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What's the Deal with Kosher Cheese?

What's the deal with Kosher cheese? If you ask the average Kosher keeping Jew, as I've done with regularity over the last few years, you get many different sorts of responses, even from very learned Jews. "The Rav (referring to Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik) ate Kraft cheese, but didn't allow other people to." "Non-Kosher cheese is made with animal rennet; Kosher cheese is vegetarian." "Tablet K can't be trusted. I don't know why, but a Rabbi I trust said that it's a very bad situation. If you eat that cheese, you have to kasher your dishes." "They line the cheese with lard, which is why it has a rind." There's a lot of misinformation, both about the kashrut of cheese, and also about cheese itself. Time to clarify. But not just clarify. This piece is a "manifesto," not a cardboard description, meaning there's an argument to be made, and I'm here to make it. It's a fairly straightforward argument, but the road to persuasion has a steep incline. Most of my colleagues don't agree. Most Kosher-keeping consumers likely don't agree. Most of the precedent doesn't agree. Still, I feel strongly, so I'll spell out my thoughts. Worst case scenario - you disagree, but exhaustively learn the laws and issues surrounding the kashrut of cheese. The argument: In the year 2017, Kosher consumers ought to consider all cheese as Kosher. Now, before you go panicking, let me add some disclaimers. 1) You should follow your the rulings of your own Rabbi or Rabbis, Maharats, Rabbanits, etc. etc. 2) Communal and sociological norms are important. I don't follow my own logic fully to its logical conclusions, as I want people to eat in my home, etc. But these concerns won't prevent me from making the argument. In order to change minds, persuasion is in order. And in this case, I think the law, precedent, evidence, and public policy considerations mandate a communal re-evaluation. Buckle up for a Shavous dairy adventure like no other, a product of popular demand, a milchig manifesto. 1. Sources and Historical Development Knowledge is pre-requisite. Personally, it seems to me that misinformation and its evil cousin, partial information, render an honest and productive discussion impossible. So I'll simply be citing and explaining the main sources on the subject to start. I'll try my best (and likely fail at times) not to use any artificial flavors or coloring, and let the sources speak their truth, as the kids like to say these days. A) Mishna Avodah Zarah 2:5

אָמַר רַבִּי יְהוּדָה, שָׁאַל רַבִּי יִשְׁמָעֵאל אֶת רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ, כְּשֶׁהָיוּ מְהַלְּכִין בַּדֶּרֶךְ. אָמַר לוֹ, מִפְּנֵי מָה אָסְרוּ גְבִינוֹת הַגּוֹיִם. אָמַר לוֹ, מִפְּנֵי שֶׁמַּעֲמִידִין אוֹתָהּ בְּקֵבָה שֶׁל נְבֵלָה. אָמַר לוֹ, וַהֲלֹא קֵבַת עוֹלָה חֲמוּרָה מִקֵּבַת נְבֵלָה, וְאָמְרוּ, כֹּהֵן שֶׁדַּעְתּוֹ יָפָה, שׂוֹרְפָהּ חַיָּה. וְלֹא הוֹדוּ לוֹ, אֲבָל אָמְרוּ, אֵין נֶהֱנִין וְלֹא מוֹעֲלִין. חָזַר, אָמַר לוֹ, מִפְּנֵי שֶׁמַּעֲמִידִין אוֹתָהּ בְּקֵבַת עֶגְלֵי עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה. אָמַר לוֹ, אִם כֵּן, לָמָּה לֹא אֲסָרוּהָ בַהֲנָאָה. הִשִּׂיאוֹ לְדָבָר אַחֵר, אָמַר לוֹ, יִשְׁמָעֵאל אָחִי, הֵיאַךְ אַתָּה קוֹרֵא (שיר השירים א), כִּי טוֹבִים דֹּדֶיךָ מִיָּיִן, אוֹ כִּי טוֹבִים דֹּדַיִךְ. אָמַר לוֹ, כִּי טוֹבִים דֹּדַיִךְ. אָמַר לוֹ, אֵין הַדָּבָר כֵּן, שֶׁהֲרֵי חֲבֵרוֹ מְלַמֵּד עָלָיו, לְרֵיחַ שְׁמָנֶיךָ טוֹבִים:

