Where can you get an 18-course kosher meal in that features a pheasant and guinea fowl pastry as an appetizer, cow udder in saffron, swordfish and deer as main courses, and fried locusts for dessert? When I was in Jerusalem a couple of summers ago I saw such a meal advertised. It was the result of 28 years of hard work by Bar-Ilan University neurology professor Ari Greenspan and dentist Ari Zivotofsky, who started their efforts to research traditions of kosher slaughtering when they were 18-year-olds studying ritual slaughter and wanted to know how to slaughter a pheasant. “Ari and I feel we are on a mission to make sure these chains of tradition don’t disappear,” Greenspan said. “It’s not sufficient just to talk about it. It must be real. That’s why we eat it.”
That meal was only the 2nd of its kind in Israel. The 1st happened in 2002. Mesorah, or “tradition” meals have also been held in conjunction with the OU in NY and LA. It was a desire not to lose the tradition of which of these species are kosher—for instance, which swordfish and blue marlin—and how to slaughter some of them—like locusts or the guinea fowl. And how to prepare the shibuta—a fish from the Euphrates River that is famed for tasting like bacon.
Would you pay $100+ for a dinner that included cow udder on the main course and fried locusts for dessert? I’m not so sure I would. But a kosher eating of the forbidden does seem somewhat alluring. I remember when I 1st went to Israel, I found a place called the “Grill Room” on the top floor of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. On the menu was filet mignon which—I had always been told—was not a kosher cut of meat. But this was a glatt kosher restaurant?
Let me explain with a passage from today’s parsha. Jacob is preparing to meet up with his brother Esav who had vowed 20 years earlier to kill him. That night he finds himself all alone and is confronted and wrestles with some sort of divine being. When dawn breaks Jacob emerges victorious but limping because his hip has been broken or dislocated. In remembrance of that, the Torah tells us: Al keyn lo yochlu b’nai Yisroel et gid hanasheh, “Therefore the children of Israel shall not eat the sciatic nerve.” And there went filet mignon! There went some of the tastiest areas of an animal. And I can’t begin to tell you how important this law is. Of all the 613 mitzvot in the Torah, in the entire book of Genesis there are only 3. The 1st is: Be fruitful and multiply was given to Adam and Eve; the 2nd is circumcision was given to Abraham; and the 3rd is the prohibition of the gid hanasheh—eating the sciatic nerve that began with Jacob. This is the 1st negative commandment in the entire Torah and it’s hard to understand why…Jacob limped, so we can’t eat chateaubriand?
But in truth, we can eat chateaubriand and filet mignon and the tenderloin and most of the meat of the hindquarter of an animal. The only thing we can’t eat is the sciatic nerve and some of the fat surrounding it. But—and here comes the big “but”—pun intended—it’s not easy removing the sciatic nerve. It requires real expertise. And the person who must do this must be not only extremely skilled but extremely pious. And the truth is, the rabbis over the centuries really didn’t trust that this was going to be done right, and besides the procedure is labor intensive and therefore costly; so to avoid any problems it became traditional for the entire hindquarter of the cow to be sold to a non-Jew. But there have been times in history when, in fact, meat was so precious that we went through the process of making it kosher and that’s what the King David Grill Room did.
But after all is said and done, it’s still hard to understand why. Jacob limped…and we have to suffer? Maimonides doesn’t see the rational and is reduced to telling us we must not eat the sciatic nerve because Gd commanded us not to…and that’s it! But other commentators do find meaning, like the Sforno, who says the symbolic significance of this mitzvah is to teach a Jew that a physical handicap should not discourage one in his fight for survival…or the Chinuch, who says this commandment itself is a symbol of Israel’s survival: just as Jacob emerged victorious from a dangerous foe, Jews should have faith that we will continue to do just that over the centuries. But perhaps it is Chizkuni—a 13th century French commentator—who provides the most meaningful explanation when he says that the Jew is forbidden to eat the sciatic nerve as a punishment—a penalty—to remind us that Jacob fought this battle alone. How could his sons have allowed him to remain all alone that night? A penalty to all Jews down through the ages up until the present time, who leave their elderly parents alone without a visit or a phone call or any signs of support.
