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Gid haNasheh: Yaacov Avinu’s Contribution to Jewish Spirituality

December 8, 2009 by  
Filed under Tanach

Gid haNasheh: Yaacov Avinu’s Contribution to Jewish Spirituality

by Gidon Rothstein

There are only three commandments recorded in the book of Bereshit, so when we come across one, we sit up and take notice.  If that weren’t enough, the prohibition of Gid haNasheh (commonly translated as sciatic nerve, but easily as likely referring to a muscle or sinew in or near the hollow of the thigh) is striking in other ways.  By looking at this mitzvah a little more closely, I believe we can be reminded of Yaacov Avinu’s particular role in shaping the character of the Jewish nation.

Memory and a Food with No Taste


The first oddity of the prohibition is the halachic assumption that this part of the animal has no taste.[1]  If so, it is not clear what it is about the sinew or nerve that makes it problematic to be eaten. Rishonim assume that there is some symbolism in the eating that we are meant to keep in mind. Thus, Rashbam on the verse says that we are supposed to remember Yaacov’s heroism in battling the angel, and his having been saved. 


As Ibn Ezra notes in a different context, though,[2] this memory is based on our refraining from eating, as opposed to, for example, the Pesach sacrifice, where we reinforce our memory by eating something.  The simplest reading of that difference, it seems to me, would be that we eat an item to remember something positive, and refrain from eating when we want to remember a negative or difficult circumstance.


Rambam also lets the attentive reader know that he sees this prohibition as being about memory in a remarkable way.  In his attempt to explain the reasons for the commandments towards the end of the Moreh Nevuchim, he reaches the topic of food prohibitions.[3]  In general, he ascribes those to some physical or psychological/spiritual damage the food causes.  Blood and meat that is not ritually slaughtered were, for him, difficult to digest, while אבר מן החי, foods that have been removed from an animal while it was still alive, teach a person cruelty.[4]


Sandwiched between those, without his noting that he is giving a completely different type of explanation for this commandment, Rambam mentions that the reason for גיד הנשה is written in the verse.  Meaning that, for Rambam, this food prohibition is actually exceptional, in that it is not a function of the food’s impact on us, it is only as a memory device.


Sefer haChinuch offers one suggestion for the memory we are trying to retain.  Following the tradition cited by Rashi that the angel was the representative of Esav, he suggests that we refrain from eating the Gid to remind ourselves that although we may suffer in our various exiles, we should always know that we will eventually be redeemed.  This lack of eating, in his view, holds us firmly in our faith in the face of adversity.


Adversity or Uncertainty?


I find his idea less than fully convincing, most prominently because it requires our assuming that the Torah, without acknowledging it, identified this angel and gave it an historical significance that formed the background for a mitzvah of the Torah.  While not impossible, it seems unusual.  In addition, I am still bothered with why we here are told not to eat the Gid, and in the Pesach sacrifice told to eat it (I’m not sure I have a good answer to that, but let’s push on and see).


Another comment of Rambam’s suggests to me an avenue we could take that seems productive.  At the end of Hilchot Melachim,[5] he offers a mini-history of how mitsvot came into the world.  Adam got six (Rambam assumes animal flesh was prohibited until after the Flood, so אבר מן החי only became an issue in Noah’s time), Noah got the right to eat meat and the prohibition against eating that which has come off of live animals, Avraham got circumcision and established the morning prayer, Yitzhak tithed and added the afternoon prayer, and Yaacov gave us gid hanasheh as well as the night-time prayer.


I find it striking that both of Yaacov’s contributions focus on night, the time of uncertainty.  Night is, we might note, a time when we have many fewer mitsvot that during the day, almost as if the Torah assumed we would just retreat to our homes for its duration, returning to active life with the next day.


Pushing forward through such times of night, including exile, seems a theme that plays a repeat role in Yaacov’s life.  In a Rashi that Dr. Aviva Zornberg first alerted me to,[6] Hazal see Yaacov as having worried his whole life as to whether he would be sent to Gehinnom, to post-mortem punishment for his sins; Yaacov spends twenty years struggling with Lavan and fearing Esav, finally is forced to confront his brother and is deathly uncertain as to how that will go; and, in summarizing his life to Paroh sees it as a short and unhappy life.  Yaacov, in other words, lives a life where he cannot see whether he is succeeding, and spends his life uncertain as to how it will look at the end.


This is not completely different from the view offered by Sefer haChinuch; the troubles of exile lead some to doubt their faith, an uncertainty akin to what I am suggesting.  The emphasis, though, is not our ultimate survival so much as stressing  building the fortitude to follow uncertain paths with the faith and confidence that God will make it work out as best possible.


The mitzvah of Gid haNasheh, to me, then, is about watching our Father Yaacov’s life struggles and learn from them, somewhat like Sefer haChinuch said, that the road may be long, lonely, and doubt-filled, but as long as we struggle conscientiously, guided by our faith and the dictates it sets out for us, we can know that we will find success and reward from our Father in Heaven.


[1] יורה דעה ק:ב, Yoreh Deah 100;2.

[2] יסוד מורא שער ה, Yesod Morah Gate 5.

[3] III;48.

[4] I confess I have long failed to understand this explanation: if that concerned the Torah, there should have been a separate and serious prohibition against removing the animal’s parts while it was alive, yet אבר מן החי is a food prohibition.  We may not eat אבר מן החי even if we removed it in the most humane way possible, or even if it came off on its own.  I would suggest that the prohibition stems from the Torah’s wish to stress that animals are not food until they have died (in the case of fish or for non-Jews) or been killed.  We cannot eat אבר מן החי, it seems to me, because it is not food.  If so, incidentally, this might explain why the Torah never explicitly prohibits human flesh—that is never food, so there is no reason to mention it.

[5] ט:א, 9;1.

[6] בראשית ל”ז: ל”ה, Bereshit 37;35.

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