“And Yaakov was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man realized that he was unable to defeat Yaakov, he struck the “kaf” of Yaakov’s thigh, which became dislocated as a result of the wrestling. And the sun rose as Yaakov passed Penuel, and he was limping because of his injured thigh. Therefore, the descendants of Yisroel do not eat the sciatic sinew to this very day, for the man struck Yaakov on that sinew, dislocating it” (Breishis 32:25-26, 32-33).
With these words, the Torah introduces us to the mitzvah of gid hanosheh, which forbids us from eating the sciatic nerve, a sinew that runs from the lower back over the top of the hip and down the leg, at which point it divides into other nerves. The Hebrew word 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). It is noteworthy that the Chinese word for the Kai Feng Jewish community was “the people who remove the sinew,” referring to the gid hanosheh; thus the observance of this mitzvah became the identifying description of the Jews.
An entire chapter of Mishnah and Gemara (the seventh chapter of Chullin) is devoted to the halachic discussion of this mitzvah, which is the third mitzvah mentioned in the Torah. The Gemara (Chullin 91a) there teaches that there is an inner gid that lies along the bone which is prohibited min hatorah, and an outer gid that lies along the meat, which is prohibited only miderabbanan. In addition, a layer of protective fat that surrounds the gid is also prohibited miderabbanan.
The Mishnah (Chullin 96a) records a dispute regarding how much of the nerve must be removed: the Tanna Kamma rules that one must remove the entire gid, whereas Rabbi Yehudah rules that one need remove only the main part of the gid. Both opinions agree that the Torah forbade only that part of the gid that lies on the top of the hip (the “kaf” of Yaakov’s thigh). According to the Tanna Kamma, the rest of the nerve is prohibited as a rabbinic injunction. Rabbi Yehudah contended that the rest of the nerve is not prohibited even miderabbanan, and therefore he did not require its removal (Chullin 96a). (The Ritva, Chullin 92b, contends that, according to some opinions, the entire main nerve and its branches are forbidden min hatorah.)
The Mishnah teaches that the mitzvah of gid hanosheh applies to all kosher mammals. This includes species of beheimah, i.e., domesticated kosher species such as cattle and sheep, and species of chayah, i.e., kosher species that are usually (but inaccurately) categorized as wild or non-domesticated species. (I discuss this inaccuracy more extensively in a different article.) Gid hanosheh does not apply to poultry, since the thigh of a bird is shaped differently and therefore has no “kaf.” Therefore, there is no need to remove this sinew from kosher birds.
There is a major difference between the prohibitions of gid hanosheh and cheilev. Whereas gid hanosheh applies to beheimah and chaya species, the Torah’s prohibition of consuming certain fats – predominantly those attached to the stomachs and the kidneys – applies only to species of beheimah, but not to chayah species (Mishnah Chullin 89b).
Another mitzvah that is affected by whether a species is a chayah or a beheimah: the mitzvah of kisuy hadam, covering the blood immediately following shechitah. This mitzvah applies only to fowl and chayah species, but not to beheimah species (Mishnah Chullin 83b). We therefore have three different types of meat species that have variant halachos pertaining to three different mitzvos: Gid hanosheh applies to beheimah and chayah, but not to birds; Cheilev applies to beheimah, but not to chayah and birds. Kisuy hadam applies only to chayah and birds, but not to beheimah.
It is important to note that the halachic definitions of beheimah and chayah are unclear. Since we are uncertain which species are considered beheimah and which are considered chayah, we are stringent and treat any species of which we are uncertain as both beheimah and chayah lechumrah, unless we have a mesorah, an oral tradition, about the halachic status of this specific species (see Shach, Yoreh Deah 80:1 as explained by Pri Megadim). Thus, we forbid the cheilev for any such species, because it might be a beheimah, yet its blood is covered after slaughter, because it might be a chayah. Since we are uncertain whether or not it is a chayah, the blood is covered without reciting the bracha one usually recites before performing this mitzvah.
