A Question of Jewish Law

September 21, 2010

Vegetarian Cheese

Filed under: Kashrut — chaimweiner @ 6:20 pm

Question: Is vegetarian cheese kosher?

Answer: The Mishnah in tractate Avodah Zara [2:4] lists a number of foods that must be made by Jewish people. Cheese is on this list. The Talmud does not explain why cheese needs to be produced by Jews. It is usually understood that the production of cheese is particularly susceptible to inadvertent mixing with non-kosher ingredients. This is the reason given by Maimonides [MT Forbidden Foods 3:13]. The demand that cheese be produced by Jews is to guarantee that the cheese has remained kosher.

Cheese is made by the curdling of milk fats. Specific enzymes are used to promote the curdling process. Different cheeses are made by using different enzymes. The most common enzyme used is rennet, which is found naturally in an animal’s stomach. Since cheese was historically made by setting the milk to curdle in the stomachs of non-kosher animals, the Rabbis decreed that we should only use cheese made by Jews.

Animal rennet is not used in the making of vegetarian cheese. The Tosephot [BT Avodah Zara 35a Hada] report that many places permitted ‘non-Jewish’ cheeses because they were made with flowers. They also record that the sages of Narbonne permitted cheese that was produced by non-Jews in their area because they used plant based enzymes. This would suggest that vegetarian cheese should be permitted, and is the reason some people choose to eat unsupervised vegetarian cheese.

However, both Maimonides [ibid] and Joseph Karo [Shulchan Aruch YD 115:2] rule that all cheeses need to be produced by Jews.  Why is vegetarian cheese included in a ban on cheese made in animal stomachs? There is a Talmudic principle called ‘Lo Plug’, which literally means – ‘do not differentiate’. This principle states that when establishing a law, the Rabbis prefer broad, readily recognised  categories over many specific rules, This is less confusing. Following this principle, the halacha prefers a rule that all cheese needs to be produced by Jews – rather than separate rules for different types of cheese.

Civil law adopts the same principle. For example, the Highway Code sets the speed limit in built up areas as 30 mph. Theoretically, it could have decided that on sunny days the speed limit is 35 but in the fog it is 25; that younger drivers with quick reflexes can drive at 40, whereas older drivers can only drive at 20. A law like this would be confusing and hard to enforce. Legal systems prefer to keep it simple. And once a rabbinic decree has been introduced, it generally remains law even when circumstances change.

There may be an exception for white curd cheeses, such as cottage cheese, which are not made with rennet at all. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein [USA, 20th century] [Iggrot Moshe, YD 1:49] suggests that as they are not made with rennet, these cheeses may not be considered ‘cheese’ from a Halachic point of view, and therefore may not be included in the general ban against cheese made by non-Jews.

Most Kashrut authorities rule that all cheeses, including vegetarian cheese, require supervision. Some allow white curd cheeses without supervision.

Based on Moshe Feinstein, Iggrot Moshe, Yoreh De’ah 2:48


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6 Comments »

  1. Dear Chaim,

    You may recall from last year’s Kollel that one of the things which I had (and still have) great difficulties understanding is the halachic decision-making process or, perhaps more accurately, its evolution. For example, after many weeks of discussion, I never really understood how a universal consensus was reached that, to contribute to a minyan, a male had to be of age 13 years and 1 day. This is despite the fact both the Gemara and several Rishonim argued that a “katan pore’ach” was qualified to be the tenth member.

    I raise this now having just read your blog on vegetarian cheese, which I had also seen last year. As a vegetarian myself, and a regular consumer of unsupervised vegetarian cheeses, I am trying to come to terms with the logic of the argument you quoted. (By the way, I can understand the logic of “Lo Plug”, but find that declaring cottage cheese a halachic “non-cheese” goes directly against that principle. What about other “fresh” cheeses such as Spanish/Portuguese queso/queijo fresco, Indian paneer, Italian ricotta, all of which are made without any rennet at all? Are these also “non-cheeses”? And how is the general public supposed to differentiate between various fresh and fermented cheeses?).

    Anyhow, I wish to return to my main question about the evolution of the halachic decision-making process. Currently, the majority of fermented British cheeses found in supermarkets today are made with vegetarian rennet (this is not the case for continental or speciality cheeses, though). At what point would a Bet Din want to reconsider the halachic ruling on non-supervised vegetarian cheeses? What if all British cheese were to be made with vegetarian rennet? Or, to take an extreme (but not far-fetched) hypothetical situation, what if the European Union were to prohibit the marketing of cheeses made with animal rennet (perhaps for reasons of health or animal welfare)? Would that be enough to prompt a Bet Din to consider that, perhaps, the original halachic prohibition was no longer relevant? Or is it the case that “once halachah, always halachah”?

    As you can see, my question goes beyond the issue of vegetarian cheese; it is only that issue which reminded me that I had been confused about this since our discussions of “katan pore’ach”.

    I’d be grateful for any clarification you could provide and I look forward to seeing you in Kollel next month.

