High in the Thigh: The Mitzvah of Gid Hano’she
In the process of vanquishing his opponent wrestler, Yaakov Avinu was left with an injured thigh. To commemorate this event, the Torah teaches al kein lo yochelu benei Yisroel es gid hano’she asher al kaf hayarech ad hayom hazeh ki naga bechaf yerech Yaakov begid hano’she, “Therefore, the children of Israel may not consume the sinew that was displaced, which lies upon the ‘spoon’ of the thigh, since he struck the ‘spoon’ of Yaakov’s thigh on the displaced sinew (Bereishis 32:33 with Rashi).” As we will see shortly, this pasuk is written with precision, and we derive most of the halachos of this mitzvah from its words.
We see from the pasuk that Yaakov’s injury was that his “sinew” was “displaced.” The word “sinew” is not a scientific term, but a household or butcher’s term. Its Hebrew equivalent, gid, describes stringy body parts whose texture is too tough to chew comfortably, and may refer to nerves, tendons, ligaments, or even blood vessels (see Rambam, Peirush Hamishnayos, Zevachim 3:4).
In Yaakov’s case, the sinew involved is what is known in anatomy as the sciatic nerve, which runs through the pelvis and upper leg, from the lower back over the top of the hip and down the leg, at which point it divides into other nerves. The Torah describes this as the sinew that lies across the kaf hayarech, which literally means the “spoon of the thigh.” This refers to a piece of muscle that lies atop the femur and that has a spoon-like shape. Part of the sciatic nerve lies on top of this muscle, wedged against the bone socket on the other side. The Torah prohibits the consumption of this nerve, notwithstanding that it is not tasty, nor really edible. (It is not technically accurate to translate kaf hayarech as the socket, since the socket is above or in front of the femur [depending on whether we are describing a two-legged or a four-legged animal] and above or in front of the sciatic nerve. I will note that this is not the only mistranslation of this verse I have found in works that are reputed to be authoritative.)
This mitzvah is not mentioned anywhere else in the Torah. According to the Sefer Hachinuch, which lists the mitzvos in the order of their appearance in the Torah, this is the third mitzvah and the first lo saaseh of the 613 mitzvos. An entire chapter of Mishnayos, the seventh chapter of Chullin, is devoted to this mitzvah. Let us understand its details.
Not for the birds
The Mishnah states that the prohibition of gid hano’she does not apply to birds, because they do not have a “kaf,” which I have translated as the “spoon” of the thigh. Although birds have both a femur and a sciatic nerve, they are excluded from the prohibition of gid hano’she because the shape of their bones and muscles is different and does not fit the Torah’s description of the mitzvah (Rambam, Hilchos Ma’achalos Asurus 8:4). The Rambam (Commentary to the Mishnah) explains that the reason for this law is because the structure of the bird’s leg is very different from that of a man, and therefore not reminiscent of the miracle that occurred to Yaakov. (Those who would like to see an explanation of the Talmudic passage involved should look at the encyclopedic work Sichas Chullin and other contemporary works.)
The Gemara (Chullin 92b) discusses whether the halacha exempting birds from the prohibition of gid hano’she is true if a particular individual bird has an unusually shaped leg that resembles the “socket” of an animal, or, conversely, if the prohibition of gid hano’she still applies if an animal’s leg is misshapen, such that the muscle on its upper femur is not shaped like a spoon. The Gemara does not reach a conclusion on this question. Since it is an unresolved halachic issue germane to a Torah prohibition, a safek de’oraysa, the Rambam (Hilchos Ma’achalos Asurus 8:4) and the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 65:5) conclude that both of these instances are prohibited.
Is the prohibition of gid hano’she limited to kosher species, or does it apply also to non-kosher species? This is actually a dispute among tanna’im. Rabbi Shimon contends that the prohibition of gid hano’she is limited to kosher species, whereas the tanna’im who disagree with him contend that the prohibition of gid hano’she applies equally to non-kosher species. In their opinion, the sciatic nerve of a horse, camel, pig or donkey is included in the prohibition of gid hano’she. The Rambam (Hilchos Ma’achalos Asurus 8:5) rules like Rabbi Shimon.
What difference does it make whether this sinew is prohibited as a gid hano’she, when it will be prohibited anyway as non-kosher? The answer is that since sinews have no flavor on their own, according to the opinion we will soon explain that ein begiddin benosein taam, sinews from a non-kosher species are not prohibited min haTorah. However, the gid hano’she would be prohibited min haTorah, according to the tanna’im who disagree with Rabbi Shimon.
A person has two sciatic nerves, one on each leg. The verse implies that Yaakov was wounded on only one side. Which of his sciatic nerves was injured? Nothing overt in the story tells us. However, we can prove what happened from a passage of the Gemara, although we may be left to wonder how the Gemara knew this. There is a dispute among the tanna’im (Chullin 91a) whether the prohibition of gid hano’she applies to the sinews of both the right and left sides, or only to that of the right side. Both opinions understand that Yaakov was injured only in his right thigh. The question is whether Hashem prohibited the sciatic nerves of both sides so that we remember what happened, or only the one on the right thigh. We follow the opinion that it applies to both sides (Rambam, Hilchos Ma’achalos Asurus 8:1).
