Gid hanasheh, the weak point of the Jewish people, and the 9th of Av

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, | updated: 20:14

Judaism מצווה. הרב מלמד
מצווה. הרב מלמד
פלאש 90

Gid Hanasheh and Tisha B’Av

During these days when we mourn the destruction of the Temple, it is appropriate to learn a little about the prohibition against eating the gid hanasheh, which, according to the Kabbalists, is related to Tisha B’Av.

For the 365 tendons in the body are compared to the 365 days of the year, and the prohibition of the gid hanasheh is related to the day of Tisha B’Av, which is hinted at in the verse: “The Israelites therefore do not eat the displaced nerve (gid hanansheh) on the hip joint to this very day” (Genesis 32:33) – not to eat on Tisha B’Av. (Zohar and Midrash Ha’Ne’Elam). Before we expand upon the reasons for  the commandment, we will explain its laws.

Hilchot Gid Hanasheh

Although the beginning of the gid hanasheh is in the spinal cord and ends at the end of the leg, only the part that passes next to the hip on the thigh is forbidden from the Torah, because it is on the “hip socket of the thigh”. In a large bull it is about eight centimeters long, and in a large sheep about four centimeters (Rama, Yoreh Deah 100: 1; Taz, ibid 3). Our Sages also prohibited the beginning of this tendon from the spine and its continuation until the end of the thigh. They also prohibited the tendrils of the gid hanasheh, i.e. the branches that spread into the flesh on the thigh, and also forbade the outer tendon that is secondary to the gid hanasheh. The Jewish people went farther and it is customary to also prohibit the fat around tendon and tendrils. The removal of all the parts that are forbidden from the words of the Sages and due to Jewish custom is a complex task that requires serious learning.

Although the taste of the gid hanasheh is very faint and almost imperceptible, nevertheless, since the Torah forbids it, those who eat it with the thigh, even though they do not enjoy its taste, transgress the Torah prohibition, which is punishable by lashes. The tendrils and fat around the tendon forbidden by the Sages and custom are tasty, and therefore if cooked in a dish, as long as the taste is noticeable in the dish – the dish is forbidden to be eaten. Consuming Gid hanasheh is forbidden, but one is permitted to gain pleasure from it (S.A., Y. D. 65: 9-10).

The Dispute with Esau’s Ministering Angel

It is told in the Torah (Genesis 32) that when our father Yaakov returned to the Land of Israel and crossed the Jordan with  his family, a man fought him at night. When he saw that he could not defeat Yaakov, he struck his thigh, and from then on, Yaakov’s leg was lame and he limped on his thigh. But Yaakov Avinu did not surrender and struggled with the man until dawn, and then it turned out that the man was an angel, and only after he blessed Yaakov did Yaakov agree to send him on his way.

Our Sages said the same angel was Eisav’s ministering angel, and their struggle had risen up to the Throne of Glory because it touched the very foundations of faith. Eisav’s minister asks that this world behave in its own, natural way, i.e., according to its physical interests; whereas Yaakov Avinu seeks to correct this world by faith, values, ​​and Torah. When Eisav’s angel saw he could not overcome him, because of the strength of his faith, he struck his weak spot – the gid hanasheh.

Connecting the Upper Part of the Body to the Legs

Through the gid hanasheh, the nervous system moves from the spine to the legs. Spiritually, it connects the upper parts of man, his head and heart, which express man’s thoughts and feelings, to the legs which express action. The injury to the gid hanasheh conveyed Eisav’s claim: While your talk about faith is lofty and beautiful, and the values ​​are ideal, nevertheless, in practice, it is doomed to failure.

It is impossible to lead the world according to the values ​​of holiness, because sins triumph over. Not only that, but even the righteous themselves fall into sin, as indicated by the gid hanashehbeing located next to one’s intimate area of the body. The word “nasheh” in Hebrew stems from the words ‘chul’shah‘ (weakness), “shichachah” (forgetfulness), and “shinui” (change), in other words, in the transition to the legs and the world of action – the good ideas are weakened and neglected.

The Disconnect between the Practical and the Spiritual

This is what our Sages said in the Zohar, that by way of this injury, the angel of Eisav harmed the connection between practical people and those who are spiritual, and by doing so, the people of deed are weakened, forget their partnership in the observance of the Torah, and do not maintain talmidei hakhamim (Torah scholars). As such, the spiritual people have no feet to stand on, they fall, and the Shekhina (Divine Presence) departs from the world, since they deny the value of the resting of the Shekhina; the Temple is destroyed, and Israel is exiled from their Land.

Our Sages also said in the chapter Gid Hanasheh (Chulin 92a) that they sent from the Land of Israel to Babylon to ask for mercy, and the fruit (i.e. the Torah scholars) should pray for the leaves (i.e., the ‘amei ha’aretz‘ [lit., the people of the land], because if it were not for the leaves, the fruit would not exist. In other words, without the support of the practical people, the spiritual people would not exist (as R. Zadok of Lublin explained in Kometz HaMincha 2: 80).