    Best regards and Chag Sameach,

    Lester

    Comment by lester kershenbaum — September 26, 2010 @ 9:24 pm | Reply

    • Dear Lester,

      Thank you for your insightful question, which goes to the heart of the Halachic process. I will try to summarise my understanding of how halacha works in a concise a manner.

      1) The halachic system is based on 2 axioms.

       Two Torahs were given to Moses on Sinai. Together with the written Torah there was an Oral Law which explained how the rules of the Torah were to be practiced in real life. The Oral Law was first transmitted orally, and then grew and developed organically over hundreds of years as the sages of Israel debated and discussed issues and made decisions on a multitude of problems. It was eventually written down an various forms including the Halachic Midrashim and various individual and collections of Braitot. The most important statement of the Oral law was the Mishnah.

       The Mishnah (and the other collections of the Oral Law) are mainly made up of cases. The Halachic system assumes that there is such a thing as Jewish Law in the abstract sense – i.e a set of principles of which are manifest in the cases brought in the Oral Torah. There is an assumption that there is harmony amongst the various sources of the Oral Law – that the same principles underpin the various teachings of the Rabbis.

      2) To a large extent the subject matter of ‘Talmud Torah’, from the time of the editing of the Mishnah onwards, is the attempt to uncover the underlying principles of the jurisprudence. This is done by closely analysing the cases brought in the various sources of the Oral Torah and by comparing different cases to each other. It is not unusual for cases to appear to contradict each other. Because of axiom 2 quoted above, it is assumed that the cases do not actually contradict, but rather, by identifying the different sets of circumstances they are referring to, a better understanding of the underlying principles can be reached.

      3) The work of defining the principles of the Oral law is the main concern of the Talmud. The Talmud analyses the cases brought in the Mishnah, and compares them to other traditions. It also brings other traditions, cases and Halachic rulings of the Amoraim, and as such is a core text of Halachic authority in and of itself. The Babylonian Talmud is the primary text of the Halachic tradition.

      4) Although the Talmud initiates the work of identifying the principles of Jewish Law, this endeavour reached a more sophisticated level at the time of the Rishonim. These Rabbis carefully analysed the entire body of Rabbinic teaching that was known to them, particularly the Babylonian Talmud, with the express goal of identifying underlying principles. The Rishonim turned the Talmud into a comprehensive system of law. They did this by proposing a series of principles through their commentaries, which were regularly reviewed by both their peers and subsequent generations of Rabbinic scholars. This literature serves as the foundation of Jewish legal discourse to this day.

      5) By the end of the period of the Rishonim, the main work of analysing the Talmud had reached a very advanced stage. However, as the sources of halacha are cases rather then principles, the suggested principles are never more than hypotheses – i.e the best explanation for the cases that has been suggested at a given time. There are frequently disagreements among the Rishonim about what the principles are – or how they are applied in different cases. The main work of the Achronim is to bring the different opinions of the Rishonim together, and to determine which of these opinions is the actual law. The difference between a Rishon and an Acharon can be demonstrated by contrasting Maimonides’ (a Rishon) code of law, the Mishnah Torah, to Joseph Caro’s (an Acharon) code of Law – the Shulchan Aruch. In the Mishnah Torah, Maimonides goes through the corpus of Jewish Law and in each case records he own opinion as to what the law should be. In theShulchan Aruch [and more extensively in the Bet Yoseph], Joseph Caro compares the rulings several Rishonim to each other, and through applying various decision making criteria, determines which opinion we should follow. This is the typical work of the Achronim.

      6) It is possible to demonstrate the different stages of the halachic process in my post about vegetarian cheese. The statement in the Mishnah that cheese needs to be produced by Jews is a primary statement of the Oral Law. The interpretation that the reason for this is rennet, put forward by Maimonides, is a hypothesis of a Rishon. The ruling of the sages of Narbonne that the cheese in their area did not need to be produced by Jews because it was made with flowers is a further hypothesis. In principle, the theories of the Rishonim that explain the primary sources and have passed the peer review of the Rabbis, are all potentially acceptable rulings of Jewish Law.

      The statement that both Maimonides and Joseph Caro required cheeses to be made by Jews, and did not codify the ruling of the sages of Narbonne in their codes, and that therefore we rule that cheese needs to be made by Jews – is a typical decision making principle of the of the Achronim. In the post on ‘Heating and Reheating’ – I presented different opinions of the Rishonim on heating liquids. I followed this with the statement that ‘Whenever there is a difference of opinion among the main halachic authorities concerning a Torah Law (as in this case) the stricter view is adopted.’ Once again – this is a decision making principle of the Achronim – and explains how we move from the analysis of principles of the Rishonim – to the rulings of Jewish law we follow today.

      7) There is another stage to the development of Jewish law – which hasn’t been reflected so far in this analysis. At the end of the day, there are frequently multiple rulings and Halachic possibilities available. The process through which a consensus is reached about Halachic process is a social process which depends of he community (or communities) of observant Jews. Some rulings ‘capture the imagination’ of religious observers – and end up becoming accepted practice. Others fall into oblivion.