Rabbi Yehuda says: Rabbi Ishmael asked Rabbi Yehoshua [a question] as they were walking along the road. He said to him, "What is the cause for the prohibition against the cheese of non-Jews?" He said to him, "Because they curdle it inside the stomach of carrion." He said to him, "But is not [the law regarding] the stomach of a burnt offering more stringent than the stomach of carrion?! And they [the Sages] said: [It was proposed that] a priest with a good disposition may burn [a burnt offering after sucking out the fat from its stomach] while it it still raw [and has not yet been burnt with the offering, which would forbid one form deriving any benefit from it]. And they [the sages] did not agree with him [who proposed this opinion], but they said: One may not derive benefit [from the fats of the stomach], nor is one [who does so] liable for meilah [deriving prohibited benefit from from a sanctified object]." [Implying that one should therefore not be liable for the less stringent case of a stomach of carrion.] He [Rabbi Yehoshua] retracted, and [instead] said, "Because they curdle it in the stomachs of calves that were used for idolatry." And he [Rabbi Ishmael] said, "If so, why is there no prohibition to benefit from it?" He [Rabbi Yehoshua] redirected him to another topic. He said to him, "Ishmael, my brother, how do you read (Shir HaShirim 1): 'For dodechah [Heb. masc: "your love"] is better than wine,' or 'For dodayich [Heb. fem: "your love") is better than wine'? He said to him:, "'For dodayich is better than wine.'" He said to him, "The matter is not so. For its fellow [the following verse] teaches about it: 'For the fragrance of shemaneikha [Heb. masc: "your oils"] is good.'" This Mishna and the Gemara on it are the starting point of all future discussion. A side point of interest - it appears that the Masoretic text was not yet settled, as their was still uncertainty about the pronunciation of words in the biblical book Song of Songs. A second side point - the idea of deflection, turning attention away from difficult questions by bringing up a seemingly irrelevant topic is not new. Okay, now to the point of the Mishna. The hava amina, the supposition, is that the prohibition on non-Jewish cheese is because of the potential presence of rennet/enzymes from the stomach of an animal not properly slaughtered (neveilah). The Mishna responds by noting the opinion of the Sages, exempting the priest from liability for misappropriating consecrated sacrifices should he choose to eat the fats of the stomach. What's important is the reasoning behind the opinion of the sages. As Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura explains (so too the Rambam) in his extremely helpful Mishna commentary, it's that the fat and enzymes are considered פירשא בעלמא, mere byproducts; therefore, they do not have the status of the animal itself, as they are too inconsequential. The Mishna explicitly rejects the notion that the rennet of an animal not slaughtered according to Jewish ritual law is problematic (one of the most common reasons people mistakenly think cheese must have a certification) on a biblical level - it is not problematic, as the case of the priest proves. So what is the reason? The Mishna does not disclose. Why not? The Gemara explains. B) Talmud Avodah Zarah 35A

אר"ש בן פזי ואיתימא ר"ש בר אמי מרישיה דקרא קא"ל

(שיר השירים א, ב) ישקני מנשיקות פיהו אמר ליה

ישמעאל אחי חשוק שפתותיך זו בזו ואל תבהל להשיב


אמר עולא ואיתימא רב שמואל בר אבא

גזרה חדשה היא ואין מפקפקין בה

מאי גזירתא

אר"ש בן פזי אמר ריב"ל

משום ניקור

ולימא ליה

משום ניקור

כדעולא דאמר עולא

כי גזרי גזירתא במערבא לא מגלו טעמא עד תריסר ירחי שתא דלמא איכא איניש דלא ס"ל ואתי לזלזולי בה

