Angel injuring Jacob’s Thigh
When the angel fought against Jacob, why specifically did he injure him in his thigh? Is there a special significance to it?
The Aish Rabbi Replies
Thank you for your good question. There are a number of explanations offered in the classic commentators. As an introduction, the Sages understand that the angel which fought against Jacob was Samael, Esau’s guardian angel. Thus, it represented the forces in this world which Esau stands for – military might, physical conquest, the superiority of the body over the soul.
Likewise, the battle between Jacob and the angel is not viewed primarily as a physical struggle. It was much more a spiritual one, between Esau and all he stood for versus Jacob, the man of Torah knowledge and devotion to God, of the superiority of the soul over the body. It was essentially the struggle of good versus evil.
Jacob persevered against the angel and won his battle. But he was injured in his upper leg in the process. This was Jacob’s vulnerable spot, where the forces of evil were able to have some impact. What does the thigh represent?
(1) The Midrash (e.g. Bereishit Rabbah 77:4) sees the thigh as a hint to man’s progeny. Jacob himself was spiritually perfect and could not be harmed by the destructive forces of Esau. But he had descendants who would succumb to the oppression wrought by Esau’s descendants (which according to the Sages include the Roman Empire) against the Jewish people. Different Midrashic statements relate this specifically to different periods of Jewish history, in which the Roman persecution would be especially brutal.
Nevertheless, Israel would ultimately survive all of the persecution, as the Torah testifies that Jacob departed his encounter with Esau “whole” (33:18). (See especially Ramban.)
(2) Alternatively, the thigh was a hint that one of Jacob’s direct descendants would be harmed by the Gentiles. This was an allusion to Dinah, who was soon to be taken by the city of Shechem (Radak).
(3) As above, the thigh represents Jacob’s progeny. But the injury does not represent physical oppression but spiritual sickness. Jacob’s limp alluded to the fact that although Jacob himself was spiritually perfect and incorruptible, some of his descendants would succumb to the wiles of the forces of Esau (see Sforno, Malbim, Ktav Sofer).
(4) In a more literal sense, Jacob was injured in the thigh and made to limp as Divine punishment. He had been making plans to run away from Esau (as implied by 32:8-9) – although God had earlier promised to protect him (28:15). (Rashbam to 32:29.)
(5) The thigh, near the male organ, represents the most physical side of man. Jacob was such a spiritual giant that the angel of Esau could not overcome him. But that one area, his most physical side, was still slightly susceptible to man’s physical impulses. We likewise may not eat that same injured sinew of an animal, the sciatic nerve or gid ha’nasheh. This represents the most physical part of the animal, and it would have too negative a spiritual effect on the person who eats it (Malbim).
(6) The leg is the limb which supports the body. Jacob was a person wholly devoted to Torah study. (The “tents” he dwelled in as a young man (25:27) were houses of study, according to the Sages.). Jacob thus represented the study of Torah, and so his legs corresponded to the support of Torah study – namely, the people who fund Torah institutions. In injuring Jacob’s leg, Esau’s angel hinted that although he could not stop Jews from studying the Torah, he could interfere with the support of the Torah. And in fact, throughout history yeshivahs and institutions of Torah study would always suffer from a lack of funding (Chofetz Chaim, based on Zohar).