The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 28:4) rules that one does not perform kisuy hadam for a buffalo; this determines it to be a beheimah. (He is presumably referring to the Asian water buffalo, which was domesticated in Southern Europe hundreds of years before the Shulchan Aruch.) The Rama (ad loc.) however rules that the status of the buffalo is uncertain. According to both opinions, the cheilev is forbidden — according to the Shulchan Aruch, definitely forbidden as the cheilev of a beheimah, and according to the Rama, out of doubt. There are, also, several other bovine type species such as the yak, the African Cape buffalo, and both the American and the European bison, all of which should probably be considered a safek if they are a chayah or a beheimah, and therefore their cheilev is prohibited misafek and their blood must be covered without a bracha. (See Chullin 59b and 80a; Gra and Pri Chodosh to Yoreh Deah 80; Ohr Somayach, Ma’achalos Asuros, Chapter 1).
Since the Torah prohibits consuming both cheilev and the gid hanosheh, these forbidden parts must be removed from an animal before its meat can be eaten. This process is called “trabering,” 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 (pl. menakerim). In truth, both the words traber and the word nikur are also used to describe the kosher butchering performed in the front part of the animal, called the forequarters, to remove blood vessels and some fat; however, I will be using the words traber and nikur to mean the more difficult task of trimming the hindquarters from the gid hanosheh and the cheilev. Although there is no absolute delineating point defining where the forequarters end and the hindquarters begin, the butcher usually counts the ribs, of which there are thirteen, and slices around the twelfth, considering the area below it to be part of the hindquarters. (The first rib is the one closest to the neck.) As we will discover shortly, not all halachic authorities accept that the meat above the twelfth rib should be treated as part of the forequarters.
Removing the gid hanosheh and forbidden fats from the hindquarters is an extremely arduous process that requires much skill and patience. It is interesting to note that the Rama (Yoreh Deah 64:7 and 65:8) points out twice that nikur cannot be learned from a text, only through apprenticeship. The Mishnah refers to a dispute among Tanna’im whether observant butchers can be trusted to remove the gid hanosheh and the non-kosher fats, Rabbi Meir contending that we cannot trust them, since removing them is highly tedious (Chullin 93b). In Rabbi Meir’s opinion, someone else must double check after the menakeir is finished, to see that the trabering was performed correctly. The halacha does not follow Rabbi Meir, and technically one may rely on a trained yarei shamayim menakeir to do the job properly. However, in many places the custom was more stringent.
SIXTEENTH CENTURY POLAND
The Maharshal reports that most of the menakerim in his day did not perform an adequate job — when they had a heavy workload, one would find that they failed to remove all the cheilev. The Maharshal notes that the menakeir must be not only well trained in his practice, but also a yarei shamayim who is meticulous in the work, and that one should not rely on just any typical menakeir. He also quotes an earlier authority, the Maharam Mintz, who did not eat meat after nikur until it was checked by a second menakeir. Since he had this policy all the time, he was able to avoid implying that any particular menakeir was careless or incompetent. The Maharshal praises this practice highly, noting that the original menakeir is more careful knowing that someone else will discover if he is sloppy. He reports that, after observing much inadequate nikur, he himself followed this approach of the Maharam Mintz not to eat meat unless a second menakeir had checked the first one’s work (Yam Shel Shelomoh, Chullin 1:2, 7:19; Be’er Heiteiv, Yoreh Deah 65:6).
NOT USING HINDQUARTERS
Since most of the forbidden fats and the entire gid hanosheh and all its tributaries are in the hindquarters, in many places the custom developed for Jews to eat only the meat of the forequarters, thus considerably simplifying the trabering process. The earliest source I have located that mentions this practice is a responsum from the Radbaz (Shu’t #162), who was the Chief Rabbi of Egypt almost five hundred years ago – and a Sefardi. (This is itself an interesting observation, since the practice of nikur of hindquarters is far more common today among Sefardim than among Ashkenazim.) The Radbaz had been asked about a local custom to slaughter on the eastern side of a building, apparently a Moslem custom of the time: The question was whether this practice violates halacha, since it is a Moslem practice. The Radbaz rules that one may slaughter on the eastern side, since there was nothing idolatrous about this practice. The reason a Jew would slaughter on the eastern side was because the Jews used only the forequarters and left the hindquarters plus the non-kosher slaughtered animals (neveilos utreifos, those found to be halachically imperfect or where an error occurred during the shechitah). These were then sold to Moslems, who would not eat them unless they were slaughtered on the eastern side. Radbaz approved the practice not to traber the hindquarters, since expert menakerim are hard to find.
