Making Kosher Cheese Sources, Reasons, and Applications
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Parsha Halacha – Parshat Shoftim
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The Torah portion of Shoftim tells discusses the mitzvah of listening to our sages, as the Torah says (Deut. 16:9-11), “And you shall come to the… judge who will be in those days… And you shall do according to the word they tell you… According to the law they instruct you… You shall not divert from the word they tell you, either to the right or to the left.”
Based on this verse, the Rambam writes (Laws of Mamrim 1:2), “‘According to the laws which they shall instruct you’ refers to the edicts, decrees, and customs which they (the sages) instruct people at large to observe (in order) to strengthen the faith and perfect the world.”
One of the laws enacted by the sages was that cheese manufactured by gentiles may not be consumed. This is referred to as Gevinat Akum (cheese of a pagan).
The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 35a) says that when the decree against eating gentile cheese (Gevinat Akum) was made, the sages did not wish to reveal their reason for the decree as they were afraid that some people would not accept it. This is based on the teaching in the Jerusalem Talmud (Avodah Zarah 2:7) that the Torah is compared to a treasure which is kept away from the public eye and is revealed only to select individuals (quoted in Tosfot D.H. Mai on Avodah Zarah ibid). In fact, Rabbi Yehoshua refused to reveal the reason for the decree even to Rabbi Yishma’el as Rabbi Yishma’el was young at that time, and the secrets of the Torah may only be revealed to senior scholars (Jerusalem Talmud ibid).
The Talmud discusses several reasons for this decree. Here are the ones that the Talmud accepts as valid reasons:
- Non-Kosher Stomachs Used for Rennet
The standard method of cheese-making in ancient days (and still widely practiced) was to use rennet from the lining of the stomachs of ruminant animals to curdle milk and turn it into cheese. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/
Rennet. Since the animals used by gentiles were not slaughtered, they are not kosher, and the cheese produced with such rennet is also not kosher. As such, the sages forbade all cheese made by gentiles.
The commentaries explain that since this was a decree enacted by the sages, one must observe it even in a case where the reason for the decree seems not to apply, for example, in a place where cheese is usually produced using vegetarian products. (SeeRambam, ibid, 14 but see below in the opinion of Rabbeinu Tam.)
The commentaries discuss why cheese made with the stomach linings of kosher (slaughtered) animals is kosher even though such cheese contains both meat and dairy products. They give several explanations:
- The meat flavor of the kosher stomachs is nullified since there is always more than 60 times more milk than stomach. (In modern times the ratio of rennet to milk in cheese is 1 to 15,000.) This nullification does not occur when the stomach is a non-kosher product because of the concept that an item that is ma’amid (gives form to the product) cannot be nullified. In this case, since it is non-kosher rennet that turns the milk into cheese we cannot consider it to be non-existent. Whereas if the rennet is from a kosher (slaughtered) animal it does not make the cheese forbidden as Bassar Bechalav (meat and milk) since the prohibition of Bassar Bechalav applies only to cases where there is a mix of discernible flavors of both meat and milk. See Rambam Hilchot Ma’achalot Assurot 3:13 and commentaries. Although one is generally not allowed to purposefully nullify a forbidden flavor, one may use kosher animal stomachs to produce kosher cheese if they have been completely dried out and thus rendered inedible (Rabbi Akiva Eiger quoted in Pit’chei Teshuvah 19 on Y.D. 87:10).
- Our sages were extremely strict regarding food products produced by gentiles and as such forbade these products even in cases where the forbidden flavor is so miniscule that it is not discernible (Maggid Mishnah on ibid, quoting the Ramban and the Rashba).
- The prohibition of consuming a combination of milk and meat that was soaked but not cooked together is of Rabbinic origin. In addition, the idea that an item that is ma’amid (gives form – see above) is not nullified is also of Rabbinic origin. As such, the rabbis were not strict in this case since it is a double Rabbinic law, i.e., it is twice removed from being a Torah violation since there are two reasons why it is not Biblically prohibited [Tosfot D.H. Mipnei on Avodah Zarah ibid]).
- Non-Kosher Milk
Some say that the reason the sages decreed against eating gentile cheese is that the gentiles may use milk that has some non-kosher milk mixed into it. Although non-kosher milk does not curdle and turn into cheese, there may be some remnants of it found “between the pores” of the cheese (Rashi and Raavad’s interpretation of the Talmud).
Tosfot (D.H. Lefi on ibid) questions this reason: Since everyone knows that non-kosher milk does not turn into cheese, why would a gentile use non-kosher milk for cheese-making?
As a result of this question, he interprets the Talmud in an entirely different way according to which the non-kosher milk is not an issue.
The commentaries offer the following explanations in defense of the opinions that no-kosher milk is a concern:
- Perhaps the gentiles would smear some liquid milk (including non-kosher milk) on the surface of the cheese to make it shiny. The fact that such milk doesn’t curdle was not an issue as it was only there to provide a “shine” (Ramban).
