Beit Midrash

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Question 1: Is there a need for kosher cheese to cost such a premium over non-kosher cheese?
Question 2: Do the Conservatives have any basis for their "heter" of permitting all cheeses?

Before discussing the halachic issues involved in manufacturing cheese, we need to explain the basics of cheese-making. Hashem made cow's milk contain all the nutrients necessary for a newborn calf to grow big and strong until it is ready to be self-supportive by mowing the lawn – I mean, by eating grass for its nutrition. The major components of milk are lactose, or milk sugar, which provides the carbohydrates a young calf needs; casein and other proteins; cream, which is the fat component; calcium for healthy bones; various other nutrients and about 90% water, which keeps the other ingredients in suspension or solution. To make cheese, one causes the casein to precipitate (separate) out of the fluid milk, which makes the casein coagulate. The coagulated part of the milk, called the curd, separates from the rest, which is the whey.

What is the prohibition called gevinas akum, and why did Chazal prohibit it?
The origins of the rabbinic prohibition banning non-Jewish cheese are mentioned by the Mishnah (Avodah Zarah 29b), which records that Rabbi Yehoshua evaded explaining why the Sages prohibited cheese. In actuality, the Mishnah and the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 35) mention seven possible reasons why Chazal prohibited consumption of gevinas akum:
(1) First reason mentioned by the Tanna, Rabbi Yehoshua: Because the gentiles use the stomach of a non-kosher, slaughtered calf to curdle the milk. This approach is later reiterated in the Gemara by Rabbi Yochanan.
(2) Second reason mentioned by the Tanna, Rabbi Yehoshua: Because the gentiles use the stomach of a calf that had been offered for idol worship.
(3) Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi: The milk may have been left unguarded in a place where snakes could poison it with their venom.
(4) Rabbi Chanina: The milk may have been adulterated with milk of a non-kosher species. Although most non-kosher species do not allow themselves to be milked, camels, donkeys, and mares (female horses) can all be milked and produce palatable product. Although milk from non-kosher species contains very little casein, and thus cannot be made into cheese, some fluid remains in the cheese that could contain non-kosher milk.
(5) Rav Ada bar Ahavah: The surface of the cheese may be coated with lard.
(6) Rav Chisda: Non-kosher wine vinegar could have been used to set the cheese.
(7) Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak: That juice of an orlah fruit may have been used to set the cheese. The Torah (VaYikra 19:23) prohibits eating or benefiting from fruit grown on a tree during its first three years. Those fruits are called orlah and the prohibition of the Torah applies whether the tree was planted by a Jew or a gentile, and whether it grew in Eretz Yisrael or in chutz la’aretz.
In his discussion of these laws, the Rambam mentions setting cheese with the juice of figs. Today, we extract an enzyme known as ficain (also known as ficin), usually from the sap of the fig, which can be, and is, used to make certain varieties of cheese.

As we will soon see, the Rishonim disagree whether these seven opinions are in dispute – meaning that each holds its reasons to the exclusion of the others -- or that each is citing a different reason for the prohibition, and that the cheese was prohibited because of any of the reasons.
I want to share with you a curiosity: While researching information for this article, I discovered a forty-year-old article describing how one manufactures cheddar cheese (also a name of geographic origin -- this cheese was originally developed in Cheddar, a village in England), which reports that the cheese was made by adding calf stomach rennet to the milk so that it curdles, heating the curd, going through several processes to carefully remove all the whey, pressing the curd and then plunging it briefly into hot water to form a thin rind, and then greasing the rind with pure lard to keep the shape and thicken the rind. Thus, three of the reasons mentioned by the Gemara to prohibit cheese were very much applicable to this cheese – the use of non-kosher rennet, the use of lard and the remaining un-curded milk in the cheese, which could contain adulterated milk were it not processed so carefully as to remove it all. Obviously, contemporary kosher cheddar cheese must use a different source for the rennet and a substitute for the lard; but are those the only differences between kosher cheddar and non-kosher?

Why did Rabbi Yehoshua hide the reason?
Although we now have some background as to why Chazal prohibited gentile cheese, we still have no idea why Rabbi Yehoshua was reticent to explain the origin of the prohibition. However, the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 35a) does explain his concern, in the following passage: "Why did he not reveal the true reason? As Ula explained: When the scholars of Eretz Yisrael decreed a new prohibition, they did not reveal the reason for twelve months -- lest someone dispute their reason and be lax in its observance." Thus, we see that even when the prohibition began, no reason was given, out of concern that this would affect the proper observance of the takanah.

