The Tale of Kosher Filet Mignon (Vayishlach – 12/05/20)
The Tale of Kosher Filet Mignon
Do you wonder why most kosher beef is chuck meat, that much of it needs to be corned (soaked in brine) to make it edible? Do you ask why sirloin and porterhouse steaks never make it to the kosher section? The answer lies in this week’s parsha, Vayishlach.
Twenty years earlier, after disguising himself as his brother Esau and stealing his blessing from his blind father, Jacob fled from his home. Hoping to avoid Esau’s wrath, Jacob found refuge in his maternal uncle’s house in Charan (modern-day Iraq). Now, with four wives and twelve children, Jacob heads home hoping Esau has forgiven and forgotten.
When Jacob hears that Esau is coming to greet him with four hundred men, it’s evident that Esau is still holding a grudge. Jacob devises a three-pronged approach:
- He prays to God for protection and reaffirms his commitment to God’s service.
- He divides his camp into two: one to fight, the other to flee.
- He sends many expensive gifts to Esau, each timed to arrive hours after the other, with hopes to mollify Esau’s anger and find forgiveness.
After bringing his family and remaining possessions across the Yabok River in the middle of the night, Jacob lies awake contemplating his face-off with Esau in the morning (Genesis 32: 25 -33):
“Jacob 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 Jacob’s hip at its socket so that his hip was strained as he wrestled with him.
Then he said, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel (“wrestling with God”), for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed…”
So Jacob named the place Peniel (“God’s face”), meaning, “I have seen a divine being face to face, and my life has been spared.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Peniel, limping on his hip. That is why the children of Israel to this day do not eat the thigh muscle (lit. sciatic nerve) that is on the socket of the hip since Jacob’s hip socket was wrenched at the thigh muscle.”
By tradition, the “man” that wrestled with Jacob was the guardian angel of Esau. By besting the angel, Jacob showed that indeed he is the greater spiritual power and the worthy recipient of his father’s “firstborn” blessing. By blessing him with the name Israel, the angel shows his agreement with this conclusion. Yet, the struggle came with a price: Jacob’s hip is dislocated.
As an eternal memory of the struggle and, perhaps, the price of deception, we are commanded not to eat the “gid hanasheh,” what tradition understands to be the sciatic nerve.
In cows, the nerve runs up the leg into the back section of the animal.
(Hopefully, Hebrew National won’t mind us stealing their image for promotional value:)
The prohibition is only on the nerve and the nerve’s fats. If it could be adequately removed in a “nikkur” process (called porging in English), those cuts of meat can be eaten. But that’s precisely the problem.
In London, nikkur was first introduced by the London Board for Shechita (slaughtering) in 1827. However, it seems that housewives were not happy with the appearance of the porged meat. Butchers tried to satisfy their demands by selling unporged hindquarters. In 1865, the tension between the board, the butchers and the housewives reached such levels that a representative was sent to observe the methods of nikkur practiced in Leghorn, Italy, and in Paris in the hopes that nikkur was done there in a “neater” manner. Unfortunately, there were no differences in the methods. The conflict between the housewives, the butchers and the Board continued for decades.
The main problem nowadays is that the demand for kosher meat is so high, and the nikkur process is so slow, that most meat processors just sell the whole rear half of the cow to non-kosher meat suppliers. However, select butchers in America, Argentina, and Israel take the time to remove the nerve properly and sell real kosher filet mignon. If you’re able to procure some, don’t forget your favorite rabbi!
Jacob’s three-pronged plan of action proved effective, assuaging Esau’s anger and concluding with the estranged brothers hugging at their reunion. Jacob, over time, also proved himself worthy as the spiritual heir of Abraham and Isaac. Yet the way he took that title came at a price, one we remind ourselves every time we’re in the kosher meat department.
Have a great week,