By Irwin H. Benjamin
Who could have ever foreseen that, way back in the year 1848, a man by the unlikely name of Phineas P. Gage would unwittingly provide proof of an important saying of Chazal? Let me tell you about him.
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When I was a little boy in yeshiva and I heard that religious Jews never get trichinosis because they do not eat pig, I was elated. It felt like my team hit a home run. On some level I felt vindicated. I was on the right side. Of course, that’s not the reason we do not eat pig. We do not eat pig because it’s a commandment in the Torah.
My mother had emunah peshutah, complete faith in the Torah, that everything that was said in the Torah was said by the Ribbono shel Olam. And because she believed that absolutely, she was satisfied and happy that no matter what occurred in life—good or bad—everything eventually would turn out to be good for the world. Although I have tried my whole life to emulate that blind faith, I must confess to feeling reassured to occasionally see with my own eyes the good guys getting their reward and the bad guys get their just deserts. I know that there is Olam HaBa and Olam HaZeh, and I know that “s’char mitzvah b’hai alma leka,” reward is not given in this world—but still, it’s nice when it happens. I know I should not need to see it; I should know myself that Hashem‘s judgment, although inscrutable, is also infallible, but I still find it comforting to be able to witness divine justice.
Similarly, I take great comfort in seeing rather than merely believing something that is stated by Chazal or something that was written in the Torah. For example, the Torah enumerates four species of animals that have only one of the two simanim that are required to make an animal kosher. One is a pig, which I mentioned above, who has a split hoof, but does not chew its cud; and a camel, who chews its cud, but does not have a split hoof. There are also two others. Now, after thousands of years, and after hundreds of thousands of new species being discovered, it is amazing that there still remains only those four that were originally mentioned in the Torah that have only one of the two simanim.
Given those facts, there is no doubt that any fair-minded, impartial person would have to conclude that to be able to predict this outcome thousands of years ago is nothing less than supernatural (m’alah min hateva). I personally find that example absolutely proof-positive that the Torah is not only great, but is G‑d-given, and infallible as well. That fact, for me, at least, makes me feel proud that my team hit another home run.
I will now tell you an amazing story that, I believe, reflects another physical proof of the supremacy and truth of the Torah.
My story concerns one particular esoteric halachah or mesorah in the Torah: It concerns the exact position on the head where one should place his tefillin shel rosh. I’m sure you have seen the many charts depicting the proper place on the forehead where one should place his tefillin shel rosh. And I am also sure we all know people who are super careful where they place their shel rosh; they seem to be busy the whole davening fixing and lining up their shel rosh. I used to think that that behavior was a bit excessive and uncalled for. You put your shel rosh on the top of your head, make sure it is centered, and leave it there. Finished.
However, upon further study, I discovered how vital it is, indeed, to make absolutely sure the shel rosh is always positioned on the exact right spot.
In anatomical terms that spot is called the ventromedial region.
Years ago, when the late Senator Ted Kennedy had his brain operation for glioblastoma, it triggered a recollection of a story I once heard from a medical student. In the process, it conjured up another verification of the chochmah and deep understanding of Chazal.
There was once a man named Phineas P. Gage. He was honest and well-liked by friends and fellow workers. He worked for the Rutland and Burlington Railroad. Gage was a young man of exemplary character and great promise until one day in September 1848.
On that day, September 13, 1848, Phineas P. Gage was employed as a foreman for a work gang laying tracks for a new rail line. His men would drill a hole into the body of rock and then call the foreman. Phineas’s job, as foreman, was to fill the hole with gunpowder, a fuse, and sand. He would then tamp the charge down with a large iron rod. The rod was l-¼ inch in diameter. He would then light the fuse. The purpose was to shatter the rock, enabling the men to then clear the area and continue laying the track.
However, something went terribly wrong. While Phineas was tamping down the blasting powder for a dynamite charge, the charge prematurely exploded. The inch-and-a-quarter thick tamping rod rocketed through Phineas’s upper jaw, passing to the back of the left eye, and out the top of his head.
Gage fell back into a convulsive heap. Yet, miraculously, a moment later, he stood up and spoke. His fellow workers watched, aghast, then drove him by oxcart to a nearby hotel where a local doctor whose name was John Harlow dressed his wounds. It was reported that Gage sat upright in the cart for the three-quarter-mile ride into town. Although he was weak from the hemorrhaging, he had a regular pulse of about 60 and was alert and coherent.
Dr. Harlow stuck his index fingers into the holes in Gage’s face and head until their tips met. Amazingly, Phineas not only lived, but within a few minutes spoke and inquired of the doctor when he would be able to return to work.
After spending a couple of months recovering, Phineas returned to work.
Gage had “almost” completely recovered: he could walk, speak, and demonstrate normal awareness of his surroundings. He was, as I stated, almost the same man he was before the accident.
That “almost” is the entire point of this story. His physical appearance remained the same, but the moral character, temperament, and demeanor of the man drastically changed. In place of the honest, diligent, dependable worker that he had been for many years stood a foulmouthed and ill-mannered person, who constantly lied, cheated, and developed extravagant schemes that were never followed through. He became nasty and mean, hurting as many people as he could get away with. He actually became what many people began to describe him as: evil personified.
“Gage,” said his friends, “was no longer Gage.”
Thirteen years later, Gage died in an epileptic fit.
When Dr. Harlow heard of the death of Gage, he persuaded the family to exhume the remains and donate the skull to medical research. Harlow believed that the change in Gage’s personality happened because of the damage to the frontal lobes of the brain. Dr. Harlow awkwardly wrote in his best scientific terms according to the times: “The equilibrium between his intellectual faculties and animal propensities seems to have been destroyed.”
However, 19th-century science had a hard time accepting the notion that a mere tablespoon or two of gray jelly could govern something as transcendent or esoteric as social behavior.
In 2007, neurobiologists Hanna and Antonio Damasio of the University of Iowa finally pinpointed what Gage had lost. The Damasios had long been interested in the case. In the century intervening, Phineas Gage had become a classic in neurology textbooks.
The Damasios decided, 130 years after the fact, to do an autopsy—to track down where exactly the damage in Gage’s brain had occurred. Guided by anatomic clues on Gage’s battered skull, now preserved in the Warren Medical Museum at Harvard, Hanna Damasio used computer modeling and neural imaging techniques to determine the path the tamping rod had taken through the brain. The most likely trajectory by far, the Damasios found, would have spared the regions of the frontal lobes necessary for language and motor function. But it would have done terrible damage to a portion of the underbelly of the frontal lobes, which coincidentally is called the ventromedial region, the very same spot where Chazal mandate that we place our holy tefillin.
Apparently, the loss of that region is what made Gage so antisocial. This did not surprise the Damasios, because in present-day patients whose ventromedial region has been damaged by tumor, accident, or surgery, they have observed the same sort of personality change as Gage’s.
The exact same spot on the forehead where Chazal, in their infinite wisdom, mandated that the tefillin should be placed is in the exact same place where the character, behavior, temperament, and the very motivator which drives a person to be good or evil is determined. Every morning, when donning our tefillin shel rosh, we say “. . . and upon the head opposite the brain, so that the soul that is in my brain, together with my other senses and potentials, may all be subjugated to his service . . .”
It’s really amazing how Hashem works—that someone by the name of Phineas Gage in 1848 wound up proving the eternal veracity and universality of Chazal.
If I were still young I would say that our team certainly hit another home run.
Irwin Benjamin can be reached at Irwin.firstname.lastname@example.org.