      An actual Possek, making a Halachic decision takes many factors into consideration. In addition to the actual letter of the law – the current situation, the motivations of people, the needs of different players and of the wider community and the Jewish people in general are all important. This wider view is called ‘Da’at Torah’. Furthermore, once a Posek gives a decision, the community may accept or reject it. Many different factors influence this – the status and reputation of the Posek, the history of the community, internal politics and the sense of the religious community that the Pesak feels right. Various possible rulings compete within the observant community for acceptance, and a consensus only emerges over time.

      There are many examples of this: early decisions on the use of electricity on Shabbat were lenient, and only over time was a consensus emerged that electricity is to be treated as fire. There are many different rulings on the kosher status of gelatine – a matter which is still evolving today.

      Furthermore, sometimes an agreed consensus changes. The Chacham Tzvi ruled that visitors to Israel should only keep one day of Yom Tov. For many decades the consensus was that visitor should keep 2 days – but recently, one hears an increasing number of people quote the Hacham Tzvi. The establishment of the state of Israel, the growing tourist industry, the fact that many religious Jews visit Israel regularly and spend significant periods of time there, are all contributing to a new consensus.

      8) Finally, there is always a certain amount of personal judgement that goes into any decision. The principle of ‘Lo Palug’ is never absolute. We are always making distinctions – between man and women, between Jews and non-Jews – between the holy and the profane. ‘Lo Palug’ says that we don’t make distinctions that are so fine that the law becomes unintelligible or confusing. This is a subjective decision. The Poskim who say that all cheeses need a hechsher – whether they contain rennet or not – fell that you can’t objectively distinguish between those cheeses that use rennet and those that don’t. The Rabbis who make this distinction feel that adding rennet or not is a very clear criterion – and isn’t confusing. If you allow the soft cheeses without a hechsher – it applies to all cheeses made without rennet – not only cottage or curd cheeses

      9) Halachic decision making is complicated. It is more an art than a science. It is based on both law and life. One studying halacha needs a strong legal and textual grounding. One studying about halacha, needs in addition an understanding of sociology and evolutionary processes.

      Rabbi Chaim Weiner
      Tishre, 5771

      Comment by chaimweiner — September 28, 2010 @ 1:37 pm | Reply

      • Dear Chaim,

        Many thanks for the explanation; it clarifies the issue and confirms that halachic decision-making can be dynamic rather than static.

        Returning to the issue of vegetarian cheese, I must add that I find the Poskim who say that all cheeses need a hechsher to be rather more consistent than those Rabbis who do not require a hechsher for soft/fresh cheeses such as cottage cheese which are made without any rennet at all. This is because, unlike cheese with vegetarian rennet which are clearly labelled to that effect, it is not at all obvious to the general public which cheeses do not contain any rennet at all (this rarely appears on the label!!). So, how is the general public to know that Spanish queso fresco and Indian paneer contain no rennet, soft Welsh goat’s cheese does contain (usually vegetarian) rennet and Italian ricotta can go either way?
        Chag Sameach,
        Lester

        Comment by lester kershenbaum — September 29, 2010 @ 1:33 pm

    • Lester,

      The position that all cheese needs to be supervised is more consistent – which is probably the reason that this because the widely accepted position.

      It is interesting to look at M. Feinstein’s response, which dealt specifically with Cottage Cheese. First he puts forward the argument that it can be permitted because it doesn’t use rennet – the main reason that cheeses need to supervised is that non-kosher animal rennet is used in the production and here there is no rennet. He goes on to say that there are some companies that do use rennet in the production of cottage cheese – but even then it is permitted. In this case, the rennet isn’t a necessary part of the production and therefore any rennet that has been added is annulled because the proportions of the rennet are less than 1:60. However, when the rennet is necessary to make the cheese – it is not annulled because it is ‘davar Hama’amid’ – i.e. they essential ingredient that makes that cheese. Therefore – one doesn’t need to know how the cheese is actually produced – just how it is normally produced. Obviously7, if one doesn’t know their cheeses – they could not rely on this, but that would be true in any area of Kashrut.

      Although he puts forward these arguments – in practice he recommended eating Kosher cheese.

      Chaim

      Comment by chaimweiner — October 5, 2010 @ 11:15 am | Reply

  2. So basically, despite the ruling not to eat vegetarian cheese without a hechsher, it is safe to eat.? it is not traif? As a strict vegetarian I would not eat kosher cheese if it has added rennet. Even if we are told it is nullified.

    Comment by Myrna Richmond — October 24, 2011 @ 2:17 pm | Reply

    • If you follow the ruling of the Tosephot or Sages of Narbonne (see above) then it is kosher. That is also the positoin of the Conservative (Masorti) movement. However, this isn’t the normative halacha is followed by most observant Jews today – and you should keep this in mind if you invite other observant people into your home. In any case, a vegetarian cheese is preferable to a regular non-kosher cheese.

      Comment by chaimweiner — October 24, 2011 @ 4:40 pm | Reply


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