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From Parsha to Halakha – Vayishlach Gid HaNasheh: Displaced memory

Kislev 5784 | November 2023


Yaakov’s mid-night wrestling match and the following mitzvah of Gid HaNasheh (translated as “forgotten sinew” or “displaced tendon” and identified as the sciatic nerve) seem to be part of the “Maggid” of Yaakov’s exodus from Lavan’s house – a form of remembrance. Ironically, because of the many strictures surrounding the removal of the nerve from the thigh, the mitzvah has been largely displaced and all but forgotten.

Gid HaNasheh in Jewish thought

As Yaakov enters his homeland, he grows increasingly fearful of his impending reunion with his brother Esav. The night before they are due to meet Yaakov crosses the Yabok; there he meets a mysterious figure. They struggle, and although Yaakov ultimately prevails, his attacker leaves him with a souvenir – a limp caused by a blow to the sciatic nerve. Consequently, the Torah informs us, “Therefore the Children of Israel do not eat the Gid HaNasheh that is on the thigh joint to this day, because he injured Yaakov’s Gid HaNasheh on the thigh joint.”[1]

There are various explanations for this practice. Some commentaries view Yaakov’s struggle in a negative light. According to Rashbam, Yaakov was injured because he tried to avoid a confrontation with Esav even though God promised to safeguard him.[2] Chizkuni taught that Yaakov’s children took it upon themselves to refrain from eating the Gid HaNasheh because they left him alone and were not there to help him with the struggle.[3] Similarly, Seforno writes that by refraining from eating the Gid HaNasheh we demonstrate that it’s not a significant body part, which in turn “minimizes” the significance of the injury. According to these opinions we abstain from eating the Gid HaNasheh because it is a reminder of Yaakov’s lack of faith or his sons’ lack of support.

Others see the struggle in a different light. They believe the meeting was meant to give Yaakov strength. Chazal explained that the mysterious figure the Torah calls a “man” was “saro shel Esav,” Esav’s ministering angel. Yaakov’s injury was unavoidable, every fight has its price. In this case the price was an injury to his sciatic nerve, which runs from the spine through the leg.[4] This could symbolize the connection between our hearts and minds and the world of action; it could also symbolize the urge and instinct to pursue life and produce children.[5] “Esav’s ministering angel” chooses to attack this particular area – this connection between the internal and external, spiritual and physical, the drive to live and bear children – integral parts of Yaakov’s identity that he must fight to defend as he faces the forces of evil in this world. Yaakov struggled with and persevered, suffering only a minor injury. It’s possible this injury can be understood as a badge of honor, a battle scar that has come to symbolize his victory and his ability to emerge from such a fight stronger than ever, as it says, “Yaakov arrived complete (unscathed) to the city of Shechem.”[6]

Gid HaNasheh in halakha

Even though there’s an established rabbinic tradition as to the identity of the Gid HaNasheh, there’s an additional rabbinic prohibition of an external sinew whose identity is disputed between different communities.[7] The sages also prohibited some of the surrounding areas; halakhic literature states, “the sanctified Israel also added the chelev (fat) surrounding the Gid HaNasheh.”[8]

In practice, the combination of the difficulty involved in identifying the prohibited chelev, the complex act of nikur (removing the sinews and surrounding fat), and the various additional strictures that were adopted by different communities over the generations led many communities to sell the two hind legs to Gentiles instead of dealing with the complications of nikur.[9] Nevertheless, other communities, especially smaller ones, continued to pass on the expertise and practical skills of nikur from one generation of God-fearing individuals to the next.[10]

A mitzvah for generations

Over the generations the prohibition has grown to include rabbinically forbidden parts as well. Perhaps the suffering endured in exile and the struggle to endure magnified our perception of the price of such struggles. Perhaps it was the attempts to avoid such confrontations that caused it to grow. Perhaps the tension between reality and ideals became too much to bear, so many chose to keep the heart and mind and give up on the legs…

In practice, many of us, both those who buy meat that has undergone nikur and those that have given up on the hindquarters of the animal, don’t experience the idea behind this mitzvah. This is a mitzvah that is meant to remind us of our ability, and our obligation, to prevail in the struggle of good versus evil, yet we often choose to forget. Since this mitzvah focuses on “sur mei’ra” (avoiding evil or transgressions), and in practice is largely about avoidance, it’s not easy for it to serve as an active reminder to prevail in our struggles. As opposed to the mitzvot to eat Pesach (the paschal lamb offering), matza, and maror and actively tell (ma-gid) the story of our exodus from Egypt, the mitzvah not to eat Gid HaNasheh can also teach us about the value of refraining from struggle.

Nevertheless, this mitzvah is related within the stories of our forefathers, even though many Torah scholars believe it was not in effect until the Torah was given on Mount Sinai.[11] So even those of us who do not experience the mitzvah can still listen to the story and remember it. Through this gid we can say (nagid) “shelo titnashi minan,” “it will not be forgotten from among us.”

[1] Bereishit 32:33

[2] Rashbam on Bereishit 32:23-29. However, in his opinion (in verse 33) we don’t eat Gid HaNasheh as a symbol of Yaakov’s victory.

[3] See Da’at Zekeinim by the Tosafists.

[4] TB Chullin 91a; Bereishit Rabba 77:3

[5] See Rav Eliezer Melamed, Peninei Halakha, Sefer Kashrut II Chapter 21 pg. 42-43

[6] See Sefer HaMitzvot Mitzvah 3; Ramban Bereishit 32:26

[7] TB Chulin 91a and 93b; Shulchan Arukh YD 65:8.

[8] See Beit Yosef YD 65 in the name of Rashba, Tosfot, and Ran.

[9] Responsa Radvaz Vol. I 162; Chatam Sofer YD 68 and more.

[10] See the discussion in Igrot Moshe YD II 42.

[11] See the dispute between Rabbi Yehudah and the sages in Mishna Chulin 7:6.

Rabbanit Dr. Adina Sternberg

was in the first cohort of the Matan Kitvuni Fellowship program and her book is in the publication process. She has a B.A. in Bible from Hebrew University and a M.A. and Ph.D. in Talmud from Bar Ilan University. Adina studied in Midreshet Lindenbaum, Migdal Oz, Havruta and the Advanced Talmud Institute in Matan. She currently teaches Bible and Talmud at Matan, and at Efrata and Orot colleges. Adina lives in Adam (Geva Binyamin) with her family.