The transformation of the rules for koshering an animal's hind parts

With many hechshers it is impossible to obtain the back part of a ritually slaughtered animal because it isvery difficult to avoid the prohibitions of cheilev and gid ha’nasheh.

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, | updated: 19:00

מצווה. הרב מלמד
מצווה. הרב מלמד
פלאש 90

The Meat of the Hind Part of an Animal

Q: Why with many hechshers is it impossible to buy meat from the hind of animals? Is it forbidden?

A: According to halakha, the meat of the hind part is kosher, but nikkur (rendering the hindquarters of an animal fit for kosher consumption) of cheilev (prohibited fats known as tallow or suet) and the gid ha’nasheh(the sciatic nerve) is a complicated task, which also greatly damages the quality of the meat, therefore in many communities it was customary to sell it to non-Jews and not to try to kasher it. In this column I will detail the halakhot and customs that brought this about.

What is the Gid Ha’Nasheh

As we learn in this week’s parsha, the Torah commands us not to eat the gid ha’nasheh that is on the kaf ha’yerech (hip joint) (Genesis 32:33). This refers to the sinew on the right thigh and the left thigh. The gid ha’nasheh is the large sinew through which most of the nerves of the leg pass. It begins with the spinal cord and ends at the end of the leg, and the Torah forbids eating the part on the kaf ha’yerech, that is, the enlarged flesh surrounding the thigh bone, shaped like the palm of a cauldron- a rounded shape that rises in the middle. This kaf exists in all kinds of beasts and animals, whereas in birds, although there is flesh on the thigh, it is not round as a spoon but flat. Hence the gid ha’nasheh is forbidden in kosher animals, and not in birds.

The Forbidden Part from the Torah, Rabbinic, and Minhag

In a large bull, the length of the forbidden part from the Torah is no more than eight centimeters long, and in a large sheep about four centimeters (Rama, Yoreh Deah, 1: 16:3). This part of the gid is easy to remove, because after the dismantling of the flesh from the kaf ha’yerech, it protrudes from the flesh.

Our Sages added and prohibited the beginning of this gid from the spine and its continuation to the end of the shin. They also forbade the tendrils of the gid ha’nasheh, i.e. the branches that spread into the flesh on the thigh. There is another gid called chitzon, and even that is forbidden by our Sages. It is rooted in the spinal cord as two vertebrae before the beginning of the gid, and from there it is drawn to the outer side of the flesh of the thigh and penetrates into it (Shulchan Aruch 65: 8).

In addition, God-fearing Jews are accustomed to also prohibit the fat around the gid and tendrils.

The removal of all the forbidden parts is from Divrei Chachamim (rabbinic edict), and because of Jewish custom, it is a complex task that requires learning, how to cut the meat so that in relatively few cuts it is possible to remove the gid with its branches and fat.

The Prohibition of Cheilev

The cheilevim are part of the fats in the flesh of the animal, and when an animal is brought as a sacrifice to Hashem, it is a mitzvah to completely sacrifice the cheilev, and sprinkle its blood on the altar. As a continuation of this, the Torah forbade eating cheilev and blood, since the cheilev is worthy of being sacrificed to Hashem, it is forbidden for a Jew to eat it (Leviticus 3:14-17). The prohibition of cheilev applies to three types of animals: ox, lamb and goat, which are worthy of sacrifice (Leviticus 7:23).

The cheilevim are similar in shape and texture to animal fats, but the cheilevim are solid and relatively large; they are located in three places in the animal, it is relatively easy to remove them as one piece (Shulchan Aruch 64: 4), and when a sacrifice is offered, we are commanded to sacrifice it on the altar. In contrast, fats are absorbed more in the meat, and it is difficult to remove them as a whole, and when a korban shlamim is sacrificed, they are eaten together with the meat of the korban.

The meaning of the word cheilev is choice, fine, and fat. The cheilev of an animal is the fat and best part of the animal, since fat is the softest and richest part in calories, and the cheilevim are the fine pieces of fat, therefore we were commanded to sacrifice them on the altar. There are three kinds of cheilevim: 1) the cheilev on the kerev, i.e., on the digestive stomachs which are called the kravi’im; 2) the cheilev on the kliyot (kidneys); 3) the cheilev on the kesalim, on the sides of the waist, next to the cheilev on the kliyot.

Because of the severity of the prohibition on cheilev, our Sages also forbade fats that are stuck and drawn from these cheilevim, even though they are absorbed into the meat, because they derive from the cheilev. They also prohibited small veins and membranes drawn from the cheilevim that are forbidden from the Torah, because they derive from them. And as our Sages said, that there are five places that have small veins and membranes that must be removed, three of them from cheilev – in the spleen, loins, and in the kidneys (Chulin 93a). In addition, in other communities, they were stringent to forbid other fats because of their closeness or resemblance to the forbidden cheilevim.

Doubts and Chumrot as a Result of Exile

Since the laws of nikkur are taught in tradition, the constancy of their transmission from one generation to the next was greatly affected by the displacement of the exiled Jews. The longer the exile, the more numerous the communities that were destroyed, and the more the tradition was negatively affected – the more doubts arose in the halakha’s of nikkur. In order to avoid the safek, God-fearing Jews had to be increasingly stringent.

