Menachot 93a ~ The Relationship between Hearing and Intelligence

Not too far from where I live is Gallaudet University. It was founded in 1864 with a Charter signed by Abraham Lincoln. (And here’s a fun fact: to this day the diplomas of all Gallaudet graduates are signed by the presiding U.S. president.) Among its alumni are the actress Shoshanah Stern, the poet Dorothy Miles and Wilma Newhoudt-Druchen, a member of South Africa’s Parliament. Oh, I forgot to tell you. Gallaudet is a university for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Which brings us to today’s daf.

In a discussion of who may perform the ritual act of semicha - laying hands on an animal before its sacrifice, the Mishnah lays down the following rules:

מנחות צג, א

הכל סומכין חוץ מחרש שוטה וקטן וסומא ועובד כוכבים והעבד והשליח והאשה

Everyone [who brings an animal offering] places their hands upon its head, except for a deaf-mute, an deranged person, a minor, a blind person, a gentile, a Canaanite slave, the agent of the owner of the offering who brings the offering on the owner’s behalf, and a woman.

The Talmud explains why the deaf are excluded: חרש שוטה וקטן דלאו בני דעה “a deaf -mute, a deranged person and and a minor are not mentally competent.”

This is a widespread legal principle that appears often in the Talmud. For example, this group of three are not required to appear in Jerusalem three times a year, they may not write a get, (bill of divorce) and they may not serve as a ritual slaughterer unless properly supervised.

Which raises the question - what have we learned about the relationship between intelligence and hearing?

The Rabbinic and the Roman

American Sign Language: “ Deaf .” Touch your finger on your cheek near your ear, then move your finger in a small arch and touch it near the mouth. Start and end the sign on the cheek.

American Sign Language: “Deaf.” Touch your finger on your cheek near your ear, then move your finger in a small arch and touch it near the mouth. Start and end the sign on the cheek.

To better understand the rabbinic rulings about the deaf, we must put them into a historical context. “In the early law of Rome” wrote the historian Albert Gaw (from Gallaudet) over a century ago, “the deaf-mute from birth was considered incapable; he was classed with the madman and the infant; he was unable to perform without assistance any legal act in his own behalf.” Hmm. Sounds familiar? Gaw continues:

It is evident that the deaf and dumb would naturally be debarred from engaging in such formal and solemn acts as the making of stipulations, testaments, codicils, executory trusts, and donations mortis causa, at least so long as the ability to spéak or to understand speech was requisite for the performance of these acts. In like manner, the deaf and dumb would be unable to take part in adoptions, emancipations, solemn manumissions, and would be excused from the duties of guardianship as long as verbal formalities were required to give validity to these acts. Also because of their inability to speak and hear they would not be chosen to act as judges, arbiters, witnesses, or procurators. They would also be barred from solemn entrance upon an inheritance because of the necessity of repeating the prescribed formula at the time of entry, which for a person both deaf and dumb would be physically impossible. Even for persons adventitiously deaf who retained their speech some of the above named acts were prohibited, as a person who could not hear was held to be unable to carry out the letter of the law as to the repetition of the formula made imperative on pain of nullity. The solemn forms of marriage, confarreatio et coemptio, could not be complied with by persons who were deaf and dumb; neither could a deaf-mute buy and sell by the formal emptio venditio or mancipatio.

...the Romans did not consider deafness a separate phenomenon from mutism and... consequently, many believed all deaf people were incapable of being educated. Ancient Roman law, in fact, classified deaf people as ‘mentecatti furiosi’ which may be translated roughly as raving maniacs and claimed them uneducable.
— Elana Radutsky. The Education of Deaf People in Italy and the Use of Italian Sign Language. In Van Cleve (ed) Deaf History Unveiled. Gallaudet University Press 2002.p 239

Things got (a little) better under Emperor Justinian (527-565 CE). His code recognized different types of deafness and distinguished between them in law. Those deaf people who could write enough to conduct their daily affairs were granted legal rights.

Into the (Not so) Modern Age

The rights of the hard-of-hearing remained mired due to a lack of understanding about the nature of deafness, and an aversion to understanding their sign language. In fact, so strong was this aversion that at the infamous Milan conference of 1880, sign language instruction was banned. Banned. Instead, the members of the Second International Congress on the Education of the Deaf declared that oral instruction (lip-reading and speech) was to be used exclusively. Ignorance reigned supreme.