Inner and outer
On each thigh, there are actually two sinews that can be called the gid hano’she and are near one another. The inner gid, thus called because it runs alongside the bone on the interior of the animal, is the true gid hano’she, whose consumption is prohibited by the Torah. The outer gid does not lie on top of the thigh and is therefore not prohibited min haTorah. Nevertheless, Chazal prohibited eating the outer gid, also (Chullin 91a).
The tanna’im dispute how much of the inner gid is prohibited min haTorah. Rabbi Meir contends that the entire nerve is prohibited min haTorah (Chullin 92b), whereas the chachamim contend that, min haTorah, only the part of the gid lying atop the thigh bone is prohibited. In their opinion, the rest of the gid is prohibited only miderabbanan. A third opinion, that of Rabbi Yehudah, contends that the rest of the nerve is not prohibited even miderabbanan, and, therefore, he did not require its removal (Chullin 92b, 96a).
The dispute among the tanna’im appears to be how one translates the words of the Torah, the children of Israel may not consume the sinew that was displaced, which lies upon the “spoon” of the thigh. According to Rabbi Meir, the Torah is merely explaining the location of this sinew, but it is prohibited in its entirety. According to the other tanna’im, the prohibition is limited to the part of the sinew that “lies atop” the thigh, but not its continuation.
“Fat of the gid”
The sciatic nerve lies protected in a layer of fat. This fat is called shumano shel gid and is permitted min haTorah. However, already in the time of the Gemara it was established practice not to eat it (Chullin 91a). It is therefore treated halachically as an issur derabbanan, a rabbinically established prohibition, and it must be removed together with both the inner and the outer giddin.
The tanna’im also dispute whether the prohibition of gid hano’she began already in the days of Yaakov Avinu, or whether it was first prohibited when the Jews received the Torah at Har Sinai (Mishnah, Chullin 100b).
The Mishnah teaches that the mitzvah of gid hano’she applies to all kosher mammals. This includes the species of beheimah and of chayah. In other words, although there are mitzvos that apply to beheimah but not to chayah, and vice versa, the mitzvah of gid hano’she applies to both.
It is difficult to define the differences between beheimah and chayah. Although we know that beheimah includes cattle and sheep, whereas chayah includes deer and antelope, the common definition of beheimah as domesticated species, and chayah as wild or non-domesticated species, is not halachically accurate. For example, reindeer, which qualify as chayah, are domesticated, whereas wisents and Cape buffalo, which are not domesticated, are probably varieties of beheimah. A more complicated, but far more accurate, definition of beheimah is a halachically recognized genus or category in which most common species qualify as livestock, and chayah is a halachically recognized genus or category in which most common species are not usually livestock.
The Gemara explains that it is dependent on the type of horn that the animal displays, but the terminology the Gemara uses to explain this is unclear and subject to disputes among the rishonim. Since we are uncertain which species are considered beheimah and which are considered chayah, we are stringent. This means any species of which we are uncertain is treated lechumra as both beheimah and chayah — unless we have a mesorah, an oral tradition, about the halachic status of this species (see Shach, Yoreh Deah 80:1, as explained by the Pri Megadim).
The Torah forbade consumption of certain internal fats, called cheilev — these are attached predominantly to the stomachs and the kidneys. Since the Torah prohibits consuming both cheilev and the gid hano’she, these forbidden parts must be removed from an animal before its meat can be eaten. This process is called “traberen,” a Yiddish word that derives from tarba, the Aramaic word for cheilev. The Hebrew word for the process is “nikur,” excising, and the artisan who possesses the skill to properly remove it is called a menakeir. It is interesting to note that the Rema (Yoreh Deah 64:7 and 65:8) points out in two different places that nikur cannot be learned from a text, only through apprenticeship.
Cheilev versus gid hano’she
There is a major difference between gid hano’she and the prohibition of cheilev. The prohibition of cheilev applies to species of beheimah, but not to chayah (Mishnah Chullin 89b). Thus, we have a difference in halacha between gid hano’she and cheilev, in that gid hano’she is prohibited in a chayah, whereas its cheilev is permitted.
This is germane in practical halacha. Because of the difficulty in removing all the cheilev correctly, many communities have the halachic custom not to traber the hindquarters, but, instead, to sell them to gentiles as non-kosher. However, many contemporary authorities have ruled that even those who have accepted this practice may still traber the hindquarters of a deer, which is definitely a chayah, to remove the gid hano’she, since the cheilev of a chayah is permitted. This is because the gid hano’she that is prohibited min haTorah is relatively easy to remove and does not involve as serious halachic issues as does the cheilev. Notwithstanding this heter, there is still a requirement that one who trabers the gid hano’she of a deer may do so only if he has been trained in performing this nikur.
