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Vayishlach: The Sciatic Nerve and the Eternity of Israel

Dec 8, 2022

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, we read of the famous struggle between Jacob and a “man,” the night before Jacob’s much anticipated encounter with his brother Esau. The man turned out to be an angel. During the struggle, Jacob’s hip joint was dislocated, causing him to emerge from the confrontation with a limp.

“Yaakov was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Yaakov’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him…

The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping on his hip. That is why the children of Yisrael to this day do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the socket of the hip, since Yaakov’s hip socket was wrenched at the thigh muscle. (Genesis 32:25-26, 32-33)

This “thigh muscle” is otherwise known as the sciatic nerve. It seems that this commandment is a commemoration of the struggle between Jacob and the “man.”

What if the “man” had struck Jacob on the arm or the head? Would the Bible have then stated a prohibition against eating arms or heads of animals? Why did the “man” just happen to strike Jacob at that exact spot on his body? The location of the wound is obviously significant enough that it results in a commandment relating to that specific limb of the body. Moreover, the Torah does not include other commandments that commemorate events from the lives of the patriarchs in Genesis. For example, there is no biblically mandated law commanded in the wake of the binding of Isaac or the sale of Joseph.

What is the meaning of this unusual prohibition?

The Sefer Hachinuch, a 13th-century book that discusses the meaning and basic rules for each of the 613 commandments in the Torah, discusses the prohibition against eating the sciatic nerve:

“The root [meaning] of this commandment is to serve as a reminder to Israel that, although they will suffer many hardships in the exiles at the hands of the nations and at the hands of the children of Esau, they can be confident that they will never be lost. Rather, their offspring and name will always arise, and a redeemer will arrive and redeem them from hardship…. The reason for this symbol is that the angel who fought with our forefather Jacob – which according to tradition was the ministering angel of Esau – attempted to uproot Jacob and his progeny from the world. “He saw that he could not defeat him,” (v.26) and hurt him by striking his hip. So too, Esau’s progeny afflicts the progeny of Jacob. At the end [of days] there will be redemption for [Jacob’s progeny] from them.” (Sefer Hachinuch, commandment 3)

Why, in his attempt to “uproot Jacob and his progeny”, did the angel strike Jacob’s hip? What was he trying to do?

The Hebrew word for “hip” used here is yerech. Yerech usually refers to a hip or thigh. Interestingly, the word yerech also has another meaning, namely, it is used in many verses in the Bible as a euphemistic reference to the loins, the reproductive organ of man. Here are a few examples:

The descendants of Jacob numbered seventy in all; Joseph was already in Egypt. – Exodus 1:5

He had seventy sons of his own, for he had many wives. – Judges 8:30

In these verses offspring or descendants are referred to as yotzei yerech, literally, “those who emerge from the thigh.” (see also Genesis 46:26)

Based on this, I would like to suggest that the angel of Esau who wrestled with Jacob was attempting to cut off Jacob’s ability to reproduce, to destroy his future. In the words of the Sefer Hachinuch cited above, he “attempted to uproot Jacob and his progeny from the world.”

Esau was the grandfather of the archenemy of the People of Israel, Amalek. Later, after the Exodus from Egypt, the nation of Amalek, Esau’s descendants, attacked the children of Israel (Exodus 17:8). In a fascinating commentary on this episode, the Jewish sages of the Midrash, homiletically described the attack as follows.

“Rabbi Hinena bar Shikla taught: ‘What were the Amalekites doing [when they attacked Israel]? They were cutting off Israel’s circumcisions and casting them heavenward and saying [to God] “Is this what you have chosen? Take for yourself what you have chosen!”‘” (Midrash Tanhuma, Ki Tetzei:10)

It is important to note that Midrashic comments such as this are not meant to be taken literally. The ancient Jewish sages used this kind of embellishment of Biblical stories as a method of commentary. The sages would routinely “add” details to the stories in the Bible to highlight lessons they wished to derive from the narratives. Why did the sages suggest that Amalek was castrating the children of Israel when they attacked them?

Let’s put these two Biblical stories together. Here in Genesis 32, the angel of Esau wrestled with Jacob. This confrontation foreshadowed the eternal struggle between Esau’s offspring and Jacob’s. In the course of this struggle, Esau’s angel struck Jacob on the inner thigh. Centuries later, shortly after the children of Israel left Egypt in Exodus 17, Esau’s descendants attacked the descendants of Jacob in almost the same spot on the body.

What does all this mean?

The special covenant of Abraham that binds Israel to God is made through circumcision. Circumcision, the removal of the foreskin, declares that even the most physical, most natural elements of a person must be consecrated to God. Circumcision says that there is no area of life too natural or too physical to be controlled by His will.

Rabbi Judah Leow, the great 16th century European rabbi known as The Maharal of Prague, explained the reason God commanded that circumcision must be done on the eighth day. Seven days represent creation – the natural world. The eighth day represents that which is beyond the natural creation, beyond the seven days. Circumcision happens on the eighth day because the covenant with God places Israel beyond the reach of the natural order.

The circumcision represents the idea that through a relationship with God – a covenant – Israel rises above nature. Esau rules only within nature. Esau-Amalek’s only hope for victory over the supernatural People of Israel is for Israel to abandon its supernatural covenant to God. Only if the circumcision is uprooted can Esau win.

The prohibition against eating the sciatic nerve serves as an eternal reminder that, although Jacob and his offspring can be maimed by Esau – although Israel may often limp through history because of oppression at Esau’s hand – the future is never in doubt. Esau’s angel missed the mark. Jacob’s ability to reproduce, Jacob’s future, was not destroyed. Jacob’s offspring, the nation of Israel – through our special covenant with God – is eternal and supernatural.

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki serves as Executive Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation, and he is cohost of the Shoulder to Shoulder podcast

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