Thus we find that already in the beginning period of the Rishonim, because of the doubts, they tended to be more stringent than the halakha, as we find in the words of Rabbi Ya’akov ben HaRosh (who lived some 700 years ago), who copied in his book Arba Turim (Yoreh Deah 65) the order of the laws of nikkur that Rabbi Yitzchak of Marseilles, the author of Itur, wrote (about 850 years ago), because he was the only one who wrote the order of these laws in detail. At the end of his words he remarked: “This chacham was machmir (stringent), and one who is machmir will be blessed.” Rabbi Yosef Karo explained in his commentary on Beit Yosef: “Because of a number of places that need nikkur and removal, and have no foundation or root, as I have explained, each one in its place.”

Still, all Jews would slaughter and knew how to remove the cheilevim, the gid ha’nasheh, and the vessels of blood, but as the exile continued, more communities were destroyed, and until new communities were established and restored, other doubts arose in the tradition of nikkur, and Jews were required to become more stringent; it was already necessary to have great expertise in the work of nikkur.

And as Rabbi Shlomo Luria wrote about four hundred and fifty years ago, although in the early days of the Rishonim they relied on women and any proper man for the work of nikkur, now they do not rely on them, because “in the days of the kadmonim (earlier Sages) they were not so stringent in nikkur as today, because from the law of the Talmud, nikkur is not so difficult; later, however, they added on to it (chumrot) … and in the land of Ashkenaz, they became ever more stringent.”

He went on to explain that although most of the stringencies are from the words of the Sages, upon which one can also rely on someone who is not a scholar, but since these laws are complex, and the public does not know what is forbidden from the words of the Sages and from the Torah, it is only possible to rely on a minakker who is “known to be a God-fearing person, and an expert in the work of nikkur.”

In addition to the halakhic explanation of the cause of the stringency, the Shelah wrote a general and deep explanation for the addition of the chumrot, according to which from generation to generation our coping with the Evil Inclination becomes greater and deeper, and therefore Jews added chumrot and fences (Beit Hochma Talita).

The Custom of Selling the Hind Part

Following the growing doubts and chumrot, the large communities used to sell the hind of the livestock to non-Jews, where almost all the forbidden cheilevim, the gid ha’nasheh, and all the other forbidden parts are found, and whose nikkur takes several hours (for example, one hind leg, especially the gid ha’nasheh and all of its branches, lasts an hour or two according to the chumrot of nikkur Yerushalmi).

The first to mention this custom (about 500 years ago) was the Radbaz, who wrote that this was the custom in Egypt. And the Shelah wrote that this is the correct way to act (in Ashkenaz some 400 years ago). This was the minhag of many of the communities in Europe, because they feared that due to the heavy burden, the men doing the nikkur would not be able to do their job properly.

The concession of the hind part is significant because about half of the animal’s meat is found in it, and it also contains what is considered premium meat. On the other hand, the more stringent the nikkur of the cheilevim and the gid ha’nasheh is, the quality of the meat surrounding them is negatively affected. This is because the meat needs to be cut into more pieces, and large areas are exposed to the air, and require to be soaked in water for the purpose of kashering and salting the meat, and in the eyes of butchers, water is considered poison for meat because it reduces its quality and appearance, to the point where they have to sell it as cheap minced meat. Besides this, rinsing the meat shortens its shelf life.

It is worth noting that today, it has become clear that health benefits from the chumrot of the removal of many fats are increasing, because during the period of abundance in which we live, meat fats are considered unhealthy foods, which increase the risk of vascular disease and cancer.

The Minhag and Halakha

In practice, according to the nikkur Yerushalmi, which is accepted and widespread in all the major communities in the world, nikkur is not done on the hind part. However, in practice, since the minhag forbidding the consumption of the hind parts was not accepted, anyone who wants to take the trouble to do nikkur according to halakha can do so (Igrot Moshe, unlike Zaken Aharon, who claimed that it is considered a vow that cannot be nullified). There are kashrut bodies that sell most of the hind meat to non-Jews, and perform nikkuron the better parts of the meat (fillet and sirloin), which are relatively easy and profitable to perform nikkur.

The Order of Nikkur Yerushalmi

It is worth explaining the order of nikkur Yerushalmi: In the wake of the meeting of Ashkenazi immigrants with Sephardic traditions from the West and Oriental Jewry, the Ashkenazi rabbis in Jerusalem established about 150 years ago, the “Order of Yerushalmi Nikkur“, according to all the chumrot of the Sephardim, the Eastern, and Ashkenazi countries together, where naturally, the majority of the chumrot came from Ashkenazi communities that underwent more destruction and wanderings. Since the customs of all the communities were included in it, from Jerusalem an order was issued that over time the tradition of the Yerushalmi nikkur was accepted throughout all of Israel and the Diaspora. In this nikkur, approximately 13-25 percent of the weight of the meat is lost.

Other Traditions

There are communities that have maintained traditions, such as the immigrants from Yemen and Morocco, who have skilled minakkrim according to their tradition, without taking into consideration the chumrot of the other communities. In these methods approximately 5-10 percent of the weight of the hind meat is lost, and those who wish to rely on their tradition are entitled, but in all hechshers intended for the public at large, the custom is to take into consideration all the traditions, like the Yerushalmi nikkur.

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

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