Alexander Graham Bell, (yes, he of the telephone) was one of those behind the Milan declaration. He later wrote a treatise “Upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race” in which he noted that many deaf people marry other deaf people. Sometimes these marriages produced children who were hard-of-hearing. Bell, the card-carrying eugenicist, found this unacceptable. And so in his paper (published by the National Academy of Sciences no less) he suggested outlawing the marriage of two deaf people. It’s enough to make you throw your phone across the room.

Research on the intelligence of the hard of hearing

In 1968 the psychologist McCay Vernon published a now classic paper “Fifty Years of Research on the Intelligence of Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Children.” He pointed out the biases in IQ assessment of deaf children resulting from improper testing methods, research participant sampling, and even the experience level of the evaluators themselves. He reviewed 37 studies that measured the intelligence of samples of deaf and hard-of-hearing children performed between 1930 and 1965. Here are some of Vernon’s conclusions (but keep in mind that he was writing this in the 1960s, and our notions of the utility of standardized IQ tests as a measure of anything have evolved considerably since then.)

  • The communication problems of profound hearing loss, the attentive set of deaf children toward psychological examination, and other aspects of test administration rule out the validity of group intelligence testing.

  • Almost all of the investigations involved only samples of deaf children who were in school programs for the hearing impaired. This approach involved incomplete sampling and left unanswered the question of the intelligence of deaf children not in these schools.

  • The work done by investigators who were experienced in the psychological testing of deaf children at the time they did their work (see the notations in this table) yielded results showing the deaf and the hearing more nearly equal in intelligence. As the experience of the examiner has strong direct bearing on the validity of test results, these studies must be given special emphasis in any consideration of the relative intelligence of deaf and hearing children on IQ measures.

  • Based on an understanding of the disease conditions causing deafness, it is apparent that many of the etiologies of profound hearing loss are also responsible for other neurological impairment which frequently results in lower intelligence. “The point to be made is that the relationship, if any, between developmental delays and deafness is not causal but is due to the common etiology which brought about both the deafness and the developmental delay.”

  • These studies indicate that there is no relationship between degree of hearing loss and IQ or the age of onset of deafness and IQ.

In sum, the implication of the research of the last fifty years which compared the IQ of the deaf with the hearing and of subgroups of deaf children indicates that when there are no complicating multiple handicaps, the deaf and hard-of-hearing function at approximately the same IQ level on performance intelligence tests as do the hearing.
— McCay Vernon. Fifty Years of Research on the Intelligence of Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Children: A Review of Literature and Discussion of Implications. Journal of Rehabilitation of the Deaf 1968: 1; 1–11,

On one of the most thorough reviews of the literature since the publication of Vernon’s paper is found in a book called “Deafness, Deprivation and IQ,” by Jeffrey Braden from the University of Wisconsin. It is a deep dive into the methodologies of intelligence tests, what they measure and what they don’t. Braden found that deafness has very little impact on non-verbal intelligence; the impact of deafness is simply to lower verbal IQs and not affect non-verbal IQs. Which is what you would expect. His analysis of all the data also revealed that deaf children with deaf parents have performance IQs that are above the mean for hearing people. Above it. (Alexander Graham Bell, did you get that message?)

In her 2003 paper What the Rabbis Heard: Deafness in the Mishnah Bonnie Gracer noted that

The ancient Jews did live amongst the ancient Greeks and Romans. It is therefore not surprising that the rabbis, as evidenced in the Mishnaic canon, incorporated into Jewish law Greco Roman beliefs linking hearing, speech, intelligence, and morality. It is clear, however, that the rabbis viewed all people, including deaf people, as unique individuals. The Mishnaic delineation of multiple categories of deafness resulted in not every deaf person being "categorically" disqualified or exempt from the performance of specific mitzvot. The rabbis observed deaf people, paid enough attention to notice detail, and deemed deaf people worthy of life, legal rulings, and protections. From the standpoint of deaf history, these are all extremely positive developments.

They are. But still not good enough.

On the Role of Science

In 1971 Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ruled that hearing aids would give a congenitally deaf person all the rights and obligations of one who hears normally. But five years earlier, in 1966, the great Torah scholar Yaakov Yechiel Weinberg published an article in the journal Hechal Shlomo about the religious rights and duties of a deaf Jew. He concluded by explaining that there were two approaches to this issue. Some rabbis believed deafness to be an organic deficit in the brain that also caused a degree of “mental handicap” (חסרון דעת) that remained despite any degree of education. Others believe that any degree of developmental delay was entirely due to a lack of adequate education. Consequently, once educated in school, the deaf were to be treated like any other Jew. Then he continued:

But we are not to rely on physicians or scientists to answer this question for us. For the measure of understanding required for a person to uphold mitzvot is entirely different for the rabbis than it is for scientists.

“הרב י.י. וינברג "חרש שלמד לדבר לחיוב מצוות. היכל שלמה  שנה בשנה  תשכ׳ה. 128

“הרב י.י. וינברג "חרש שלמד לדבר לחיוב מצוות. היכל שלמה שנה בשנה תשכ׳ה. 128

Rav Weinberg was of course correct: what is reality in halakha and what is reality in reality are often two very different things. But still, this was an unusual position to take, for as Marc Shapiro noted in his excellent intellectual biography of R. Weinberg, “the tendency to take into account modern social and educational issues is constantly present in his responsa.”Surely the religious status of a deaf person would be a test case for just that approach.

The Mishnah in today’s daf should make us uncomfortable. It raises many difficulties and challenges about the way Judaism once viewed - and often still does view - those with disabilities and people who were not free agents of their own time. The sages of the Mishnah and Talmud, influenced by cultural norms like those in ancient Rome, deemed the deaf not “mentally competent.” Two thousand years later, with the march of science we know that that this is factually incorrect. But you don’t need the science to tell you that. You just need to be lucky enough to know a deaf person.

Print Friendly and PDF

Avodah Zarah 28b ~ Ear Candling

Do Not Try this at home

When Rav Abahu was suffering from ear pain, Rabbi Yochanan suggested several remedies. Here are two:

עבודה זרה כח, ב

ואי לא לייתי תרבא דחיפושתא גמלניתא וליפשר ולישדי ביה ואי לא למלייה לאודניה מישחא וליעבד שב פתילתא דאספסתא וליתי שופתא דתומא וליתוב ברקא בחד רישא וליתלי בהו נורא ואידך רישא מותבא באודנא וליתוב אודניה להדא נורא ויזדהר מזיקא ונישקול חדא וננח חדא

 He should bring the fat of a large beetle and melt it and apply it to the ear. And if not, he should fill his ear with oil and prepare seven wicks made of alfalfa and bring dried garlic ends, and tie the ends to the wicks with a strip of hair at one end, and set the wicks aflame. And he should place the other end of each wick in his ear one at a time, and place his ear opposite the flame. And he should be cautious of drafts [and avoid them, as they will harm his ear.] He should take one wick and remove one wick, [i.e., replace each wick as it is consumed until all seven have been used.]

The remedy for Rav Abahu's ear pain, then, was to fill his ear with oil, stick a wick into it, and set it on fire. The idea is that the burning wick draws out the wax, and other toxins, leaving the patient cured and rejuvinated.  Talmudology strongly recommends that you do not try this at home.

Ear Candling is still a thing

From  here .

From here.

Although Rav Abahu (~279-320 CE) recommended  ear candling long ago, it is still in use today. On Amazon you can by candles to stick in your ear, and a guide to talk you through the steps. It's easier to use Amazon than to make your own candles with alfalfa and dried garlic ends, but, scientifically speaking, it's silly. Very silly. A case report from St. Mary's Hospital in London describes an elderly woman who had hearing loss in her left ear.  The woman denied ear candling, which is odd, since the ear was full of what appeared to be candle wax, and "histopathological examination confirmed the material as candle wax." (You can read another medical case report, this one on ear candling in a four-year old girl, here.) The authors noted that "ear candling is widely practiced as an alternative therapy. The procedure lacks scientific explanation, is known to produce complications and should be discouraged."

Eardrum of a patient with white candle wax causing inflammation and hearing loss.From Mohamed Zackaria & Antony Aymat (2009) Ear candling: A case report,  The European Journal of General Practice , 15:3, 168-169,

Eardrum of a patient with white candle wax causing inflammation and hearing loss.From Mohamed Zackaria & Antony Aymat (2009) Ear candling: A case report, The European Journal of General Practice, 15:3, 168-169,

Is there any Science behind Candling?

Still, one case report doesn't mean all that much. We need a more scientific exploration of ear candling, which is precisely what we got in a 1996 research paper Ear Candles; Efficacy and SafetyThe authors, who were ear, nose and throat surgeons and audiologists (and supported by a grant from the William G. Reed Fund for Research in Otolargngology) tested the pressure that an ear candle would generate, and used a mass spectrometer to identify the contents of the candle stubs. After twenty trials using two different candle types, the authors reported that "no negative pressure was generated by any of the burning ear candles at any point during the trial." As for the contents of the burned candles "multiple analyses revealed the sample to be composed of multiple alkanes, which are found in wax candles...None of the contents of cerumen were identified."  

