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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