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H6. Eating the Sinew of the Thigh and Wrestling with God    [Make a Comment]

We are forbidden to eat the sinew of an animal's thigh or wrestle with God even in pursuit of godly ends.

This precept is derived from His Word (blessed is He):

Genesis 32:25(24)-33(32) (Maimonides RN183; Meir MN1; Chinuch C3)
and Ya'akov was left alone. Then some man wrestled with him until daybreak. When he saw that he did not defeat Ya'akov, he struck Ya'akov's hip socket, so that his hip was dislocated while wrestling with him. The man said, "Let me go, because it's daybreak." But Ya'akov replied, "I won't let you go unless you bless me." The man asked, "What is your name?" and he answered, "Ya'akov." Then the man said, "From now on, you will no longer be called Ya'akov, but Isra'el; because you have shown your strength to both God and men and have prevailed." Ya'akov asked him, "Please tell me your name." But he answered, "Why are you asking about my name?" and blessed him there. Ya'akov called the place P'ni-El [face of God], "Because I have seen God face to face, yet my life is spared." As the sun rose upon him he went on past P'ni-El, limping at the hip. This is why, to this day, the people of Isra'el do not eat the thigh muscle that passes along the hip socket - because the man struck Ya'akov's hip at its socket.

The "sinew of the thigh" (gid hanasheh or "thigh muscle" in the CJB) is the tissue that was damaged when the man with whom Jacob wrestled all night, touched Jacob's hip socket in order to force the contest to an end1. The man's identity is shrouded in mystery, but it is apparent that he contained "the fullness of all that God is ..."2 because Jacob said of him: "I have seen God face to face, yet my life is spared."

Whoever the man was, it is clear that Jacob spent all night wrestling with "God" in the pursuit of a blessing to which God had already committed Himself through His earlier promise to Abraham. The man with whom Jacob wrestled declared: "From now on, you will no longer be called Ya'akov, but Isra'el; because you have shown your strength to both God and men and have prevailed." While the apparent complement was given for Jacob's tenacious pursuit of the godly objective of acquiring a blessing, it was unnecessary for him to be injured in the process of acquiring it, and he wouldn't have been, had he trusted God's promise (which he knew about) instead of trying to extract the blessing through his own strength. It was a characteristic of Jacob's to act in the flesh, and it was not the first time that he sought God's blessing through fleshly means (Genesis 27:1-35).

It is worthy of note that Jacob did not win the wrestling match, and the "man" (who was clearly a supernatural being) did not lose it since he clearly could have killed Jacob had he wanted to. So while we comply with Jewish law and custom in not eating the sinew of an animal's hip3, we understand that its lesson for us is twofold. Like Jacob, we must be zealous in our pursuit of godly things; but unlike Jacob, we must do so in faith, and in reliance on God's strength - not on our own. We must submit to God and not wrestle with Him, lest He have to disable us as He did Jacob. There are many Scriptures that teach this principle; I will list but a few here:

Zechariah 4:6b
'Not by force, and not by power, but by my Spirit,' says ADONAI-Tzva'ot.

Psalm 105:4
Seek ADONAI and his strength; always seek his presence.

Proverbs 3:5-6
Trust in ADONAI with all your heart; do not rely on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him; then he will level your paths.

Ephesians 6:10
Finally, grow powerful in union with the Lord, in union with his mighty strength!

Philippians 4:3
I can do all things through him who gives me power.

James 4:7
Therefore, submit to God. Moreover, take a stand against the Adversary, and he will flee from you.

There is a practical problem that we encounter when we seek to abstain from eating the sinew of an animal's thigh unless we purchase our meat exclusively from a kosher source, or abstain from eating any part of an animal's hind quarter. Kosher meat is not always available, so the next simplest solution is to learn the cuts of meat that come from an animal's hind quarter (sometimes referred to as unkosher cuts) and avoid them. However, there is another solution, and that is to search for and remove all sinew-like structures in meat that comes from an animal's thigh; these would include veins, nerves, tendons, and cartilage. God does not expect the average person to be an anatomist, so I am confident that making a reasonable effort to do what I have described is sufficient.

There is one more issue that needs to be thought of whenever we depart from halachic kashrut, and that is how it may affect our hospitality to guests who keep rabbinically kosher. There is no one solution I can recommend other than to inquire of our guests' needs and do our best to comply. It is sometimes sufficient to avoid serving meat altogether.

I believe that this Mitzvah #H6 is binding in its literal specifics on Jews and K'rovei Yisrael; Gentiles are not required to abstain from meat containing the sinew, but are bound to its principle of not wrestling with God in a contest of wills.

1. Scholars argue over exactly what the gid hanasheh was, some calling it "muscle", others "nerve", and still others "tendon". For most practical purposes it does not matter, because the laws of kashrut require that all visible nerves, tendons, and veins be removed from the hind quarter of an animal if the hind quarter is to be used for food. Because such preparation is often cost-prohibitive, it is the common Jewish practice (except where food is scarce) to not eat the hind quarter of an animal at all.

2. See Colossians 2:9 (CJB).

3. I agree with HaChinuch that the statement in Scripture "This is why, to this day, the people of Isra'el do not eat the thigh muscle that passes along the hip socket ..." is sufficient to conclude that it is Gods will that we do not so eat.'

The translators into English of Maimonides, Meir, and HaChinuch that I consulted all translate gid hanasheh as "the sinew of the thigh vein". Meir says that there are two sinews - an inner one that is near the hip socket, and another that is further away. He says that the inner one is the subject of the Torah prohibition, and the other cannot be eaten either as a result of rulings of the Sages. Of the three, HaChinuch is the only one who attempts to explain the underlying reason for the mitzvah, but concludes things that both exceed and contradict the biblical text. He says that the man who wrestled with Jacob was Esau's guardian angel who was attempting to extirpate Jacob and his progeny from the world. When he did not succeed, he caused Jacob pain by dislocating his hip. This is predictive of Esau and his descendants inflicting pain on the Children of Israel, but they will not be successful in eradicating them. Finally, the Messiah will come to heal Israel.


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