We find this issue echoed in a later dispute. In the times of the Rishonim, there were areas of Europe, particularly in Italy and parts of France, where there was a long-established practice to be lenient regarding the consumption of the local cheese of non-Jews. The lenience was based on the fact that the Jews knew the recipe used by the gentile cheese-makers, and that none of the concerns mentioned by the Gemara was germane. The cheese was set with "flowers," some variety of plant-based enzyme. I am told that, to this day, there are cheeses in some parts of Europe which use an enzyme found naturally in a variety of thistle. Perhaps, this was the type of cheese that these communities used.
The practice of being lenient with gevinas akum found halachic backing (several Rishonim in the name of the Geonei Narvona.) Tosafos quotes Rabbeinu Tam as saying "…that we do not find an obvious reason to prohibit gevinas akum." Rabbeinu Tam felt that the different opinions quoted in the Gemara are in dispute, and that the authoritative position for the gezeirah of gevinas akum is that of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi -- that the cheese may be contaminated with snake venom. Rabbeinu Tam then opines that, according to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, the prohibition of gevinas akum was never instituted in a place where snakes do not flourish.
However, most Rishonim rejected this reasoning, contending that the prohibition against gentile cheese exists even when none of the original reasons apply. They contend that the prohibition has a halachic status of davar she'beminyan, a rabbinic injunction that remains binding until a larger and more authoritative body declared the original injunction invalid, even when the reason the takkanah was introduced no longer applies. Since a more authoritative beis din never rescinded the prohibition on gentile cheese, it remains in effect even when none of the reasons apply (Rambam, Maachalos Asuros 3:4; Rashba, Toras HaBayis page 90b; Semag, Mitzvah 223; Tur, Yoreh Deah 115). Others even contended that Rabbeinu Tam himself never permitted gevinas akum, but that his comments were meant to be theoretical in nature and not a definitive ruling (Semag; Semak).
The Shulchan Aruch rules in accordance with the majority opinion that there is no halachic basis to permit use of gentile cheese. The Rama follows a moderately more lenient view, permitting use of gentile cheese in a place where one can ascertain that there was a long-established custom to permit it. Thus, today, no one would be able to use gentile cheese, with the possible exception of an Italian community that can prove that it has such a tradition going back at least eight hundred years.

How is kosher cheese made differently from non-kosher cheese?
Having established that almost universal opinion contends that the prohibition against gentile cheese is alive and well even when none of the concerns apply, we need to clarify how one makes cheese in a way that it is considered Jewish cheese, not gentile. Does the cow or the milk require immersion in a mikveh and acceptance of mitzvos to become Jewish?
To resolve this issue, we find a dispute between two major halachic authorities, the Rama (Yoreh Deah 215:2) and the Shach. The Rama contends that having a Jew observe the production of the cheese makes the cheese gevinas Yisrael, even though the milk and curding agents are all owned by a gentile, and gentiles perform all the steps in the cheese production. The Shach takes tremendous issue with this, contending that if a gentile owns the milk, the acid, the enzyme, and places the acid or enzyme into the milk, the resultant cheese is prohibited as gevinas akum, even if an observant Jew supervised the entire production! The Shach rallies support for his position from the wording of the Mishnah, which, when describing the prohibition against chalav akum, prohibits milk "milked by a gentile without a Jew watching," whereas in discussing gevinas akum, the Mishnah simply prohibits "the cheese of gentiles," omitting the proviso that a supervising Jew is sufficient to remove the prohibition. According to the Shach, the only whey (or did I mean "way") to avoid gevinas akum is to have a Jew place the curding agent into the milk, or to have the Jew own the milk or the cheese. In these instances, the cheese is now considered "Jewish" cheese, because it was either owned or manufactured by a Jew.

The Shabbos Problem
Those who followed the Shach's approach requiring the Jew either to make the cheese or to own it, occasionally ran into the following practical problem. In order to acquire kosher cheese, they would have a gentile make it for them and arrange that a Jew add the enzyme or acid to the milk. The gentiles were willing to accommodate Jewish needs if the price was right. If the gentile ordinarily used non-kosher rennet, the Jew would supply his own kosher rennet. However, what was one to do when the gentile decided that the best day to set the cheese was on Shabbos? The laws of Shabbos prohibit a Jew from adding a curdling agent to milk on Shabbos – and, according to the Shach, a Jew must put in the rennet to avoid a problem of gevinas akum. This entire problem does not exist according to the Rama -- the Jew can simply oversee what the non-Jew is doing. The Jew himself is performing no melacha, and the non-Jew does not have to keep Shabbos.
The Pri Chadash, who agrees with the Shach's analysis as to what makes a cheese "Jewish," discusses this issue, and concludes the following:
If the Jew orders a certain quantity of cheese, that is sufficient to permit the cheese as gevinas Yisrael. Since this cheese is being specifically made for the Jew, the Jew is considered the owner for this cheese as soon as it is manufactured, thus eliminating the prohibition of gevinas akum, even if the Jew did not participate in the manufacture.
The Pri Chadash also discusses another case: what is the law if the cheese is manufactured as a partnership between the Jew and the gentile? In this situation, must the Jew add the rennet to the milk to avoid a concern of gevinas akum? The Pri Chadash rules that lechatchilah the Jew should add the rennet to consider this cheese kosher, but be'dei'evid, if he did not do so, the cheese is permitted, since the Jew is a partial owner.
However, the question is: why does the Pri Chadash permit this only be'dei'evid? Logically, this cheese should not be included under the prohibition of gevinas akum, since there is partial Jewish ownership.
It seems that the Pri Chadash is concerned by the fact that part of the cheese is being made for the gentile – and that quantity of the cheese might be considered gevinas akum –whereas, when the Jew is purchasing outright a certain quantity of cheese, whatever is made for the Jew is automatically considered gevinas Yisrael and is permitted.

