Gid Ha’nasheh: The Sinew of the Thigh”

By Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayishlach, after twenty two years of fleeing from his brother Esau, who had threatened to kill him, Jacob prepares for a dramatic encounter with his estranged sibling.

According to tradition, Jacob prepares by taking three practical measures to ensure his safety. He sends emissaries to Esau, with gifts, to find favor in Esau’s eyes and appease him. He prays fervently to G-d to save him. He prepares for battle by dividing his people into two camps.

The Torah, in Genesis 32:12, records Jacob’s prayer: “Ha’tzee’lay’nee nah mee’yahd ah’chee mee’yahd Esav,” Rescue me please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau! For I fear him, lest he come and strike me down, mother and children.

Jacob sends the elaborate tribute, humbling himself before Esau, instructing his servants to inform Esau that all the forthcoming gifts are from Jacob, Esau’s servant, who is presenting them as a gift to his lord, Esau, and that Jacob is behind and will be arriving soon.

That night, Jacob divides his camp in two, and crosses over the ford of the Jabbok River. Scripture reports (Genesis 32:25): “Vah’yee’vah’tayr Yaakov l’vah’doh, v’yay’ah’vek eesh ee’moh ahd ah’loht ha’shah’char,” Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him, until the break of dawn. Scripture informs us that when the “man” (who is often regarded by the commentators as the arch angel of Esau), perceived that he could not overcome Jacob, he struck the socket of Jacob’s hip, dislocating it, as he wrestled with Jacob.

The “man” then begs Jacob to let him go, for dawn has broken. Jacob, however, insists on first receiving a blessing. The man informs Jacob that his name will no longer be “Jacob,” instead he shall become known as “Israel,” (Genesis 32:29): “Kee sah’ree’tah im Eh’lo’kim v’im ah’na’shim vah’too’chahl,” for you [Jacob] have striven with the Divine and with human and have overcome.

The Torah reports that when the sun rose for Jacob, as he passed Peniel, he was limping due to his dislocated hip. As a result of the confrontation and Jacob’s injury, the Torah states (Genesis 32:33) that the Children of Israel are not permitted to eat the displaced sinew on the hip-socket to this day, because the “man” struck Jacob’s hip-socket on the displaced sinew.

Anatomically, two tendons extend from the animal’s hip to the thigh, an inner tendon and an outer tendon. Eating even a miniscule amount of the inner tendon, even a piece no bigger than the size of an olive, violates this biblical injunction. Eating the outside tendon is a violation of rabbinic law.

Because of this prohibition, most observant Jews never eat any of the hind parts of kosher animals. Instead, those parts are sold for non-kosher consumption. In Israel, where meat is more expensive, butchers carefully porge every last trace of these nerves and the surrounding fat as well. It requires a great deal of expertise to remove these forbidden parts.

Many reasons are suggested by the commentaries to explain the purpose of this prohibition. Rabbi Abraham Chill, in his wonderful and comprehensive volume, The Mitzvot: The Commandments and Their Rationale, cites many of their opinions.

The author of the Sefer Ha’Chinuch asserts that this mitzvah symbolizes Israel’s perseverance. No matter how much our enemies attack, Israel will survive, just as Jacob did. A Jew must never lose hope, Divine assistance will always appear.

The Sforno asserts that the purpose of the prohibition of eating the sinew of the thigh is to show that, no matter how unfavorable the odds may appear to be, Jews must fight for survival, notwithstanding any physical limitations.

The Hizzekuni argues that Jews refrain from eating the thigh muscle in order to remind them that they must never allow another Jew to stand alone in the world. The night before Jacob’s confrontation with Esau, or the angel of Esau, when his thigh was hurt, Jacob was left to face the struggle alone. That should never have happened.

Maimonides maintains that those who assert that the mitzvah of the sinew of the thigh, or any other mitzvah, references historical events, are mistaken. Maimonides strongly argues that Jews do not practice circumcision because Abraham circumcised himself or because they are Abraham’s descendants. Jews practice circumcision, asserts Maimonides, simply because they were told by G-d at Sinai to do so. In the same vein, the reason Jews abstain from eating the thigh muscle, is not because Jews descended from Jacob whose thigh muscle was injured in the confrontation, but because of G-d’s commandment at Sinai, to do so.

In his commentary on this episode, the Alshich argues that the prohibition of eating the sinew of the thigh is intended to serve as reminder to Jews to distance themselves from any evil, even a particular evil that has not yet become officially forbidden. The Alshich concludes that Jacob was afflicted with blindness for having married two sisters. Although there was not yet a law forbidding a man to marry two sisters, Jacob was still punished. Similarly, Jews are forbidden to eat the thigh muscle, as a reminder that even the saintly Jacob was held accountable for his sin.

Although the prohibition of eating the sinew of the thigh may originate with Jacob’s injury, we see that there are many possible messages that are conveyed by this particular mitzvah. These varied lessons are vitally important to contemporary Jews.

Furthermore, the prohibition against eating the sinew of the thigh represents an important message of hope. Just as the sun rose for Jacob and he was healed from his injury, so, eventually, will the sun of redemption rise for the entire Jewish people, and redeem them from the enmity of their foes, bringing light and peace upon the People of Israel and to all of humankind.

May you be blessed.