Having established the basic rules from the pasuk itself, we can now analyze more of the halachos of this mitzvah. An entire chapter of Mishnayos, the seventh chapter of Chullin, is devoted to understanding it. The opening Mishnah of this chapter begins as follows: (The prohibition of) gid hano’she applies both in Eretz Yisroel and in chutz la’aretz, both during the times of the Beis Hamikdash and when there is no Beis Hamikdash, regarding both chullin and sanctified offerings. It applies both to beheimos and to chayos, to both the right thigh and the left thigh. But it does not apply to birds, because they do not have a kaf.
The Gemara asks why the Mishnah needed to report that the prohibition of gid hano’she applies to kodoshim. Since animals are born as chullin, at the time of birth the animal’s sciatic nerve becomes prohibited as gid hano’she. Why would we think that the prohibition of gid hano’she might disappear when the animal is declared to be holy?
To resolve this difficulty, the Gemara proposes the following solution: There is a dispute among tanna’im referred to as yesh begiddin benosein taam, sinews have flavor, or ein begiddin benosein taam, sinews do not have flavor. “Sinews” refer to the parts of an animal that are not tasty, but are eaten incidentally while consuming the tasty meat. The dispute is as follows: Since sinews are eaten only as part of a piece of meat, are they considered food? If they are not considered food, then other prohibitions, such as the mixing of meat and milk, or the prohibition of non-kosher species, do not apply to them min haTorah, since these prohibitions apply only to edible parts of an animal.
Thus, regarding the giddin of a kodoshim animal, if giddin are not considered food (ein begiddin benosein taam), then the prohibition of kodoshim does not apply. However, the sciatic nerve of a kodoshim animal is prohibited because of the prohibition of gid hano’she. The Shulchan Aruch concludes that ein begiddin benosein taam (Yoreh Deah 65:9).
It is very interesting to note that, at times in Jewish history, the mitzvah of gid hano’she became the identifying characteristic of the Jew. Kaifeng, China, is a city of 4.5 million people on the southern bank of the Yellow River that attracts much tourism for its rich history. In the tenth and eleventh centuries, Kaifeng was the capital of China, and, for this reason, the city is known as one of the Seven Ancient Capitals of China. As history notes, when there are a lot of people, there is money to be earned, and when there is money to earn, one will usually find Jews.
At one point, over a thousand years ago, Jewish merchants from Persia and India settled in the area, created for themselves a Jewish community, and built shullen. Their shullen faced west toward Yerushalayim. Unfortunately, with the passing centuries, their descendants became completely intermarried and assimilated into the Chinese population. To this day, about 1,000 Kaifeng residents claim Jewish ancestry.
What does this have to do with the mitzvah of gid hano’she? The answer is that the Chinese identified the Jews with the practice of removing the gid hano’she, referring to Jews as the sinew-plucking people. Until recently, there was even a street in Kaifeng called “The Lane of the Sinew-Plucking Religion,” a reference to the Jews who once lived there.
Jewish American identification
Not only the Chinese identified the Jews because of the mitzvah of gid hano’she. Many years ago, when I was a rav in a small community in the United States, a non-observant Jew was interested in making a strictly kosher wedding for his daughter, because he had frum friends whom he wanted to accommodate. His daughter was willing to have a kosher wedding, as long as it did not look “too kosher.” I asked her what she meant that it should not look “too kosher,” to which she answered: “No ribs and no briskets.” I had been unaware that, to someone who did not keep kosher, forequarters meat, such as rib and brisket, is associated with “kosher-looking,” whereas hindquarters meat, not consumed in many places because of the difficulties in removing the gid hano’she and the cheilev, is viewed as “non-kosher looking.” Thus, the prohibition of gid hano’she defined a Jewish menu. (Fortunately, the executive chef of the hotel doing the kosher catering provided ideas for a perfectly kosher and very delicious meal that would, by the bride’s definition, not look too kosher.)
Although above I translated the word noshe as “displaced,” which is the approach of Rashi and therefore the most common rendering, Rav Hirsch understands that the root of the word noshe, similar to no’she, a creditor, means submission and powerlessness. Yaakov’s gid had been dislodged by his adversary; he was unable to control the muscle that moves the bone. The nerve, muscle and bone all existed, but their use was temporarily hampered. Thus, the gid hano’she denotes temporary relinquishment, but not permanent loss. Ya’akov is a no’she, a creditor, who has quite a large account to settle with Eisav and his angel.
To quote the Sefer Hachinuch: The underlying understanding of this mitzvah is to hint to the Jewish people that, while in the exile, although we will undergo many difficulties from the other nations, and particularly the descendants of Eisav, we should remain secure that we will not be lost as a people. At some point in the future, our offspring will rise and a redeemer will arrive to free us from our oppressor. By always remembering this concept through the observance of this mitzvah, we will remain strong in our faith and our righteousness will remain forever!
Certainly some very powerful food for thought the next time we sit down to a fleishig meal and note that we are eating only “kosher cuts!”