Gid Ha-Nasheh

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

The prohibition of gid ha-nasheh, the last of the mitzvot laid out in Bereshit, ostensibly comes because of the story in this week’s parsha, Ya’akov wrestling with an angel and being wounded in his hip (according to Sefaria, the hip being taken out of its socket). Sefaria also translates gid ha-nasheh to mean “thigh muscle,” where I grew up hearing it called the sciatic nerve. Let’s see what our sources tell us.

Rambam, Prohibition 183, defines the mitzvah sparely, not to eat the gid ha-nasheh, cites 32;32 (therefore, the children of Israel do not eat the gid ha-nasheh, etc.)and adds the prohibition is fully violated by eating an entire such gid, no matter how small (Minhat Hinuch explains it counts as a biryah, an entire item, and many prohibitions recognize entire items as enough to violate the prohibition despite their small size), or an olive’s worth of a larger one.

Sefer Ha-Hinuch 3 assumes we might have thought the verse was telling us a fact rather than obligating a practice, was telling us Ya’akov’s descendants chose not to eat this part of animals because of what happened to their forefather. It is not, it is a prohibition God instituted.

The Gid Foreshadows Suffering and Survival

Sefer Ha-Hinuch reads the mitzvah to be a hint to the Jewish people of the troubles they will suffer in their various future exiles, beset at some point by all nations, including Esav. Ya’akov’s experience is supposed to instill confidence in us that we will not be destroyed [as a nation; I wonder what level of comfort this gives to the individual Jew, who might, God forbid, lose his or her entire family]. There will always be a Jewish people, who will eventually be redeemed. Memory of this truth will fortify Jews to remain within the religion.

[I did not know this was already true when Sefer Ha-Hinuch wrote, but there is documented evidence of Jews in Spain converting to Christianity out of exactly this type of despair in the late fourteenth and throughout the fifteenth centuries. That other religion just seemed too successful to these Jews, they lost faith in an eventual redemption and decided to join the “winners.”]

The hint depends on the traditional assumption the angel who fought with Ya’akov was the sar, the protective angel, of Esav, who wanted to remove Ya’akov and his whole family from the world, but could not and instead injured his thigh. So, too, the descendants of Esav will damage the Jewish people, who will nonetheless be saved at the end. Like with Ya’akov, who suffered, but then had the sun shine for him and heal his pain.

[This is a place where Sefer Ha-Hinuch includes unsubstantiated assumptions we should notice. First, he ignores the persecutions of Jews in Muslim lands. While it was generally not as bad, it did occur but Ya’akov’s battle with the angel would not have prefigured that]. It would have been a more easily generalizable lesson had he not thrown in the idea this was Esav’s angel, said only it symbolized the troubles of the Jewish people. Part of this same point, I think, is that symbolism is always uncertain, is open to many other options.

Second, his assumption that the angel strove to remove Ya’akov from the world implies a much greater freewill for angels than I would have thought. Last for now, to consider throughout our discussion: if the Torah seeks to remind us of something, it seems odd to lodge that memory in a mitzvah that has almost always been performed by professionals, those who slaughter our meat for us and then give it back. I suppose in the times when people bought animals and then brought it to a shohet, they would have a clearer experience of the gid being removed, but for most of us, it is almost a non-event.]

Fitting for a symbolic act, though, Sefer Ha-Hinuch has a short list of dinim, rules, for the mitzvah, which he directs us to the seventh chapter of Hullin to learn more fully: how much into the animal we must dig to remove the gid fully, what animals’ gid are included, and who we can trust to remove it properly.

The Rules of Gid, More Fully Presented

In Yoreh De’ah 68;12, Aruch Ha-Shulhan rules the prohibition applies to hayyot, non-domesticated animals (also not eligible for sacrifice), as well as behemot, the usual kosher ones, cows, sheep, goats. Kosher animals not successfully slaughtered (terefot , bearers of a wound that makes kosher slaughter impossible, or nevelot, animals that died without or with invalid shechitah) retain this prohibition, the non-kosher death not enough to remove the gid ha-nasheh issue.

There is no problem of gid ha-nasheh in non-kosher animals, since the whole animal may not be eaten. Nor is it a factor with birds, who do not have the hip socket where the gid is found.

In paragraph thirteen, Aruch Ha-Shulhan mentions one of the more puzzling aspects of the mitzvah, that we assume gid ha-nasheh has no taste, I think unique among eating proscriptions. More, Aruch Ha-Shulhan thinks that’s the reason gid ha-nasheh also stays when an animal is a nevelah or terefah, despite not really being food (food has taste). Minhat Hinuch points out this means mixtures with an unidentified gid ha-nasheh only need a majority to nullify it. The idea of sixty was to overcome the taste of the problematic item.

For us, it deepens the question of the reason the Torah banned it, since it only counts as food because of the Torah’s paying attention to it.

A Reason for the Mitzvah?

The laws of the gid ha-nasheh seem to me to make clear this is more of an eating prohibition than a memory one, as Sefer Ha-Hinuch argued. True, we have eating mitzvot about memory, but those memories mostly accompany acts of eating, such as matzah on Pesah. Especially since we conclude gid ha-nasheh has no taste, the prohibition on eating calls for explanation.

Still, any reason we would build must also focus on the precipitating incident, an angel attacking Ya’akov, being defeated by him, yet leaving him wounded in the process. Because of it, the wounded body part becomes off-limits to us, in all our eatings.

The eating part suggests to me there is a message about our physicality, in contrast to angels and, le-havdil, God. We remember when our forefather interacted with an angel, and did not walk away whole. Because we essentially physical beings need to know, however great we become, we will not overcome our physicality, and if we interact with non-physical beings, we will not walk away whole. As we eat—a particularly human activity—we are to remember our physicality, and the care we need to take when we approach the metaphysical and, beyond that, the divine.

About Gidon Rothstein

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