The Foot Bone's Connected to the Leg Bone

Ohalot (1:8) | Yehuda Gottlieb | 12 years ago

The last Mishnah in the first perek of Ohalot lists the 248 limbs that form the human anatomy. It is stated that all these limbs, when detached, transmit tumah in an Ohel.

The Tifferet Yisrael asks an interesting question – although the Mishnah states that the body is made up of 248 limbs, and the Gemara in Bechorot (45a) states that the disciples boiled the corpse of a harlot and discovered that a man does indeed have 248 limbs, there had been anatomy studies that put forward that there was actually less than this amount! How does this scientific, observable fact, reconcile with the Mishnah’s view?

The Tifferet Yisrael answers that in actual fact the number quoted in the Mishnah, and that put forward by anatomy experts are referring to two different things. He states that one cannot doubt the accuracy of the Mishnah, since it was brought by the Sage’s who had ruach Hashem dwell amongst them. He explains the discrepancy by stating that the Sage’s definition of what constitutes a bone and a limb does not necessarily correlate with that which is defined by the ‘experts’. The Tifferet Yisrael proves this point from the fact that the Gemara itself has a doubt whether those that had boiled the harlot’s body had counted the limbs correctly. He says, if this is the case, then it must mean that those who studied anatomy could also have defined bones in a different way and therefore come to a different number to the Chachamim.

The Encyclopaedia Talmudit explains further that the Mishnah and anatomy experts are not referring to the same person. He states a fundamental principle that as a person grows and develops, their bones fuse together. As a baby and a young child, a person does not have a large number of bones as they are quite soft and still forming. By the time a person reaches approximately 16-17 years old, the bones will have solidified and hardened and have separated to a degree. As a person grows toward adulthood these hardened bones will fuse and join together. Therefore, the Mishnah which mentions the 248 bones in a person is referring to the hard, separated bones that are found in a teenage body. However, the anatomy experts who mention that a person has a lot less bones is actually referring to bones found in an adult, fully grown body.

It is interesting to note that the same Gemara in Bechorot states that women actually have 252 limbs. This seems to be inconsistent with our Mishnah. The Gemara there answers that although women do in fact have 252 limbs, nonetheless, only 248 of these actually transmit tumah.

The Shulchan Aruch (O.C 61:3) writes that Kriyat Shema has 245 words, and there is a preference to say 248 words. Therefore, when davening with a minyan the Chazzan should repeat the last three words of the third paragraph, and when davening alone the words “Kel Melech Ne’eman” should be said before beginning Shema. This brings the total words of the Shema to 248 and thus corresponds to the number of limbs in a person’s body. The Da’as Zekeinim M’Baalei HaTosfos says that those who say the 248 words of Kriyas Shema properly will merit to having Hashem Himself guarding over his 248 limbs. Kivyachol, Hashem says, "You guard My possessions (the mitzvos), and I will guard your possessions (your 248 limbs).”

If this is the case, the rebbi of the Ramban, Rabbeinu Yehuda ben Yakar38, asks how women (who have 252 limbs) will be able to receive this merit. The Gemara above mentions that the extra limbs that a woman has are described as “two doors and two door pivots”. Since obviously a door pivot are always connected to the door, they do not necessarily need to be counted separately, which brings the total limbs down to 250. Additionally, if you exclude the sentence of “Baruch Shem Kevod…” Kriyat Shema contains 239 words included in which are 11 names of Hashem. Each name of Hashem could be counted twice since it represents the name “Hashem” and “Elokim” and this brings the total to 250. By using this method, women also receive the zechut of having Hashem guard over their limbs.


38 Perush Ri ben Yakar Lehasiddur Tefilot veBrachot Chelek 1: quoted from Daf Yomi Digest: Sotah 27

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