ASHKENAZIC 18TH AND 19TH CENTURY PRACTICES
In central Europe of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, we find that local need determined whether trabering was performed on the hindquarters. Someone asked the Noda BiYehudah (Yoreh Deah II #31) whether he should be concerned about the meat located on the forequarters. The Noda BiYehudah contended that some of the fat located between the 11th and the 12th rib is cheilev that requires removal by an expert menakeir. The Noda BiYehudah notes that in Prague, where he was the Rav, the area past the 11th rib was trabered by the menakerim who were expert in trabering the hindquarters. In his opinion, if there are no menakerim in town who know how to traber the hindquarters, then one should use only the meat above the eleventh rib.
The Chasam Sofer (Shu’t Yoreh Deah #68) disagreed with the Noda BiYehudah, contending that any fat located above the 13th rib is not cheilev and is removed only because of custom. If the place has expert menakerim available, then they should trim the area beyond the 12th rib. However, if there are no experts available, it is acceptable to have regular butchers trim the area between the 12th and the 13th ribs.
Thus, one sees from both of these responsa that in their day, whether a community used meat of the hindquarters meat depended on local custom and the expertise of the local butchers. Many communities did not use the hindquarters meat at all, but sold it as non-kosher, because they lacked skilled menakerim. However, communities that had skilled menakerim utilized their talents and enjoyed kosher hindquarters meat. Clearly, neither the Noda BiYehudah nor the Chasam Sofer was concerned about using the hindquarters, as long as expert menakerim are involved.
On the other hand, about this period of time we see that in some places it was becoming accepted practice not to traber the hindquarters. In a teshuvah dated the day after Tisha B’Av 5625 (1865), Rav Shamshon Rephael Hirsch wrote to Rav Yissochor Berish Bernstein, the Av Beis Din and Rosh Yeshiva of the Hague, that one should not relax the custom “already established by our fathers and grandfathers” to refrain from the practice of trabering (Shemesh Marpei #34).
Although nikur continued to be practiced in the 20th century, in Ashkenazic communities it became the exception rather than the norm. The Aruch Hashulchan notes (Yoreh Deah 64:54, 65:31) that most places did not perform nikur on the hindquarters and instead sold them to non-Jews, although there were still places where it was practiced, including his own city, where very tight controls were kept to insure that it was performed properly.
The practice not to use the hindquarters was, apparently, universally accepted in Poland by the first third of the twentieth century. Because of a very sad turn of events, this practice created a very unfortunate shaylah. In 1936, the Polish Parliament, influenced by anti-Semitism from neighboring Nazi Germany, banned shechitah and permitted it only for Jewish consumption. The law specified that non-Jews could eat no part of the kosher slaughtered meat. Although they officially claimed that this was in order to recognize the Jews’ freedom of religion, in reality, this law implied that the Judaic practice of shechitah is inhumane.
This created a shaylah, since the custom existed not to traber and eat from the hindquarters. In essence, the accepted practice treated the entire hindquarters as non-kosher. However, being stringent under the new circumstances would make the price of meat prohibitively expensive, since the entire cost of the animal would have to be absorbed by the sale of its forequarters.
A halachic issue now came to the forefront. Once a custom has been established as accepted practice, it has the status of a vow that may not be rescinded (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 214:2). Did the practice of refraining from eating the meat of the hindquarters have the status of a minhag that could not be rescinded?
Rav Chayim Ozer Grodzenski, the posek of the generation, ruled that it was permitted to reintroduce the practice of trabering the hindquarters by experienced, G-d-fearing experts. In his opinion, the practice not to traber the hindquarters did not have the status of a vow that may not be rescinded, nor of a minhag that requires hataras nedarim. He ruled that it was simply more practical not to traber, since there was an ample supply of meat without resorting to trabering the hindquarters, and it was simply not worthwhile to bother. Certainly, the practice did not begin at a time when there was compelling reason to traber the hindquarters, and this would serve as adequate reason to reintroduce the practice. Rav Chayim Ozer added that the government’s intent in this evil decree was to forcibly close down shechitah by making it financially non-viable. Thus, he felt that it was a mitzvah to permit the hindquarter meat, in order to demonstrate that the decree would not prevent the Jews from having kosher meat. Furthermore, if it were officially accepted that the hindquarters were permitted, there would be proper supervision of the trabering to guarantee that it was performed properly (Shu’t Achiezer 3:84).
