In the parsha of Vayishlach Jacob has returned to Canaan following a two-decade sojourn in Aram and strategically made preparations for a fateful reunion with his twin brother Esau, who had vowed to kill him. His messengers to Esau return with the less than inspiring report, "We came to your brother Esau, and moreover he comes to meet you, and four hundred men with him (Genesis 32:7)." That news rattles the younger brother, "Then Jacob was greatly afraid and was distressed (32:8)." What ensued, before the climatic meeting of the two brothers, was one of the most enigmatic episodes in the entire Torah. "Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. And when he saw that he did not prevail against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was strained, as he wrestled with him (Genesis 32:25-26)."
The text emphasized that Jacob was alone and afraid. The last time that the Torah recounted Jacob being alone and afraid (28:17) was two decades earlier when he was running away from Esau. On that earlier occasion, as Jacob prepared to depart from Canaan, he dreamt of angels ascending and descending a ladder, which the Midrash explained as being the angels representing each of the seventy nations, referring to their spiritual character. Twenty years later as Jacob returned to Canaan and prepared to face his brother, he was alone once again and felt fear once again (32:8). To be sure, Jacob was fearful of being murdered or having to kill, yet his state of mind, accentuated by the addition of "and was distressed," went beyond that. Jacob was worried about the current state of his own spiritual character.
The commentators are unanimous that Jacob's opponent was no mere mortal, for he conveyed a Divine message, "No more shall Jacob be called your name but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed (32:29)." The Midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 77,3) interpreted this as "It was the sar (literally "prince," but meaning "angel") of Esau." One school of thought viewed this as an actual bruising wrestling match, an external reality. Jacob being alone presented an opportunity for one of those angels, the guardian of Esau, to challenge him. On the other hand, according to the view represented by Rambam, the entire wrestling incident was a prophetic experience, a distinct possibility since Jacob was alone under the stars. And it offers a credible explanation as to the identity of the mysterious ish (man) with whom he wrestled. When we first met Jacob (25:27), he was an "ish tam" (single-minded or pure man). After receiving the blessings from Isaac, in a less than straightforward manner, and spending twenty years with his uncle Laban, "The ish (man) increased exceedingly and he had large flocks, and maids, and men-servants, and camels and donkeys (30:43)." Jacob was no longer that passive, scholarly young man of the tents, but had become an ish (man) of the fields (30:16), a term first applied to his twin (25:27), and an extremely worldly and wealthy one at that. Whether a dream or reality, the ish with whom Jacob wrestled was himself.
Indeed, the Zohar (Parshat Emor) noted that this confrontation between Jacob and the ish took place on Yom Kippur night, a time when all Jews wrestle with themselves. Certainly as Jacob crossed the brook and saw his own reflection, one that looked exactly like his twin, it was only natural that he would question himself. Had his actions, his absence from his parents' house, his association with Laban, and his wealth changed him, making him comparable to Esau? Apparently, Esau seemed to think so. Having been bombarded by Jacob's gifts and then espying Jacob's huge camp, Esau's attitude shifts. Instead of waging war, Esau kissed his brother and invited him to live together in Seir, a land to the east, a direction indicative of movement away from God. For Esau now saw himself in his seemingly materialistic, worldly twin. Hence Jacob's legitimate fear. Not fear that God would be unable to protect him, but rather that he had become unworthy to receive that protection.
When Jacob wrestled with the ish, it is a turning point for him and for the covenantal community he was to inherit. The very name Jacob is directly connected to Esau and the physical plane. Before Jacob could face Esau in the flesh, he had to first face himself by contending with the spiritual realm, represented by the guardian angel and his own inner struggle. The Midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 77,3) interpreted this as, "Therefore I have seen your face, as though I had seen the face of God, and you were pleased with me." When the prince of Esau blessed Jacob, in the words of the Midrash Aggada, "that he forgave him for the matter of the blessings (of Isaac)," Jacob prevailed. Both Jacob and the angel of Esau admitted that the teenager who was originally named "One who supplants" and described as an "ish tam," had survived twenty years with the unscrupulous Laban with his integrity and spirituality intact. When Jacob triumphed over his inner demons, he would no longer define himself or be defined by others in relation to his brother, but rather to his spiritual destiny. Thus, he was renamed Israel ("He who strives with God").
