Tuesday, May 01, 2012

How many legs does a מַרְבֵּה רַגְלַיִם have?

How many legs
does this centipede have?
Summary: Rashi in parashas Shemini says it is called centipede, and they call it '100 legs'. But of course centipedes have less than this, so lav davka. Still, could it have 32 legs, as Torah Temimah describes?

Post: Towards the end of parashat Shemini, we encounter the following pasuk and Rashi:

42. Any [creature] that goes on its belly, and any [creature] that walks on four [legs] to any [creature] that has many legs, among all creeping creatures that creep on the ground, you shall not eat, for they are an abomination.מב. כֹּל הוֹלֵךְ עַל גָּחוֹן וְכֹל הוֹלֵךְ עַל אַרְבַּע עַד כָּל מַרְבֵּה רַגְלַיִם לְכָל הַשֶּׁרֶץ הַשֹּׁרֵץ עַל הָאָרֶץ לֹא תֹאכְלוּם כִּי שֶׁקֶץ הֵם:

any [creature] that has many legs: This is the centipede, a creature with legs from its head to its tail, on either side, called centipede [in French]. — [Torath Kohanim 11:163]מרבה רגלים: זה נדל שרץ שיש לו רגלים מראשו ועד זנבו לכאן ולכאן, וקורין ציינפיי"ש [נדל]:

The association with the נדל is in Toras Kohanim, that is Sifra, over here. But the description and the identification of the נדל as centipede is from Rashi.

Though Rashi does not say so explicitly here, centipede means 100 legs. However, in Chullin, 3rd perek, in the sugya of nesher, Rashi does say that they call the נדל meah raglayim.

In Ateres HaMikra, by R' Shmuel Goldshmidt, we find the following fascinating discussion brought down. After citing Rashi, with an explanation of centipede as 100 legs:
Torah Temima: Not precisely 100, but the intent is many.
Tosefes Bracha:  But in truth, this sheretz has only 32 legs to a male and 34 to a female.
The author of both Torah Temima and Tosefes Bracha is R' Baruch Epstein. Here is the text of Torah Temimah:

I did not have the opportunity to do much research, to be able to determine if there is a species of centipede where the male has a different number of legs than the female. But Wikipedia has the following about centipedes (if we are to believe Wikipedia -- but it supports it with two citations):
Despite the name, centipedes can have a varying number of legs from under 20 to over 300. Centipedes have an odd number of pairs of legs, e.g. 15 or 17 pairs of legs (30 or 34 legs) but never 16 pairs (32 legs).
If so, it does not seem that male centipedes could have 32 legs. However, Wikipedia and other sources do not say this about millipedes. So the Tosefes Beracha could have been talking about a specific species of millipede. I wonder at what point millipedes were historically distinguished from centipedes.


Joe in Australia said...

For what it's worth, the Wikipedia article on centipedes says "The clade Epimorpha, consisting of orders Geophilomorpha and Scolopendromorpha, exhibits epimorphy: all pairs of legs are developed in the embryonic stages, and offspring do not develop more legs between moults. It is this clade that contains the longest centipedes; the maximum number of thoracic segments may also vary intra-specifically, often on a geographical basis; in most cases, females bear more legs than males."

I suppose that the Torah Temimah's account is based on personal research; if so I'm quite impressed - not only that he counted them, but that he distinguished males from females!

joshwaxman said...


Though I don't know that the Torah Temimah was doing original research here. It is quite possible that he was relying on other scientists.

(Still, I don't know what to make of the 32 legs bit, if this is indeed centipedes.)

Joe in Australia said...

Perhaps he meant 32 or 34 on each side, and he wasn't counting the first pair of legs, which have been modified into venomous claws.

Alternatively, nishtaneh hateva :-)


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