Rabbi Kook on Vayishlach: Gid HaNasheh

by Rabbi Chanan Morrison


What is the significance of this prohibition?


Jacob was limping, but he survived the nocturnal struggle. Nervously awaiting a confrontation with his estranged brother Esau, Jacob had been attacked by a mysterious opponent. With the approach of dawn, the stranger dislocated Jacob's thigh. "Therefore the Israelites do not eat the displaced nerve (gid hanasheh) on the hip joint to this very

day, because he touched Jacob's thigh on the displaced nerve." (Genesis 32:33)


What is the significance of this prohibition? Should we refrain from eating the sciatic nerve just because of a mysterious wrestling match that took place thousands of years ago?


A Vision of Violence

At first glance, the prohibition of gid hanasheh appears to be yet another restriction the Torah places on eating meat. The Torah permits meat, but it created a number of restrictions - which animals may be eaten, how they are to be slaughtered, how to treat their blood, and so on. These limitations indicate that we may not treat animals as we wish, without regard for their welfare. Rather, we have moral obligations and responsibilities towards animals.


The prohibition of gid hanasheh, however, comes to project a broader ethical aspiration, beyond the realm of how we treat animals.


If there is one area in which the human race is constantly advancing, it is the art of warfare. Methods and tools of combat grow ever more sophisticated, as we progress from spears and swords to guns and canons, to the latest tanks, long-range missiles, and nuclear bombs. And yet, the essence of war still remains the age-old, one-on-one combat of two individuals wrestling. All warfare boils down to the violent struggle to overcome and subdue, where the beginning of victory is to fell one's opponent by striking the thigh, thus crippling the nerve that enables the body to stand.


According to tradition, the stranger who fought Jacob that night was the guardian angel of Esau. Jacob's opponent represented the lifestyle of the hunter, the man of violence and aggression whose prophetic blessing was to live by his sword. This nighttime struggle was not a private experience, a personal event in Jacob's life. It was a vision for all times. It depicts our constant battle against belligerent foes who claim the right to subjugate others by virtue of their physical strength and military prowess.


This struggle appeared to Jacob in its most unadorned fashion, without any pretense of gallantry and shining swords to hide its primitive violence and naked aggression. For the truth can be seen in all wars, no matter how "civilized," as nothing more than a brutal struggle to subdue and conquer.


Protesting Aggression

When we refrain from eating the gid hanasheh, we demonstrate our revulsion of unprovoked aggression and violence. Just as Jacob fought Esau's angel that night, we also oppose the cynical belief in "the right of might." There is no legal or moral right to terrorize and subjugate those who are weaker.


While nationalism provides many benefits, in its extreme form it can descend into fascism and imperialism.


As Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook wrote in Olat Re'iyah (vol. I p. 234): "Nationalism is a lofty emotion in its natural pristine state. But if it is not directed towards the highest goal - the aspiration of universal happiness and perfection - it will end up crossing the boundaries of morality."


We may need a strong army to defend ourselves, and we may need to slaughter animals to provide for our physical needs. But by refraining from eating the gid hanasheh, we demonstrate that our goal is not to control and subjugate others, man or beast. Even as we eat the meat of animals, we avoid the sciatic nerve that allows the body to stand. This is a concept encompassing every form of interaction, so that all should merit lofty peace in a Divine spirit.


[Adapted from Oztrot HaRe'iyah vol. II p. 507]

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