Initially, several Chassidic rabbayim opposed permitting the practice, concerned both about minhag and whether all the people performing nikur would be trained and work with the necessary yiras shamayim. Rav Chayim Ozer then wrote to several of the great rebbes living in Poland at the time, notably the Bobover Rebbe and the Lubavitcher Rebbe, to elicit their support. Both of these rebbes eventually agreed that the needs of the generation called for permitting nikur of the hindquarters, provided it was performed by trained, yirei shamayim menakerim. Thus, all segments of Polish Jewry accepted the decision of Rav Chayim Ozer.
THREE MODERN SHAYLOS
In 1964, Rav Shmaryahu Karelitz, the Rav of Brussels, Belgium, sent Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l a shaylah whether they could reinstitute the practice of trabering the hindquarters in Belgium, since they found themselves short of kosher meat. Rav Moshe ruled that as long as a proficient menakeir, licensed by an expert Rav, performed the trabering, there was no reason to prohibit this meat. Rav Moshe writes that refraining from using the hindquarters does not have the status of a minhag; simply, it resulted from the fact that butchers did not bother, either because they were easily able to sell the hindquarters as non-kosher, or because the butchers lacked the expertise. However, should it become worthwhile to traber the hindquarters, there is no halachic problem with reintroducing the practice, provided the menakeir is a yarei shamayim and properly trained and licensed (Shu’t Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 2:42).
SOUTH AFRICA, 1990
A dissenting position is found in the responsa of Rav Moshe Sternbuch, shlit”a, currently Av Beis Din of the Eidah HaChareidis in Yerushalayim, and formerly rav of a kehillah in Johannesburg, South Africa. During his tenure in South Africa, he was asked about renewing the practice of trabering there, utilizing the skills of an expert menakeir. Rav Sternbuch prohibited the practice, contending that not trabering the hindquarters has the status of a minhag that may not be altered (Teshuvos VeHanhagos 1:418, 419).
UNITED STATES, 21st CENTURY
Within the last few years, the kosher market has begun regular production of shechitah of animals such as buffalo and deer, species in which removing the gid hanosheh and the cheilev might be financially advisable. I inquired from the OU what their policy is regarding nikur of these hindquarters, and they responded that they permit removing the gid hanosheh, but do not remove the cheilev. This translates into the following: If it is questionable whether a species is a chayah or a beheimah, the hindquarters are not trabered and are sold as non-kosher. However, if the species is one concerning which we have a mesorah to treat it as a chayah, there is no halachic requirement to remove any cheilev from the hindquarters, as we learned in the beginning of this article. The only halachic requirement is to remove the gid hanosheh. Thus, on species such as deer, where there is a halachic mesorah that it is a chayah, the hindquarters are trabered and the gid hanosheh is removed. However, on species such as bison (American buffalo), where there is no mesorah whether it is a chayah or a beheimah, the hindquarters are left untrabered and are sold as non-kosher.
WHY DISTINGUISH BETWEEN CHEILEV AND GID HANOSHEH?
I asked this same question and this is the response they sent me:
“Removing cheilev is difficult and time-consuming, even for those who know how. Removing the gid hanosheh and its subordinate parts is no more difficult than removing veins: one is removing a gid that separates easily from the surrounding meat. Therefore, when we know that an animal is a chayah, we allow the removal of the gid hanosheh. Any animal for which we do not have a mesorah whether it is a beheimah or a chayah, such as buffalo, will be treated as a sofek, and kisuy hadam will be performed, and the hindquarters will not be used for kosher.”
Rav Shamshon Rephael Hirsch explains the mitzvah of gid hanosheh as a message that although the spirit of Eisav will never conquer Yaakov and his descendants, Eisav will be able to hamstring Yaakov and prevent him from standing firmly on two feet. Thus, Yaakov goes through history with an unfirm physical posture and gait. By having to remove the gid hanasheh, whenever Yaakov’s descendants sit down to eat meat, they realize that their continued existence is not dependent on their physical strength and stamina, but on spiritual factors which can never be weakened by Eisav’s might.