possible, since, as Rashi points out, a husband and wife need to talk often, and talking is hard to do with a mouth full of peppers:

אפשר דנקט פילפלא בפומיה ועביד עבודה אבל גבי אשה לא אפשר

רשי: גבי אשה  - שהוא מדבר עמה כל שעה -  לא אפשר

What then, can the couple do to save their marriage? Well, how about these suggestions: try brushing your teeth and tongue often; try using mouthwash several times a day, and try visiting your dentist. In fact, just try to follow the advice of this dentist

Do not divorce you partner if he/she has bad breath!
Your dentist and hygienist can help. Just call them.
— Nicholas Calceterra DDS. Directions in Dentistry, October 6 2013.