At the beginning of this passage (not quoted here), there is a homiletic discussion of the verse in Song of Songs. Then, a discussion about why this passage was quoted to distract. The opinion of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi is quoted first - nikur (that the cheese was poisoned by a snake). The Gemara questions why the Mishna didn't just state the reason, then. Ulla notes that it is a new decree, and the Rabbis maintained silence about the underlying reasons for new decrees during the first year so that cynics, critics, haters, etc. wouldn't attempt to sabotage the decree with criticism. In this way, the decree would become practice, and after having safely taken hold, the reasons could be released. I like to think of it as a notion of rabbinic privilege, similar to the executive privilege that protects behind the scenes rationales, discussions, etc. of the President from the public eye in order to facilitate a functional government. Even then, apparently, the notion of two Jews - three opinions was known and even merited strategic response. The debate starts heating up:

מגדף בה ר' ירמיה

אלא מעתה יבשה תשתרי ישן תשתרי

דא"ר חנינא

יבש מותר אין מניחו ליבש ישן מותר אין מניחו לישן

א"ר חנינא

לפי שא"א לה בלא צחצוחי חלב

Rabbi Yirmiyah and Rabbi Chaninah team up to critique Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi's snake poison theory. Snake poison doesn't dry, and poisoned cheese doesn't permit cheese to age, so if the cheese is aged or dry, it should have been permitted, according to this theory, but the Mishna suggests no such thing. Therefore, that can't be the reason for the decree. Rabbi Chaninah then suggests his own theory, the non-Kosher milk theory. There's some debate among medieval authorities about the specifics, but here's Rashi's take. True, non-Kosher milk (say pig's milk) doesn't actually become cheese, so we're not worried about a pig's milk cheese. Nonetheless, there are droplets of milk/moisture that remain on the cheese, and maybe there was milk not seen by a Jew mixed in to a cow's milk cheese, and is now disguised by the milk/moisture that remains on cheese in any event. In short, a little bit of non-Kosher milk got mixed in, and since there was no supervision, we'd have no way of knowing. ושמואל אמר מפני שמעמידין אותה בעור קיבת נבילה הא קיבה גופא שריא ומי אמר שמואל הכי והתנן קיבת העובד כוכבים ושל נבילה הרי זו אסורה והוינן בה אטו דעובד כוכבים לאו נבלה היא ואמר שמואל חדא קתני קיבת שחיטת עובד כוכבים נבלה אסורה ל"ק

כאן קודם חזרה כאן לאחר חזרה ומשנה לא זזה ממקומה

Shmuel takes his turn at the proverbial podium. It is because the cheese is curdled in the skin of the stomach (b'or keivat neveilah) of an improperly slaughtered animal. This implies that the rennet itself is not problematic (as seen earlier from our Mishna), but that curdling in the non-Kosher animal skin is the issue. The moderator objects, citing an earlier contradictory statement of Shmuel himself that the rennet itself is forbidden. The Gemara answers this by noting that Shmuel recanted the notion that rennet is problematic as recorded in the Mishna, and the Mishna remains the final ultimate ruling on the rennet itself. A word about Shmuel's modified ruling. As Rambam explains, this is not an issue of milk and meat, as many mistakenly suggest, since milk and meat is only prohibited on a biblical level when there is a transferal of flavor, which does not happen in this process. Rather, the issue the cheese is like a non-Kosher animal, since it is produced in such a sac. And, we can't apply the normal 1/60 rules of nullification because the cheese is a davar hama'amid, transformed into a totally new substance (think what gelatin does to Jello). Therefore, though it looks like cheese, from a Jewish legal perspective, it's a non-Kosher steak (כולה נבילה). Three more candidates offer alternative explanations:

