Parashat Vayishlach: Family tradition or divine law?

The law forbidding eating the sciatic nerve was in place also in Jacob’s family many years before the Revelation at Mount Sinai, but at Mount Sinai it was validated by God.

 THE TORAH’S commandments are not equal in value to traditions and customs created by people.  (photo credit: GERSHON ELINSON/FLASH90)
THE TORAH’S commandments are not equal in value to traditions and customs created by people.
(photo credit: GERSHON ELINSON/FLASH90)

In Parashat Vayishlach, we read a story that is unusual, different from the other stories in Genesis: a struggle between a human and a super-human creature that Chazal refer to as an “angel” or “Esau’s emissary.” The human is Jacob our patriarch, who was with his large family on his way from Haran in Aram Naharayim to Hebron in the Land of Canaan, where his parents, Rebecca and Isaac, lived. 

After he parted from his father-in-law, Laban, Jacob continued his slow journey accompanied by serious concern about an encounter with his twin brother, Esau. The reason Jacob had gone to Haran in the first place was to escape Esau’s wrath over Jacob tricking him out of his blessings. “…and Esau said to himself, ‘Let the days of mourning for my father draw near, I will then kill my brother Jacob.’” 

Now, 22 years later, Jacob returned to the Land of Canaan and was slated to encounter Esau, and who knew what the results would be of this fateful meeting…

On one of the nights, Jacob and his family crossed the Jabbok River on the eastern side of the Jordan, and there, when Jacob was left alone on the northern bank of the river, we read the description of the dramatic struggle we discussed above:

“And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he could not prevail against him, he touched the socket of his hip, and the socket of Jacob’s hip became dislocated as he wrestled with him… and he was limping on his thigh” (Genesis 32:25-32).

“And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he could not prevail against him, he touched the socket of his hip, and the socket of Jacob’s hip became dislocated as he wrestled with him… and he was limping on his thigh”

Genesis 32:25-32
 SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90) SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)

In this mysterious struggle, Jacob fought with all his strength and succeeded in standing up to the angel who tried to harm him. But the struggle came with a price. Jacob dislocated his hip and was left limping. This struggle left a remnant to today, as we see in the following verse: 

“Therefore, the children of Israel may not eat the displaced tendon, which is on the socket of the hip, until this day, for he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip, in the hip sinew” (Genesis 32:33).

Don't eat the displaced tendon

Indeed, one of the laws of kashrut is the prohibition of eating gid ha’nasheh – “the displaced tendon” – the main sciatic nerve of the animal’s back leg (nervus ischiadicus). Simply put, the reason we do not eat gid ha’nasheh is as a reminder of that same struggle that resulted in Jacob’s disability. It is, therefore, a very ancient law from the days of our nation’s patriarchs. But there is a dispute about this among the sages of the 2nd century CE regarding which animals the prohibition refers to:

“Rabbi Yehuda said in explanation: Wasn’t the sciatic nerve forbidden for the children of Jacob… The rabbis said to Rabbi Yehuda: ‘The prohibition was stated in Sinai, but it was written in its place…’” (Mishna Hulin 7:6).

The rabbis who responded to Rabbi Yehuda thought the prohibition forbidding eating the sciatic nerve was not from the times of the patriarchs but was given at Mount Sinai along with all the other commandments of the Torah. When Moses wrote the Torah, he integrated the law in its proper place, in the story of Jacob’s struggle and his subsequent disability. 

In Maimonides’ commentary on this Mishna, he expanded on the principle expressed by the rabbis:

“Note this big principle brought in this Mishna.... You must know that everything we are warned about or do today, we do only because of God’s commandment through Moses, not because God commanded this to the prophets who preceded him.... We do not circumcise because Abraham circumcised himself and the members of his household but because God commanded us through Moses to circumcise like Abraham... did; and likewise, the sciatic nerve – we do not continue this following Jacob’s prohibition but because of the commandment of Moses” (Maimonides on the Mishna, Tractate Hulin, ibid).

According to Maimonides, the dispute between Rabbi Yehuda and the rabbis is not regarding the historical question of when this law was legislated but is an ideological one. The law forbidding eating the sciatic nerve was in place also in Jacob’s family many years before the Revelation at Mount Sinai, but at Mount Sinai it was validated by God. The question is if we keep this law because of family tradition or because of the divine commandment. 

Maimonides places the laws of the Torah above other traditions. In every family, community and nation there are many different customs. But the Torah’s commandments are not equal in value to traditions and customs created by people, even if they stemmed from very worthy reasons. The Torah’s commandments stem from a divine commandment and therefore are eternally valid in every period of time, every culture and for every Jew.  ■

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.