It is a Jewish custom to partake of cheese during the festival of Chanukah.1 This is to commemorate the Jewish heroine, Yehudis, who during the Syrian-Greek occupation of Eretz Yisroel plied a highly ranked enemy officer with rich cheese and wine and during the tyrant’s drunken stupor, she decapitated this hapless official. After losing their leader, the enemy troops fled in panic.2
Cheese is a very historical food, found on Egyptian tomb murals and depicted in ancient cave etchings. Despite its ancient heritage, it is interesting to note that cheese is only mentioned three times in all of Tanach – twice regarding Dovid HaMelech3, and only once using its common name, gevinah, in Iyov (Job)4.
Cheese, however, is the subject of much rabbinic discussion. Following a rabbinic edict, Chazal forbade the consumption of cheese produced by a Gentile.5 There are several concerns that prompted the rabbis to forbid this, including the suspicion that the cheese might be smeared with non-kosher fats or that non-kosher milk was used in making the cheese. However, the accepted reason is because non-kosher rennet (more on this later) was utilized by Gentiles to produce cheese.
This ban was even extended as an across the board prohibition to Gentile-produced cheese utilizing herbs and flowers.6 Rabbinic bans such as this can only be overturned if a later body of rabbis best the earlier group in scholarship and number. Unfortunately, as Torah knowledge weakens with every generation, overturning this prohibition is next to impossible even as circumstances change and it is no longer common to utilize non-kosher additives to produce cheese.7 Even if one relies on the leniency of consuming non-Cholov Yisroel milk, there are no loopholes for Gentile cheese.8
The rabbinic ban on Gentile cheese is not as far reaching as it originally appears. One first must decide on the definition of cheese prohibited by the ban.
The History of Cheese
Popular lore has it that cheese was discovered early in human history by a traveler who fashioned a saddlebag from the lining of a calf stomach which he filled with milk for his journey. Arriving at his destination, he discovered that the bag was instead filled with a lumpy, white foodstuff. He had no idea that the enzymes in the lining, plus the agitation during travel, caused the milk to convert to cheese. This is because milk is actually a delicately balanced emulsion, which is a water solution with tiny globules of protein, fat, minerals and lactose, suspended within by different chemical bonds. The enzymes in a calf’s stomach help it digest its mother’s milk by breaking down the milk into different components.
When calf rennet is introduced to milk it becomes prone to spoilage, as different airborne bacteria will quickly begin to produce acidic byproducts. One way to avoid spoilage is to introduce desired bacteria before the rennet is added to begin the milk breakdown, or by curdling (adding salt to the curds or soaking the cheese blocks in brine), which will then crowd out any harmful bacteria that can take hold. Sometimes an acid such as vinegar is used to curdle milk as well. The rennet mostly serves as a coagulator, which causes the curd (the proteins in the cheese) to clump together trapping desired fats in those particles. The resulting liquid, or whey, byproduct is a common dairy bakery ingredient.
As an aside, while Gentile cheese is not kosher, the whey resulting from the curdling can in fact be kosher, provided that the cheese is produced at an acceptably low temperature as not to affect the kosher status of the whey. The cheese industry has even switched to starter cultures that prefer lower temperature so that the whey can be used in kosher products.
Some cheeses, such as ricotta, cream cheese9, and farmer cheese only contain vinegar or starter cultures and as such were never included in the rabbinic ban since the concern was a rennet based coagulation which these cheeses do not possess. Cottage cheese, which does contain rennet, is also not covered by the ban according to accepted sources, since the function of the rennet is only to speed up the curdling and not because of the coagulation attributes.10 Today, cheeses originally produced with calf rennet are now largely produced with microbial enzymes, which serve the same purpose, but of course they are still subject to the rabbinic ban on Gentile cheese.
An apparent question that might occur to the reader is, “Why isn’t kosher calf rennet prohibited since it results in a mixture of milk and meat, which is a Biblical prohibition?” While some authorities go about tackling this issue by insisting the rennet to be completely dried out as to render it no longer meat11, many authorities frown on this solution12. In fact, before the introduction of microbial rennet, the only acceptable method of producing cheese, aside from herbs, was to use partly digested milk found in the stomach of a calf after being properly slaughtered.13 As the timing of the slaughter must have had to be soon after the calf had eaten and this substitute rennet was prone to spoilage. It is fortunate that today modern kosher cheese is produced with microbial rennet, which presents no kashrus issues.