This is also the foundation of the mitzvot of terumot and maaserot, by which Israel is connected to the Kohanim and Levites, who guard the sanctity of the kodesh, and teach Torah to Israel. As a continuation of this, our Sages also determined that other forms of livelihood would also provide for the maintenance of Torah scholars and its teachers, so that practical people would be connected to the values ​​of holiness, and Torah scholars would teach Torah to Israel.

Tzadikim without Grounding in Reality

Our Sages (Bereishit Rabbah 77: 3) also said that the damage to the gid hanasheh harmed “the righteous men and women, the men and women prophets who were to stem from him.” And in the Zohar it is explained that the ministering angel of Eisav harmed all the prophets except Moses; in the wake of the injury to the gid hanasheh, the prophets are unable to accept their prophecy while standing, but only after having fallen. The inability to stand indicates weakness in the complete, precise and practical expression of prophecy; without practical people who are connected to the righteous and the prophets, the righteous are unable to fulfill their ideas in reality, and the prophets are unable to express the ideas of their prophecy in a stable and precise manner. In other words, the men of action support the men of spirit in all respects – both in that they maintain them with donations and tithes and money, and devote themselves to the realization of spiritual ideas in the world of action, and only by doing so can the righteous men and women, the male and female prophets, direct and refine their words. Otherwise their ideas will also fall.

Faith until ‘Alot HaShachar’

Following the injury to the gid hanasheh which continued the distancing between the men of spirit and the men of action, sins increased, causing the death of the righteous with the rest of the people during the days of destruction and terror, when darkness covered the Land. Nevertheless, our father Yaakov stood bravely against Eisav’s angel until alot ha’shachar (dawn), and when the light began to shine, the angel realized that Yaakov could overcome the obstacles and cross the Yabuk River passage, build the house of Israel in the Land, and reveal the Divine Presence in the world. Consequently, he had to agree, and bless him.

The act of the fathers is a sign for the sons – namely, that Israel will stand with courage and devotion against all those who rise up against them to destroy them, until the light of their redemption shines, and all those who defy them will bless them against their will (Sefer HaChinuch 3). Then the ‘gid she’nasheh’, i.e., the tendon that was displaced, will return to its place, and the connection between the thoughts in the mind and the good desires of the heart will be completed into the actions of the legs.

We find, therefore, that the caution in prohibiting the eating of the gid hanasheh hints at the preservation of the connection between the world of the spirit and the world of action. Anyone who eats this tendon, it is as if he accepts the awesome lacking caused by its being displaced, and causing a certain separation between the spiritual world and the world of action.

The War on the Sinners of Israel

At the Yabuk crossing, where the ideas from the spiritual world pass into the world of action, occasionally change for the worse, as our Sages (Chulin, 91a) have said that Yaakov returned in the dark of night to the other side of the river to bring small jugs forgotten there. These small jugs hint to the weak, and to the sinners of Israel, which Yaakov, as well, did not give up upon, because without them, Knesset Yisrael is incomplete and cannot repair the world. The weakness of these people is not because of their wickedness, but because their role is to reveal holiness within the earthly reality, and sometimes this role is very difficult, because until all material inclinations are corrected, the world’s lusts are liable to overcome and cause people to sin. The place indicating these souls in Jacob’s body, the father of Israel, was the gid hanasheh, near the place of lust. Therefore, this was the place of the weakness of Yaakov, where Eisav’s angel could cause damage.

Though the gid hanasheh has great importance, through which the nerves pass to the legs, it has no taste. This is also the way people who deal with the world of action and lusts feel at times – they do not feel the goodness while performing the commandments. Similar to the aravah (the willow), which has no taste and no smell, but it must be in the four species, and the entire tikkundepends on it (Peninei Halakha Sukkot 4: 2-3). Since at times the practical people do not enjoy the mitzvah, many of them tend to sin. In the end, however, the sun rose for Yaakov, and he overcame the angel, just as the wicked of Israel will eventually be corrected. Perhaps this is why the holy Jewish nation have been so strict in the fulfillment of the prohibition against the gid hanasheh, to the point that after our Sages forbade its tendrils, Jews would also prohibit its fat, which has taste, and perhaps further attracts the sinners of Israel to sin.

The Tikkun for Our Times: Connecting Spirit and Practice

In our times as well, the lacking is mainly in the sin of the gid hanasheh, namely, the connection between the great idea of ​​the State of Israel and yishuv ha’aretz, to a practical life that fails to connect properly to the idea. From this, all of our problems arise: concerning Hok Ha’Leum (the Nationality Law), concerning the settlement of the Land, concerning the encouragement of aliyah as the vision of the Torah and the prophets. Concerning Torah scholars who are not connected to the world of action, and men of action who disparage the people of the Torah. Our Sages said: “Each generation in which it [the Temple] is not deemed as having destroyed it” (Jerusalem Talmud, Yoma 1:1). For this we must mourn, so that we will act with all our strength and ability to connect heaven and earth in the building of the Land and the Temple.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew.