The Mishnah in Oholos 1:8 gives a list of 248 bones in the human body:

  • 30 in the feet1
  • 6 in each toe2
  • 10 in the ankle3
  • 2 in the shin3
  • 5 in the knee3
  • 1 in the thigh3
  • 3 in the hip3
  • 11 ribs4
  • 30 in the palms1
  • 6 in the fingers2
  • 2 in the forearms3
  • 2 in the elbows3
  • 1 in the upper arms3
  • 4 in the shoulder3

Thus far totals 101 on each side, or a total of 202. In addition, there are 18 vertebrae:6

  • 9 in the head5
  • 8 in the neck5
  • 6 by the "openings of the heart"5
  • 5 around its cavities5

If you couldn't tell by the little numbers, this list is very difficult for me to understand:

  1. How are these 30 counted? Is it 15 on each side, or 30 in each foot and hand? See also #2. Note that in a human adult there are 13 carpal bones and 12 tarsal bones in each hand and foot in an adult.
  2. How are these 6 counted? Is it 6 in each individual toe, and would perforce be counting tarsals along with metatarsals, or carpals along with metacarpals? Or perhaps it means there are 6 in each type of toe, i.e., 3 in each toe and finger? In the former case, we are forced to use the feet and hands as a part of the respective fingers they branch into. Where does that leave us with the 30 mentioned earlier? Is the Mishnah to be read "30 in the foot, which are part of the six in each toe"? In the latter case, perhaps one should read the Mishnah "30 in the foot which are six in each toe"?
  3. The first question from #1 still stands for all of these - are they counted on one side of the body, or both? Some of these numbers aren't even, which leads me to believe it's referring to each side individually, but see #6 below.
  4. The above question gets slightly tweaked regarding the ribs. Are they considered one all the way around, or two? Which ultimately still comes down to, "are there 13 ribs or 26"?
  5. What are these vertebrae referring to? In an adult, there are 26 vertebrae, not 18. Further, 9+8+6+5 is much more than either 18 or even 26. Perhaps these are not meant to be a sublist, but rather a list unto themselves? That is, 18 vertebrae plus nine bones in the neck plus eight in the head, etc. With this reading, Chazal probably saw the 12 thoracic vertebrae, the 5 lumbar vertebrae, and the sacrum/coccyx as the 18 vertebrae, but that doesn't leave enough vertebrae for the other numbers: there are only 7 cervical vertebrae, yet the Mishnah lists 8 in the neck. Maybe it counts the base of the skull as a cervical vertebra? Further, what are the other three items? Calling the skull 9 bones for 9 in the head is doable, but where are the 6 and 5?
  6. The biggest problem of all in the Mishnah: What I see as the straightforward reading - 101 on each side plus 18 in the middle - makes only 220 bones. As far as I'm aware, 220 is less than 248. So what happened to the other 28? Further, still keeping with the way I have presented the Mishnah above, just the fingers and toes, at 6 apiece, gives 120, much more than 101 off the bat. Yet if you count them to both sides, you're left with half-bones to each side (see #3)!

Before this gets closed as too broad, I would just like to point out that for the purposes of this question, you don't need to address all of my points as above, though it would greatly improve the answer if it did. All I am asking is: Given that the list, as presented, does not seem to make intuitive, anatomical, or mathematical sense, how, indeed, are the 248 bones counted?

If the final list comes out to be incompatible with modern anatomy to a degree that Chazal are making up bones, that will warrant an additional question at that time.

I hope I've made my objections to the Mishnah clear. If I haven't, just let me know so I can clarify.

  • I might be missing something but 202 plus the numbers after equals 248. That is 202+18+9+8+6+5=248 – Double AA Jun 19 '17 at 13:33
  • @DoubleAA I suppose that would prove the point I made in #5. It still leaves open the problem there, as well as how to enumerate the 101 bones. Don't worry - I'm the one who missed that; you're not missing anything. – DonielF Jun 19 '17 at 13:37
  • @DonielF Please edit in response to my comment so it can be deleted and so your question will be better – Double AA Jun 19 '17 at 14:51
  • Yeah but note that the ancients did not dissect human bodies until much later...beforenewton.blog/human-body/november-25-anatomy... so the ancients really had no way of knowing how many bones there are in the human body! How did chazal get to this number i don't know, but it was definitely not based on scientific research. – Bach Jun 19 '17 at 19:25
  • 1
    @Bach You don't need to dissect a body to see skeletal tissue; that decomposes much more slowly. It was a custom back then to bury a person for a year, and then transfer their remains to a "family plot." If you go to Ir David in Yerushalayim you can see where a good portion of the Judean dynasty is buried according to this practice. They could have just counted the bones in the process of moving the skeleton. – DonielF Jun 19 '17 at 19:30

it seems that sometimes parts of one bone are counted separately (maybe because they are counted at a certain stage of development (from wikipedia "270 bones at birth, which decreases to 206 bones by adulthood after some bones have fused together."),or that you need to count the Sesamoid bones, or for a different reason )

according to the Yachin (with my guess of the anatomical names),
on one side we have 101,
starting from the feet
we have 30 in a foot (which is 5 toes each of 6 bones (5*6=30)) (i guess you need to also count the Sesamoid bones)
we have 10 in the ankle (i guess you need to also count the Sesamoid bones)
we have 2 in the shin (tibia and fibula)
we have 5 in the knee (patella, and i guess 2 parts of the ends of the tibia and femur)
we have 1 thigh bone (femur)
we have 3 in the hip (Ilium, Ischium and Pubic bone (it is possible that the Ilium is split into 3 and that the Ischium and Pubic bone are part of the 5 by the holes)
we have 11 ribs (i guess we do not count the top one as we do not count the top 2 by a cow see Beer Haitiv YD54.1)
we have 30 in the hands (which is 5 fingers each of 6 bones (5*6=30)) (i guess you need to also count the Sesamoid bones) we have 2 in the forearm (ulna and radius) we have 2 in the elbow (i guess the tips of the ulna and the humerus) we have 1 in the upper arm (humerus) we have 4 in the shoulder (i guess the Scapula is split into 4 parts)

we have 2 sides to 101+101=202

now in the center
we have 18 vertebra (11 thoracic vertebrae (we do not count the top one just as we did not count the top rib), 5 lumbar vertebrae, i guess the Yachin counts the sacral vertebrae as 2 (but it is possible that he sees the opinion of the Bartinura that sacral vertebrae is one and coccygeal vertebrae is the 18th)
we have 9 in the head (maybe 2 temporal (or 2 Zygomatic), Mandible, Maxilla, Nasal, occipital bone, 2 parietal and the frontal)
we have 8 in the neck (7 cervical vertebrae and the top thoracic vertebrae)
we have 6 by the chest ("the key to the heart") (i guess the 2 top ribs, the 2 clavicles, and i guess the sternum is split into 2)
we have 5 by the holes (acording to the Yahin himself it is probably the 2 of Ischium, 2 Pubic bones and the coccygeal vertebrae, (He understands the Bartenura that all 5 are in the front so it might be 2 of Ischium, 2 Pubic bones and one more)


PS interesting to note that for some reason the Rambam Tumat Met Chapter 2 Halacha 7 did not list them

PPS a woman has a different pelvis which adds 4/3 bones (or parts of bones to the count)


Rabbi Jack Abramowitz explains this in his essay 248 Limbs: Says Who?

There are 248 limbs in a person. 30 in the foot (six in each toe), 10 in the ankle, 2 in the shin, 5 in the knee, 1 in the thigh, 3 in the pelvis, 11 ribs, 30 in the hand (6 in each finger), 2 in the forearm, 2 in the elbow, 1 in the upper arm, and 4 in the shoulder. (This makes 101 on one side and 101 on the other.) 18 vertebrae in the spine, 9 in the head, 8 in the neck, 6 in the “opening to the heart” and 5 in the orifices.

  • This answer, as it stands, does not address point #5 in my question. Now, as I said there, just explaining the Mishnah locally is enough to get a check mark, this could be greatly improved if you could explain that detail of where exactly those eleven bones are located. – DonielF Jun 21 '17 at 4:31

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