Another Approach
The Noda BeYehudah (II Orach Chayim #37) discusses a similar case where a Jew is "renting the schvag" of a non-Jew for the purpose of producing cheese. I do not know the meaning of the word "schvag," but from the context it seems that the gentile is being paid to use his own facility to produce cheese for the Jew. What should one do on Shabbos? – the same problem faced by the Pri Chadash. The Noda BeYehudah himself sides with the Rama, opining that as long as the Jew supervises the process, the cheese is kosher, mentioning that this is the accepted practice, and that several earlier luminaries ruled this way. In addition, the Noda BeYehudah demonstrates that the dispute between the Rama and the Shach originates much earlier as a machlokes Rishonim, where most Rishonim rule leniently, like the Rama, whereas the Maharam of Rottenberg held the same as the Shach, i.e., that gevinas akum applies unless the Jew is the owner or the manufacturer. However, the Noda BeYehudah contends that, when the Jew intends to purchase the cheese and supplies the rennet, there is no problem of gevinas akum, even according to the Maharam, since the Jew is already considered a partial owner of the cheese. The upshot is that the cheese is considered gevinas Yisrael even according to the Maharam's opinion that a Jew must be an owner or manufacturer, and yet there is no problem of the gentile making the cheese on Shabbos, since the gentile is doing it for himself. The Noda BeYehudah refers to the Pri Chadash (115:15) who permitted be'dei'evid cheese made where the Jew is a partner. The Noda BeYehudah says that this case is permitted lechatchilah.
Owning just the rennet
Is the Noda BeYehudah suggesting another approach that can be used to simplify the entire gevinas akum problem? Is he advising us that even the Shach, who holds that cheese is gevinas Yisrael only if the Jew owns the milk or makes the cheese, agrees that it would suffice if the Jew merely owned the rennet? Based on the Noda BeYehudah, the Orthodox Union (OU) once entertained the possibility of permitting gevinas Yisrael on the basis that the mashgiach would own the rennet.

However, they reached the following conclusion: "Not everyone agrees to the idea of the Jew owning the rennet. Rav Belsky feels that the type of scenario in which this is or would be done (having the mashgiach do a kinyan on the rennet) is not proper, as in order for this to work, the cheese must be made for the Jew, rather than the Jew technically having a kinyan in the rennet, with sale of the cheese to others. He says that this is what the Noda BeYehudah meant. Noda BeYehudah is discussing a case where the Jews rented the cheese plant (שוואגין) and planned on buying the finished cheeses. In that case, the Noda Be’Yehudah says that כבר יש להישראל חלק משהו בגבינות הללו and the cheese is permitted. So he’s saying only that owning the rennet suffices where that gives the Jew a partial ownership in the cheese, as a first step towards taking full possession. As such, Noda BeYehudah’s extension of Shach applies only in cases where the Jew now has a partial ownership and will later have a full ownership, and there’s no basis for extending it to cases such as ours, where the Jew really has no ownership and will eventually have even less.

"Both Rav Belsky and Rav Schachter accepted this argument that Nodah B’yehudah doesn’t apply in this case."

However, I know of responsible, knowledgeable rabbonim who permitted cheese based on this heter, usually adding other requirements. For example, in one instance the rav made a kinyan on the factory and all its vessels so that he would own the cheese as it was made. Another suggestion was that the rav remain a partial owner of the cheese as it was made, and that he then sell his share in the finished cheese, after its manufacture was complete, back to the company in exchange for his "hechsher fee."
Although we mentioned before that the Pri Chadash contended that being a partial owner in the cheese without putting in the rennet is only a heter be'dei'evid, the Noda BeYehudah disputes this, contending that this is a legitimate heter lechatchilah.

Specifically in the context of gevinas akum, the Gemara teaches that the rabbinic laws are dearer to Hashem than the Torah laws. We see how a vast halachic literature developed devoted to understanding the prohibitions of gevinas akum and chalav akum, created by Chazal to protect the Jewish people from major sins.

This Shiur is published also at Rabbi Kaganof's site
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