Jacob did not come away from this wrestling match completely unscathed, however, but was wounded. "And the sun rose upon him (Jacob) as he passed over Penuel, and he limped upon his thigh (32:32)." The Zohar asserted that it was the left thigh. Why specifically did the angel aim for the thigh? This is the type of injury that can put a professional athlete out of business, as one can barely walk. Thus the angel, unable to effect his opponent's spirituality, attempted to thwart Jacob's ability to stand, to rely on his physical strength. According to the Sefer Hachinuch, the significance of the gid ha'nasheh (sinew of the thigh-vein) is that just at the angel of Esau endeavored to destroy Jacob and failed, so too the various enemies throughout the generations who seek to destroy Israel will fail. Denoted by his seeing Peniel (the face of God), although limping, Jacob's spiritual strength allowed him to walk away.
The Sefer Hachinuch continued that as the rays of the rising sun healed Jacob's wound, so the sun of the messianic era would heal his people. Indeed, the Torah related that, "And Jacob came whole to the city of Shechem (33:18)." As Rashi noted, "Whole in body, for he was healed of his lameness; whole regarding his wealth, for he lacked nothing of that entire gift; and whole in his knowledge of Torah, for he did not forget his learning in the house of Laban." In a few weeks, Rachel would give birth to Benjamin, the twelve tribes would be complete, and the covenantal community would enter its next stage as the Children of Israel.
Jacob's precedent here of relying on God, while calling on his own physical and spiritual strength, inspired and sustained his descendants, providing a model of behavior for the future. The observance of kashrut and the pattern set by the gid ha'nasheh of remembering our wounds have proved significant contributors to the national survival. Rabbinically constructed holidays -- Tisha b'Av, Purim, Chanukah, Lag b'Omer, and Yom Ha'atzmaut -- all bespeak the same notion as lessons of the gid ha'nasheh, providing succor and inspiration to the Jewish people.
This episode also has practical implications for future generations. "Therefore, the children of Israel do not eat the gid ha'nasheh which is upon the hollow of Jacob's thigh, even in the sinew of the thigh-vein (32:33)." The Torah structured that for eternity, whenever the descendants of Jacob wanted to gratify their physical needs through the consumption of any ruminant, they would be required to first remove the sciatic nerve. The Hebrew word nasheh is derived from "noshe," connoting "movement from its proper place." Thus nosheh ("creditor," as in Deuteronomy 24:11) indicates that some property has been lent from its proper place and, in return, the creditor demands something from the other person. Similarly, gid ha'nasheh is the sinew that was displaced. In this vein, Joseph named his firstborn Menasseh, "For God nashani ("has made me forget") all my troubles and my father's house (Genesis 41:51). Forgetting is when something has moved from its proper place in the brain. To prevent Jacob's descendants from forgetting the spiritual energy that transformed their ancestor into Israel, the gid ha'nasheh must be removed. Another interpretation of nashani in Joseph's statement is that "God has 'credited me' (made me successful) because of my troubles and my father's family." Thus, Jacob's credit is accrued to his descendants by their observation of the law of gid ha'nasheh.
The sciatic nerve stretches from the lower end of the spinal column and, as it descends through the rear legs of an animal, branches out into tinier sections. The process of extracting the gid ha'nasheh is called nikkur ("picking" in Hebrew) or sometimes traiber, from an Aramaic word for fat, referring to the forbidden abdominal fat that also had to be removed. During the biblical period, most people or their servants slaughtered their own meat and, therefore, anyone versed in the ritual, women included, could both slaughter and purge the gid ha'nasheh and fat themselves and, in the process of the latter, hopefully benefit from the inherent spiritual lessons. In Talmudic times, many rural families continued to perform their own slaughtering and traibering, but urban residents increasingly turned to professional butchers. The situation changed in the thirteenth century when the position of shochet (ritual slaughterer) was first institutionalized among the communities of Franco-Germany and, thereafter, individuals rarely and women never, slaughtered meat themselves. The concept of the communal shochet soon spread to Sephardim as well.
