On this “Brisket Day,” celebrated annually on May 28th, it behooves Jews to contemplate our obsession with this delicious and popular holiday main course.

Brisket is considered one of the most desired “primal cuts,” i.e. those slices that are made first when butchering beef. The brisket can be found on the lower chest of the animal, below the chuck and above the shank. The brisket muscles support about 60% of the weight of the animal as cattle do not have collar bones. To be enjoyed as part of a meal, the brisket must be cooked correctly, since it includes much connective tissue, which takes a while to tenderize.

Although brisket can be traced to native Americans living in Southern Texas, it also is the stereotypical entrée at Jewish celebrations. The brisket is the source for pot roast, and for various deli types such as corned beef and pastrami. But, the brisket is also a staple in almost all meat-eating cultures.

So how did brisket become a popular kosher cut?

There are halachic (Jewish legal), economic and practical issues that resulted in brisket becoming such a popular Jewish cut of meat.

From the time of father Jacob, the gid hanasheh, the sciatic nerve, found on the lower hind part of the animal, may not be consumed by Jews. Since a brisket’s source is the front side of the cow, it will always be kosher, (assuming the animal was slaughtered properly and was not terminally ill at the time of death.) Removing the gid hanashe, is a specialty reserved for a few elite butchers and rabbis. This de-veining process known in Hebrew as nikur, and in Yiddish as treibering, is very difficult and expensive. In the U.S. today, most kosher supervisory agencies do not certify hind quarter cuts, such as sirloin, because of the expense and their proximity to the prohibited sinews. Even if kosher supervisory agencies were to permit hind quarter meats, the butchering required to remove them would still make it more economic to sell the entire hind quarter to non-kosher processing facilities.

Others note that since cooking the brisket is time-consuming and briskets cannot simply be grilled, its price was relatively low, which is why restaurants opt for more efficient cuts, and the demand was lower. Ironically, since brisket has become so popular, its price has indeed risen. Ribs, also from the front of the animal, are not as popular, since they could be processed more efficiently, and hence, are more costly. Also, since the brisket is a large cut, it’s conducive to a large gathering, such as a holiday celebration.

So, whether you celebrate with a brisket sandwich, a pot roast or some deli, enjoy the day, and appreciate the Jewish connection.

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