or those who are not intimately familiar with the cheese production process, it is hard to appreciate how much effort is required to produce kosher cheese. As many kashrus authorities require that a Jewish person actually add the rennet to milk (as opposed to a Jew merely observing a Gentile add rennet to ensure Cholov Yisroel)14, a mashgiach must be at the cheese facility around the clock. Cheese factories operate almost 24 hours per day, because 10 pounds of milk (one gallon of milk weighs about 8.6 lb – the industry standard weight) is required to produce just one pound of cheese! A new batch of cheese is produced approximately every hour and the mashgiach is called upon to add the rennet with every new batch.15 Rabbonim take this position because the rabbinic ban is all encompassing. Even if you know that only kosher rennet is used, it might seem that a Jew watching the process is enough to satisfy the ban against Gentile cheese, but only action by a Jew (i.e. adding the rennet) will suffice. It stands to reason that he does not get more than one hour of sleep at any given time. In fact, since these facilities are often located in farm country, a drive of several hours from the nearest Jewish community, the mashgiach must live on the grounds of the plant, usually in a trailer, for weeklong shifts. Many cheese facilities even operate on Shabbos and Yom Tov, so for these times we rely on poskim who do not require the mashgiach to actually add the rennet himself.16
Try to imagine that the mashgiach must somehow find time for davening, preparing and eating meals, personal hygiene, laundry, etc. during these less than one-hour breaks. He also has to monitor the ingredients, labels, etc. If the plant also produces non-kosher cheese, the mashgiach needs to monitor the packing, slicing, salting, and sampling of every cheese product to ensure that no kosher cheese comes into contact with non-kosher cheese or non-kosher equipment. In addition, the mashgiach has to be courteous and professional to all of the employees at the facility, despite his requirement to be almost superhuman, juggling so many responsibilities.
Some cheese plants have a computerized system that adds the rennet to cheese batches. A mashgiach assigned to such a facility naturally has an easier workload, as he can program the computer system in the morning to add the rennet at proper intervals and in the proper amounts to avoid plant employees supplementing the rennet being added by the computer.
Producing Cholov Yisroel cheese provides an additional challenge. First, the equipment in the plant must be cleaned and kashered correctly to the desired temperature. Then, in addition to procuring Cholov Yisroel milk for the cheese production, the starting cultures themselves must have been grown on a Cholov Yisroel media. These cultures can be obtained by growing four subsequent generations of cultures that were originally produced on non-Cholov Yisroel media.17 As these cultures are acquired from culture libraries supplying specialized blends of microbes designed to impart specific traits in the cheese, producing Cholov Yisroel (and kosher for Passover) versions also require a mashgiach present during culture production. The silver lining to this is that Cholov Yisroel cheese production is more accommodating to the mashgiach in terms of Shabbos and Yom Tov.
A second aspect of cheese is the requirement to wait six hours after ingesting certain cheeses before eating meat, while most dairy products require a much shorter wait.18
Cheese that has been aged six months or become wormy (incidentally, as long as these worms never left the cheese, they may be consumed)19, according to many authorities, are treated the same as waiting from meat to dairy.20 Fortunately, most kosher cheeses are not aged that long.
Before the existence of microbes was discovered, producing cheese was an act of constant trial and error, largely depending on atmospheric conditions to cure the cheese, which required long periods of time. Today, with our advanced understanding of microbiology, we are able to collate the precise desired microbes and add them, thus cutting down on the time required to process cheese.
For instance, Muenster cheese is not aged at all, since aging adds sharpness to cheese and a mild cheese would be detrimentally affected. Even Swiss cheese, which requires some aging to form the “eyes” (holes in the cheese) is not aged longer than four months, since prolonged aging dries out cheese causing cheese blocks to crack. However, many sharp cheddars and Parmesan cheeses are aged six months or longer. Regarding Parmesan, there are those who drop the six-hour rule if the cheese has been cooked or baked, so Parmesan on a salad would require a six-hour wait, while Eggplant Parmesan would not.21
While we don’t know exactly which cheese Yehudis supplied to the Greek general, consuming any sort of cheese satisfies this Chanukah custom (though I don’t think sour cream on latkes passes muster). This Chanukah, may we merit revealed miracles and celebrate salvation in our times.
1. Shulchan Oruch, Orach Chaim 670, Siman Beis, Rama.
2. Mishna Bruriah, sham, ois 10.
3. Shmuel I, 17:18 and Shmuel II, 17:29.
4. Iyov, 10:10.
5. Masechtas Avodah Zara 77, Daf 29b.
6. Shulchan Oruch, Yoreh Deah 115:2.
7. Beis Yosef on Tur, Yoreh Deah 115.
8. Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah, Siman 38..
9. Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah, Siman 50.
10. Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 2, Siman 48.
11. Shulchan Oruch, Yoreh Deah, Siman 87, Rama sif 12.
12. Shach ois 33.
13. Shulchan Oruch, Yoreh Deah, Siman 87, Rama sif 10.
14. Shulchan Oruch, Yoreh Deah, Siman 115:1.
15. Shach, ois 20.
16. Shulchan Oruch, Yoreh Deah, Siman 115:1.
17. Shulchan Oruch HaRav, Orach Chaim, Siman 132:10.
18. Shulchan Oruch, Yoreh Deah, Siman 89:2.
19. Shulchan Oruch, Yoreh Deah, Siman 84, Rama.
20. Shulchan Oruch, Yoreh Deah, Siman 89, Taz, ois 4.
21. Yad Yehudah, Hilchos Basar V’Chalav, Siman 89:30.