What induced this historic change? Except in a few rare instances, meat historically constituted a small part of the human diet. During the Talmudic and Gaonic period, meat was a rarity for most Jews, even the wealthy, except on Shabbat and the festivals (Chulin 5:3). Poultry, which does not require traibering as well as easier and cheaper to raise, was more prevalent than meat, while grains, legumes, and vegetables made up the bulk of the diet. Among Sephardim, meat, generally cut into small pieces, was primarily used as a flavoring in dishes or reserved for special occasions. The situation, however, was very different in early Ashkenaz, the regions to the east and west of the Rhine River valley, where there was plenty of cattle. For much of early Western European history, meat constituted a major part of the diet, particularly in the two centuries following the Black Death (1347-1350), as the diminution in human population resulted in the decrease in agriculture and expansion of pastureland. Beef, generally in the form of pot roasts and meat pies, was the predominant Sabbath entrée and commonly served throughout much of the week. Indeed, it was at this time that the Yiddish terms fleishig (meat) and milchig (dairy) first emerged. Sephardim, who used meat and dairy more sparingly, did not develop similar terminology until modern times.
Ironically, around the same period that Ashkenazim turned to professional butchers, they ceased using the hindquarters of the animals. Since the process to remove the sciatic nerve is extremely complicated and time-consuming and there was more than abundant meat at that time, Ashkenazim began to avoid the entire hindquarter, which includes choice sections, such as the tenderloin in a cow and the rear leg of lamb. The non-Jewish butchers were more than happy to receive these cuts. The only remaining tender cuts, those higher up on the animal and, therefore, subject to less exercise, were the rib section and adjoining portion of the chuck. In the fifteenth century when Europe experienced a shortage of meat, Ashkenazim, who now lacked experience and confidence in traibering, retained the self-imposed prohibitions. Sephardim, on the other hand, never accepted this restriction and, therefore, most of their butchers still traiber the hindquarters and the people can enjoy a leg of lamb, and do so for many special occasions.
Here are a few recipes for those
living "low on the cow," but high on taste.
(6 to 10 servings)
In Eastern Europe, most of the cattle in the region was raised for the dairy industry and not slaughtered until very mature and, therefore, much of the meat was tough. To further complicate the situation, beginning in the seventeenth century the authorities in many parts of Eastern Europe imposed a korobka (steep tax) on kosher meat. As a result, Eastern European Jews could rarely buy meat, particularly the more tender cuts. Instead, they made do with the tough, sinewy cuts from the lower part of a cow.
Brisket, a cut with a lot of connective tissue and a very grainy texture, is the meat covering the breastbone. Below the arm lies the chuck short ribs called flanken. Eastern European Jews discovered that these tougher and cheaper cuts could actually be very flavorful. The trick lies in tenderizing the meat by slowly simmering it in water, a process that breaks down the connective tissue by converting the collagen to gelatin.
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees (175 C).
2. Rub both sides of the meat with salt, pepper, and if desired, mustard. Spread half of the onions over bottom of a shallow roasting pan. Place the brisket, fat-side up, in the pan and top with the remaining onions. Add ¼ cup broth. Bake, uncovered and basting occasionally, until the meat and onions begin to brown (about 1 hour).
3. Add the remaining broth and remaining ingredients. (Liquid should never reach more than halfway up the side of the meat.) Cover, reduce the heat to 300 degrees (150 C) or place over a low flame, and cook until meat is fork-tender and thickest part of the brisket registers about 175 degrees on a meat thermometer (2 to 3 hours -- allow about 1 hour total cooking time per pound).
4. Cover the brisket loosely with foil and let stand 20 minutes before carving. (Brisket may be prepared up to 2 days ahead and reheated.) Slice the brisket diagonally against the grain about 1/8-inch thick. If desired, serve with horseradish sauce or whole-grain mustard.
Foil-Wrapped Brisket: Seal the brisket and seasonings in layers of heavy-duty aluminum foil, place on a baking sheet or in a large roasting pan, and roast in a 300-degree oven for 6 to 7 hours. Let stand about 30 minutes before opening and slicing.
Brisket Tzimmes: Add 1 pound pitted prunes, 4 large peeled and quartered sweet potatoes, 3 carrots cut into chunks, ¼ cup granulated or brown sugar, and 2 to 3 tablespoons lemon juice.
Brisket with Cabbage: About 20 minutes before the brisket is done, add 1 medium head green cabbage cut into 10 pieces.
Brisket with Fennel: About 20 minutes before the brisket is done, add 1 quartered bulb fresh fennel.
(About 1 cup)
1 cup cold water
2 tablespoons cornstarch
Blend the water and cornstarch. Stir into the cooking liquid and cook over a medium-low heat,
stirring constantly, until thickened.
Brisket with Mustard Sauce: Add 2
tablespoons Dijon-style mustard.
Brisket with Lemon-Horseradish
Sauce: Stir 1/3 cup prepared white horseradish, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, ½
teaspoon grated lemon zest, and salt and pepper to taste into the gravy and
simmer for 2 more minutes.
(6 to 8 servings)
1. Pat dry the beef with paper towels and toss with 1 tablespoon oil. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large, heavy pot. Add the onions and sage and sauté until golden (about 10 minutes). If desired, stir in the flour. (Flour can also be sprinkle over top of the hammin.)
2. Add in the order given bones, potatoes, beef, beans, and barley. If desired, sprinkle with the paprika. Add enough water to cover.
3. Bring to a boil. Cover, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer or bake in 375-degree (190 C) oven until the beans are nearly soft (about 1½ hours).
4. Season with salt and pepper to taste and add more water if necessary. Cover tightly, place on a blech (a thin sheet of metal) or in 200-degree (95 C) oven, and cook overnight.
Just before serving, stir in the chicken meatballs and chard (see
1 pound ground chicken breast
¼ cup bread crumbs or matza meal
1 large egg
3 tablespoons chicken broth
Salt and pepper
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 pounds Swiss chard, cut up
1. Combine the ground chicken, crumbs, egg, broth, salt, and pepper. Form into small balls.
Place the oil and Swiss chard in a saucepan, top with the meatballs,
and cook for about 20 minutes. Set
(6 to 8 servings)
The short ribs are the lower section of the ribs. (The upper part surrounds the rib-eye.) The chuck short ribs, are leaner but less tender than those from the plate, which is below the rib section. Short ribs that are cut across the bone and grain into strips about ¾-inch thick (including two to three segments of rib bone) are called flanken. When cut into 2- to 4-inch long single segments of flat rib bone, they are called English short ribs. Because flanken is cut across the grain, they are less stringy.
1. Heat the oil in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Dredge the ribs in flour, shaking off the excess. In batches, brown on all sides. Remove the ribs and drain off most of the fat.
2. Add the onions, ginger, chili, and garlic and sauté until softened (5 to 10 minutes).
3. Add the broth, stirring to loosen browned particles. Add orange juice, pepper sauce, cinnamon, bay leaf, salt, and pepper. Return ribs, bring to a boil, and cover. Bake in a 350-degree (175 C) oven or simmer over a low heat until the meat is fork tender (at least 2½ hours). (Ribs can be prepared to this point, covered, stored in refrigerator for up to 3 days, and reheated.)
4. Divide the ribs between serving plates. In a blender or food processor, puree the cooking liquid and serve with the ribs. Or strain the cooking liquid and simmer, uncovered, until slightly thickened.
Gil Marks is the author of the James Beard Award finalist The World of Jewish Cooking, The World of Jewish Entertaining, and The World of Jewish Desserts. Send comments and requests to firstname.lastname@example.org.