Physicians need to be aware of the dangers associated with ear candle use and counsel their patients accordingly.
— Seeley D. Quigley S. Langman A. Ear Candles; Efficacy and Safety. Laryngoscope 1996, 106; 1226-1229

The authors also reported their results of a survey 122 otolaryngologists. One-third were ‘aware’ of ear candle use amongst one or more of their patients. Fourteen had treated complications of ear candling, including 13 burns of the auricle and canal, 7 partial canal occlusions from candle wax and 1 eardrum perforation.

Ear candling seems to be popular and is heavily promoted (for example, via the Internet), with claims that could easily seem scientific to lay people. However, the truth is that its mechanism of action is first, implausible, and second, demonstrably wrong. Moreover, it has no positive clinical effects and seems to be associated with considerable risks. The few scientific articles available on this subject do not suggest that ear candles are an effective treatment for any condition.
— Ernst E. Ear candles: a triumph of ignorance over science. Journal of Laryngology and Otology 2004, 118:1-2

The Funny Side to Ear Candling

Dave Barry, the Pulitzer Prize winning columnist is one of the funniest writers in the business. He wrote perhaps the funniest newspaper column ever on today's topic. It's also probably the only humorous column on the topic. Dave gave Talmudology permission to reproduce it (I'm not making this up), and you can find it here. Dave also asked that readers do not circulate the piece by email or other electronic media. So read it and enjoy.  Given what we know now, perhaps even Rav Abahu would have found it amusing.

Print Friendly and PDF

Ketuvot 5b ~ Earlobes and Spandrels

:כתובות ה

תנא דבי רבי ישמעאל מפני מה אוזן כולה קשה והאליה רכה? שאם ישמע אדם דבר שאינו הגון יכוף אליה לתוכה

A Baraisa was taught in the academy of Rabbi Yishmael: Why is the [upper part of the] ear hard, but the earlobe is soft? So that if a person overhears something inappropriate, he will be able to bend the lobe in the ear canal [and block out the sound]. 

In 1979 Stephen J. Gould (d. 2002) and Richard Lewontin published a paper that would rock the world of evolutionary biology.  They suggested that evolution by natural selection could not explain every feature of an organism. Sometimes, a feature is a non-functional byproduct of evolution, rather than a direct result of it. Gould and Lewontin give an example from the world of architecture, from the spandrels in the church of San Marco in Venice. A spandrel is a by-product, formed when a dome sits upon a rounded arch, shown in the pictures below.

"San Marco Spandrel" by Maria Schnitzmeier - Detail of Image.

"San Marco Spandrel" by Maria Schnitzmeier - Detail of Image.

These spaces - these spandrels- are accidental spaces, and yet are intricately decorated, as if they were deliberately designed to have been there in the first place.  The design of these spaces "is so elaborate, harmonious, and purposeful," wrote Gould and Lewontin, that

 we are tempted to view it as the starting point of any analysis, as the cause in some sense of the surrounding architecture. But this would invert the proper path of analysis. The system begins with an architectural constraint: the necessary four spandrels and their tapering triangular form.   

Just as spandrels are accidental, some features of an organism are not the result of natural selection, but instead are "spandrel-like"in their origin. This was not to suggest that natural selection was incorrect; only that it was not a complete explanation of an organism's form and behavior. 

So what are earlobes for?  Indeed, are they for anything? Perhaps they are just spandrels, and can now happily be pierced and used to hold rings, studs, and other decorative ornaments. The Academy of Rabbi Yishmael disagree with this premise. Earlobes are not a spandrel-like by-product of evolution, but a designed part of our anatomy. And they are designed to act as an ear-plug when it would be best not to hear what is being said.  The Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (d.1933) wrote a famous work on the laws of gossip, called ספר שמירת הלשון. In it, he cited today's passage, and wrote that the earlobe is better at blocking the sound than is a finger. Try it. Is he right? (I did. He isn't.) 

A: Ear of a treeshrew (TupiaB: Ear of a new world monkey (CebusC: Primate (& Human) ear and its constituent parts.  From Friderun Ankel-Simons, Primate Anatomy: An Introduction. Academic Press 2010.

We humans share much with our primate cousins.  We share an opposable thumb; we share much of our DNA, and we share our ear anatomy.  Rabbi Yishmael teaches us to put that ear anatomy to good use. 

Print Friendly and PDF