רב מלכיא משמיה דרב אדא בר אהבה אמר

מפני שמחליקין פניה בשומן חזיר

רב חסדא אמר

מפני שמעמידין אותה בחומץ

רב נחמן בר יצחק אמר

מפני שמעמידין אותה בשרף הערלה

Rav Malkiah in the name of Rav Ada says it's because they smear the edges of the cheese with pig fat (that popular notion is a real opinion in the Gemara! - and that's the one that seems to sound the most contrived). Rav Chisda suggests it's because they curdle the cheese with non-Kosher vinegar. Rav Nachman concludes the debate by stating they use the sap of young trees to curdle the cheese in violation of the rules of orlah (that one must not use a sapling for the first three years). To summarize, the Gemara's suggested reasons for the prohibition are, in order: 1) Snake Poison 2) Mixture of Pig's Milk 3) Curdling in a Non-Kosher Animal 4) Smearing with Pig Fat 5) Non-Kosher Vinegar 6) Prohibited Tree Sap C) Medieval Authorities So which opinion, if any, is accepted as the rationale for the decree? The specifics of how the issue is dealt with are likely to depend on the animating rationale. And as to this, there's a dispute. On the one hand, there's the opinion quoted by Tosafos: Rabbenu Tam said that now, since we no longer find a simple reason to prohibit since the reason for the prohibition is snake venom, as is said by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, for we uphold the halakhah in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, even when he disputes Rabbi Yochanan, and even the more so when he disputes Shemuel for when Shemuel disputes Rabbi Yochanan, the halakhah is in accordance with Rabbi Yochanan. And this was the ruling of Rabbenu Hannanel and so too Seder Tena'im ve'Amoraim declares that the halakhah is in accordance with Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi in all cases. And the words of Rav Ada bar Ahava ammount ot nothing since he is not the same Rav Ada bar Ahava who was a student of Rava, for he came later - for his words are mentioned earlier than those of Rav Hisda and Rav Nahman bar Yitzchak who were all earlier than Rava. And also the words of Rav Hisda and Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak stand in conflict. And there is no need to be concerned about a mixture of non-kosher milk since it will not become cheese as Rashi explains, for the gentiles are not so foolish as to mix non-kosher milk into their cheese mixtures since it will not form cheese. Rather, it is certain that the reason for the prohibition is for no other reason than the concern about snake venom and we, who do not live in a region with many snakes have no reason to be concerned about uncovered liquids. And do not say that a decree that has been enacted by a court requires another court to gather to overturn the decree for certainly it was never forbidden for any region other than those wherein snakes are found as I will explain concerning wine. And in many places they eat these cheeses because they are are made using flowers. However, in those places where the cheeses are made with rennet, Rav Yitzchak ben Rabenu Hayim says there is a slight reason to forbid since the rennet is salted with its skin and there is a concern of dairy and meat together since salting is equivalent to roasting. And I have seen places where they make the cheese firm with some other salted thing. Wow. So first, Tosafos quotes the Rabbeinu Tam asserting that Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi is the most superior of the sages listed, and then proceeds to explicitly reject the rationales of pig's milk, etc. Further, since snake venom is not a common problem, the decree does not apply in this sort of place. Now, most cheese is made with vegetarian rennet. And animal rennet, as we learned above in the Mishna and Gemara, is technically Kosher regardless of its source. Still, there might be a slight reason to prohibit cheese produced with animal rennet, according to Tosafos, because of the way the rennet itself is produced (salted with its skin in some places, but not always). Moreover, one need not worry about the procedural issue of overturning the ruling of a prior superior court (something not normally allowed in Jewish jurisprudence) because their decree was geographically limited to locations where the concern of snake venom is relevant. But decrees are not extended irrationally to locations where there's no relevant concern. The Rambam (and the other non-Ashkenazic authorities who follow his view), however, understands the Gemara to have rejected the view of Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi for cause due to the successful critiques of Rabbi Yirmiyah and Rabbi Chaninah. It does not matter if RYBL is superior, his reasoning is refuted. The Rambam rules like Shmuel, that the problem is one of curdling in the skin of the stomach (the non-Kosher steak theory) in both his commentary to the Mishna and in his legal codex (Forbidden Foods 3:13-14):

Accordingly, logic would dictate that any milk found in the possession of a gentile is forbidden, lest the gentile have mixed the milk of a non-kosher animal with it. And the cheese of the gentiles should be permitted, for the milk of a non-kosher animal will not form cheese. Nevertheless, during the age of the Sages of the Mishnah, they issued a decree against gentile cheese and forbade it, lest they use the skin of the stomach of an animal they slaughtered - which is forbidden as a nevelah - to cause it to solidify.