- When the Talmud says that the cheese is forbidden because some milk remains between the pores, it is referring to milk from a kosher animal which was milked by a gentile without a Jew being present. Such milk is forbidden by Rabbinic law even though it is from a kosher animal as the rabbis decreed that a Jew must watch the milking in order for the milk to be acceptable. (See last week’s article.) As such, the prohibition of Gevinat Akum is simply an extension of Chalav Akum (milk milked by a non-Jew). However, if all of the milk used to make cheese was to solidify, the sages would not have included cheese in the decree as it would be considered a completely different product. But since some of the milk remains liquid (“in between the pores”), they did include it in the decree (Chatam Sofer, Responsa Y.D. 107 D.H. Hinei).
- The sages were concerned about the possibility that the gentile mixed the milk of a kosher and non-kosher animal together for the purpose of drinking or selling it and then decided to use it to make cheese. In this case, the non-kosher milk might still be present in the cheese although it never really solidifies (Beit Meir quoted in Chelkat Binyamin on Y.D. 115, Tziyunim 194).
- Pig Fat Smeared on the Top
The Talmud quotes an opinion that the reason the sages forbade gentile cheese is because it was customary for the gentile cheese-makers to smear pig fat on the cheese to make it shiny.
Although the Tur quotes this reason, the later commentaries do not. As such, it seems that it is not the main reason that is accepted in Halacha.
Rabeinu Tam (quoted in Tosfot D.H. Chada in Avodah Zarah 35a) took a lenient position on cheese manufactured by gentiles in places where it was customary to use plants to curdle the cheese. His reasoning is as follows:
- The opinion of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi in the Talmud is that the reason for the prohibition of Gevinat Akum is that a venomous creature may have drunk from the milk which was used to make the cheese, and the poison may still be in the cheese. (Although the Talmud seems to reject this reason, in the opinion of Rabeinu Tam the Talmud defends this opinion and does not discard it.) As such, since venomous creatures are no longer common among us, the reason for the decree no longer applies and such cheeses should be acceptable.)
- The main halacha should follow the opinion of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi rather than the other opinions.
- The suspicion that stomachs of non-slaughtered animals were used to produce the cheese should not be a problem in a locale where other products are used to curdle the cheese. The sages of Narbonne, France, allowed cheese produced by gentiles for the reasons given above.
Most authorities disagree with Rabbeinu Tam for many reasons. As such the Bait Yosef (Y.D. 115) concludes: “In all Jewish areas that we have heard of, it is customary to be strict regarding Gevinat Akum regardless of whether the cheese is made from plant or animal products. As such, it is forbidden to separate oneself from the Jewish people and break the holy barrier established by the ‘Avot Ha’olam’ (patriarchs of the world), the authors of the Mishna.”
The Rama (Y.D. 115:2) writes that one may be lenient if he is in a place that was customarily lenient from earlier generations.
In practice, the Chochmat Adam (53:38 and 67:7) and the Aruch Hashulchan (Y.D. 115:16-17) rule that one should be stringent. This is the accepted halacha today.
In order to produce kosher cheese, one may follow one of the following methods:
If a Jew is producing the cheese (i.e., he adds the ingredient that curdles the milk and turns it into cheese), it is not considered Gevinat Akum but rather Gevinat Yisrael (Jewish cheese). As such, it is acceptable provided all of the ingredients are kosher, of course (Shach Y.D. 115:20). Those who are lenient regarding Chalav Yisrael and consider USDA approved milk to be kosher without Jewish supervision would consider cheese made with such milk to be acceptable as long as a Jew made the cheese. Those who are strict regarding Chalav Yisrael will use only Chalav Yisrael milk for kosher cheese production. (See last week’s article.)
The Rama (Y.D. 115:2) is of the opinion that if a Jew supervises the cheese-making process, it is also considered Gevinat Yisrael. The Shach (ibid) [Rabbi Shabtai Cohen of 17th Century Poland] disputes this ruling and insists that a Jew actually be physically involved in the manufacturing process. He points to the fact that, regarding gentile milk, the Talmud states that it is sufficient for a Jew to see the milking whereas regarding gentile cheese, the Talmud makes no such distinction. This implies that the Jew must have an active role and not just a supervisory one.
Even those who accept the ruling of the Rama agree that a Jew must actually be present and that government supervision does not suffice in this case (see sources quoted in Chelkat Binyamin 115, Biurim D.H. Ve’im HaYisrael). In practice, it is my understanding that the major kashrut agencies today insist on a Jew being involved in the cheese-making process for the cheese to be considered kosher following the opinion of the Shach. See here.
If a Jew owns the milk from which the cheese is being made, it is not included in the decree of Gevinat Akum. As such, as long as one can be sure that the cheese has only kosher ingredients (i.e., by having it supervised), the cheese is kosher even if manufactured completely by gentiles (Shach, ibid).
There is a dispute among the later authorities as to whether soft cheeses were included in the decree against Gevinat Akum. The reason for the lenient opinions is that the production of these cheeses does not require rennet. Nevertheless, some authorities are strict as they consider that these cheeses were included in the decree of Gevinat Akum simply because they are cheese. In addition, there is still the concern of the presence of non-kosher milk. And, lastly, rennet is also used in the production of many soft cheeses (although in smaller quantities). (See Igrot Moshe Y.D. 2:48.) It seems that, since this question is not resolved, some kashrut agencies take a somewhat lenient approach and allow for these cheeses to be manufactured by gentiles as long as a Jew supervises the production.
May we merit to follow all of the enactments of our sages!
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom UMevorach, a Chodesh Tov and a Ketiva V’Chatima Tova!