So it is possible, it seems, to eat kosher from the forbidden hindquarter. And in recent weeks we’ve seen another step towards permitting the forbidden. Israel’s Chief Rabbinate has announced that it would allow for import an organic goose raised in Spain, which tastes exactly like pork. Bacon and eggs here I come! And if you find that statement shocking coming from me, let me add: I’d like it on top of a cheeseburger! You think it is surprising to hear that coming from a rabbi? Well, it’s not! The Talmud teaches: “Reb Elazar ben Azaria says: a man should not say ‘I do not desire to eat the flesh of a pig…’ but he should say: ‘I do desire it. But what can I do? My Father in heaven has decreed against it.’”
The question is, now that I’m going to be able to eat a meat that tastes like pork…should I? So let’s take a Shaarei Shamayim poll. By a show of hands, how many of you see nothing wrong with eating a kosher goose that tastes like a pig?
The reality is, this question was raised when Baco Bits and fake shrimp came on the market. Indeed, in some ways this whole issue is even older. Centuries ago a question was asked about the manna that Gd provided from heaven for the Jews to eat after they left Egypt. The Talmud tells us that manna was a wondrous food that would taste like anything the eater desired. And the question was asked: what if the eater wanted it to taste like ham? One great scholar, the Chiddushei HaRim, asserted that the manna could not possibly assume the flavor of forbidden foods. Another great scholar, the Chida, on the other hand, said that it could. And the Chida sites a fascinating incident in the Talmud about Yalta, who was the wife of Rav Nachman. One day she pointed out to her husband that every item that Gd prohibited has a permitted counterpart. For example, Gd prohibited blood but He permitted liver. He prohibited the flesh of a pig, but permitted the shibuta fish which had its taste. And based on this, she requested—in fact, she demanded—that she be able to sample the taste of meat cooked with milk. And in response, her husband ordered up some broiled udder.
So it would seem from here that if you have a kosher way of producing that which is forbidden, it’s perfectly permissible. But it can be argued that while something like a pig-tasting goose is permissible, that doesn’t mean that you’re obligated to eat it! And so Moshe Feinstein, the master halachic decisor of the 20th century, when asked about things like Baco Bits and fake shrimp said: “People ask me regarding the new foods whether they are kosher or not. I answer them that the foods are kosher but the hechsher—the rabbinic approval—is not. Why does a Jew need all these foods?” But it must be noted that an equally highly thought-of halachic decisor for the ultra-Orthodox world in the 21st century, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, says that there is no reason to hesitate from using these foods.
The fact of the matter is, there is nothing Jewish or non-Jewish about the taste of a pig. In fact, according to some authorities when the Messiah comes, the pig might become kosher—that’s why it’s called the chazer whose root is yachzir, “will turn;” it will turn to kosher. And the fact is there is nothing Jewish or not Jewish about the taste of a cow’s sciatic nerve. In fact, it has no taste.
But we do have to be careful that we not allow ourselves to cross over lines that rob our tradition of all meaning. My colleague, Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg told me about a wedding in Baltimore that had a rabbi, a ketubah and a chuppah with the 7 blessings recited followed by the breaking of a glass at the end of the ceremony. The only problem is the bride is a Chinese Episcopalian and the groom is Catholic! They just thought it would be rather “funky” and cool to have a Jewish themed wedding! The rabbi, who also has also officiated at a Doctor Seuss themed wedding, explained the breaking of the glass that it is a reminder that love is fragile and must be protected. And here I thought it had something to do with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem! And the rabbi’s concluded the ceremony saying, “When the glass is broken we shout mazel tov and that means the ceremony is over and the bar is open!”
You know what that rabbi and couple did with the Jewish wedding ceremony some of our people do with Christmas. They try and redefine it so that they can make it their own. There will be a lot of Chanukah parties taking place this year on Dec. 25…and that’s okay, as long as Chanukah is celebrated and not Christmas…as long as there is a menorah and not a tree.
The month of December brings with it not only Christmas but also Chanukah—a holiday which reminds us that lines are to be drawn. There was much from Greek culture that we Jews adapted into our own. But when the Greeks tried to slaughter a pig in the Temple, that crossed the line.
And so, we Jews will continue not eating the entire hindquarter of the cow to make sure we don’t step over the line with the sciatic nerve. But bring on that chazer-tasting goose for which I’m willing to wait on-line. And let all of us live up to the immortal words of the prophet, Michah: “All the nations may walk in the name of their Gd…we will walk in the name of the Lrd our Gd forever and ever. Amen!”
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis