The Great Cottage Cheese Controversy

Before Yom Tov, I sent out a basic article on the concept of kosher cheese. This week I am sending out a sequel to that article.

Question #1:

The whey it was.

Rav Schwartz* tells me that his Rosh Yeshiva, a world-renowned European-born gadol, held that one may eat cottage cheese that is not chalav Yisrael, even though one should otherwise always be careful to keep chalav Yisrael. He also held that there is no gevinas akum problem. What is the rationale for this?

Question #2:

Is this the whey to go?

If gevinas Yisrael requires either that a Jew supervise the entire production, or that he own the milk or cheese, how can hechsherim certify cottage cheese produced by a non-Jewish company without a mashgiach temidi?

Question #3:

No whey!

My friend Yaakov* often travels in places where there are no kosher products available, and he has amassed a list of items that he can eat and drink wherever he finds himself. He told me that someone once told him that when traveling he may eat cottage cheese without any hechsher. What is the rationale for this psak?

In other articles, I explained the basic halachic issues involved in the rabbinic prohibitions called chalav akum and gevinas akum. Chazal prohibited consuming milk that was not supervised by a Jew out of concern that it could have been adulterated with milk from a non-kosher species, a prohibition called chalav akum. (Henceforth, I will use the term “non-kosher milk” in this article to mean milk from non-kosher species, and “kosher milk” to mean milk from a kosher animal.) In an earlier article, I explained the dispute among halachic authorities whether this prohibition exists when there is strong basis to assume that no adulteration took place, milk that is colloquially often called “chalav stam,” and that Rav Moshe Feinstein referred to as “chalav companies.”

There is also a prohibition called gevinas akum, cheese from gentiles. According to some authorities (Rama, Yoreh Deah 115:2) this is obviated by having a Jew supervise the cheese making and, according to others (Shach ad loc.), only when a Jew adds the enzyme or acid that curds or “sets” the cheese, or alternatively, when a Jew owns the milk or the cheese. “Curdling” or “curding” means that some of the solid particles naturally suspended in the milk, predominantly the casein (cheese protein), precipitate out of the milk and clump together.

When a Jew does not supervise the cheese making and does not own or participate in the manufacture of the cheese, it is prohibited as gevinas akum.

Also remember from our previous article that many authorities contend that if the cheese is kosher, we are not concerned that it was made from unsupervised milk because of a principle chalav tamei eino omeid – non-kosher milk does not curd into cheese. This law applies not only to the cheese produced, but also to the whey byproduct of kosher cheese production (Shu’t Chasam Sofer, Yoreh Deah 79).

This is the whey we make our cheese

How is cottage cheese made? When cheese is made, the part of the milk that remains liquid and does not become cheese is the “whey,” whereas the part that solidifies is called “curd.” In earlier days, a forerunner of cottage cheese was made simply by allowing milk to curd naturally, which created a product called “curds and whey” (remember Little Miss Muffet?). Contemporary commercial cottage cheese is produced by adding an enzyme (also called rennet) to warm skim milk, allowing it to curd into its separate components, the curd and the whey. The curd is then removed from the whey and rinsed thoroughly to remove every trace of whey; after which a “cheese dressing” consisting of milk, some salt (unless it is sodium-free unsalted cottage cheese) and other minor ingredients (such as a preservative, and a stabilizer so that the cream and skim in the dressing does not separate) is added to the curd. If the cottage cheese is seasoned with fruit, chives or other garnish, these ingredients are also added to the dressing. The percentage of fat in the cottage cheese is determined by whether the milk in the dressing is made from pure skim milk, which means no fat, or has cream added.

There are three potential kashrus issues that can be involved.

  1. Is commercially produced cottage cheese prohibited because of gevinas akum if a Jew did not add the rennet and/or supervise the entire production?
  2. Must it be made from chalav Yisrael milk?
  3. Are the rennet and all other ingredients kosher? Although rennet is used in minuscule quantities, and a food containing less than one part in sixty of a non-kosher ingredient is usually kosher bedei’evid, after the fact, non-kosher rennet still poses a serious kashrus problem since this is what causes the cheese to form. This gives the rennet a halachic status called davar hamaamid, an ingredient that creates a physical change in the processed food, which is not nullified even in small percentages.

When there is a will, there is whey — a gevinas akum review

Is cottage cheese prohibited because of gevinas akum?

In a previous article, I noted that the Gemara mentions seven different potential concerns why Chazal instituted the prohibition of gevinas akum:

  1. The enzyme used to curd the cheese may be from the stomach of a calf slaughtered not according to halacha.
  2. The enzyme may be from the stomach of a calf that had been offered for idol worship (Avodah Zarah 29b).
  3. The milk used for the cheese may have been left in a place where snakes could poison it.

4.   The milk may have been adulterated with milk of a non-kosher species. Although milk from non-kosher species contains very little casein and thus cannot be made into cheese, some fluid that could contain non-kosher milk may remain in the cheese.

5. The surface of the cheese may be coated with lard.

6. Non-kosher vinegar may have been used to set the cheese.

7. Sap of an orlah fruit may have been used to set the cheese (Avodah Zarah 35).

As I mentioned in the previous article, the Rishonim dispute which of the above reasons we follow and what are the resultant halachic conclusions. For example, a minority opinion, referred to as the chachmei Narvona, permitted eating gentile cheese in places where they used vegetable rennet. However, the Shulchan Aruch rules like the majority opinion and prohibits this “vegetable rennet” cheese.

This is the whey we make our butter

Before analyzing whether cottage cheese is prohibited because of gevinas akum, we should research an old controversy concerning whether butter produced and owned by non-Jews is permitted for the kosher palate.

Let us first understand how butter is made:

Milk consists of many components: water, cream, proteins, natural sugars (lactose), and various other nutrients. Butter is made by first separating the cream from the rest of the milk, which happens on its own if the milk is not homogenized, and then churning the cream, which causes its fat globules to combine and solidify. The liquid left behind is called buttermilk (not to be confused with cultured buttermilk, a different product sold in the dairy case of your local supermarket, called by an almost identical name to confuse the innocent).

Is butter included in the prohibitions of gevinas akum or chalav akum?

A thousand years ago, Jewish communities grappled with the following question: “May one purchase butter from a gentile?” After all, both cheese and milk of a gentile are prohibited. Why should butter be any different?

Indeed many authorities and communities held this way. However, there were also authorities and communities who permitted chem’as akum – “gentile butter” (Rambam, Hilchos Maachalos Asuros 3:15). According to the Vilna Gaon (Yoreh Deah 115:17), these authorities conclude that gevinas akum is prohibited because of concern of the use of non-kosher rennets, a reason that does not apply to butter. After all, although butter is a processed dairy product, it does not use rennet to separate the butter from the buttermilk.

Those who prohibit butter as gevinas akum rule in accordance with the other reasons mentioned above to prohibit gevinas akum that do apply to butter. For example, if gevinas akum was prohibited because of concern that some milk residue may be left (reason #4 above), this reason applies equally to butter, because some milk residue does remain in the butter even after the buttermilk is removed.

But why is butter not prohibited because of chalav akum?

Those who permit gentile butter contend that just as non-kosher milk does not make cheese, it also does not make butter. Although the processes of making cheese and butter are completely dissimilar, and different components of milk are used for each, it is still true that it is difficult to make butter from non-kosher milk because of its low cream content. (See Shu’t Melamed LeHo’eil, Yoreh Deah #34, who provides a chart for the amount of dairy fat and casein found in the milk of various common farm animals, both kosher and non-kosher.) Thus, there were early authorities who permitted purchasing butter from gentiles, contending that it was exempt from both the prohibitions of gevinas akum and of chalav akum. The common practice was to follow the lenient approach.

Beware of “whey cream”!

Please note: In the contemporary world, butter should not be used without a reliable kosher certification. This is because of a host of potential kashrus concerns in today’s butter manufacture, the most common of which is the use of “whey cream,” the cream salvaged from cheese production, which is often prohibited because of gevinas akum absorption. Also note that a hechsher on butter does not mean that it is made from chalav Yisrael milk unless this is specified.

A wheyward flock?

In a landmark teshuvah on the subject, Rav Moshe Feinstein discusses the kashrus issues involved in the consumption of cottage cheese (Shu’t Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 2:48). It is important to understand the details and context of the responsum. In 1960, Rav Shimon Schwab, the late Rav of Khal Adath Jeshurun in Washington Heights, was aware that people were using cottage cheese without any hechsher whatsoever. He asked Rav Moshe a shaylah whether one should publicly announce that cottage cheese that has no hechsher is not kosher.

In answering the question, Rav Moshe discusses all three issues that we raised above:

(1) Is cottage cheese prohibited because of gevinas akum?

(2) Is cottage cheese prohibited because of chalav akum?

(3) Do we need to be concerned that the rennet used may not be kosher?

Rav Moshe first analyzes whether cottage cheese is prohibited as gevinas akum, and presents a line of reasoning that might permit it. He notes that although accepted halacha rules unlike the chachmei Narvona and that gevinas akum applies even when the cheese is set with kosher enzymes, it is possible that the prohibition does not apply to varieties of cheese that can be produced without any rennet at all. If one leaves the milk at the proper temperature, it will naturally curd to create the cheese part of cottage cheese. This would draw a distinction between cottage cheese (and similar products such as farmer’s cheese, cream cheese, and baker’s cheese) and so-called “hard cheeses” that require rennet to produce them.

Rav Moshe concludes that although one should not rely on this analysis to permit cottage cheese, one is also not required to rebuke those who consume this product.

But maybe the rennet isn’t kosher?

Subsequently, Rav Moshe discusses that the cheese should be prohibited because the rennet used may not be kosher. Although rennet is used in very small quantities, it should not be nullified in the finished product because it qualifies as a davar hamaamid. Rav Moshe notes, however, that since cottage cheese can be made without any supplementary enzyme, the rennet is added only to speed up the process. A davar hamaamid is the exclusive cause of the forming of the product; however, when natural means or a kosher enzyme is assisted by non-kosher rennet, the rennet can become bateil in the finished product. Therefore, even if the gentile company used non-kosher rennet, the resultant cheese is not prohibited.

Rav Moshe also discusses whether one may eat cottage cheese that is not made from chalav Yisrael, which he permits based on his analysis that chalav companies (his own term) is permitted. I refer the reader to my previous article on the topic of chalav akum for a further analysis of this dispute.

I would like at this point to quote the conclusion of Rav Moshe’s teshuvah:

As a final decision, I do not say that this is permitted, but I also do not rebuke those who are lenient since there is a reason to permit it and the prohibition is rabbinic… as a result, I see no requirement… to prohibit those who are not asking, and even moreso since there is the possibility that they will not listen… which allows for the additional reason that it is better to violate negligently than intentionally. However, one certainly should not publicize that there is a basis to be lenient.”

Thus, Rav Moshe concludes that his reasoning excluding cottage cheese from the prohibition of gevinas akum is not clearcut and should not be relied upon. This allows us to make an interesting comparison between Rav Moshe’s psak and that of the other gadol I referred to in our original question:

Rav Schwartz tells me that his Rosh Yeshiva, a world-renowned European-born gadol, held that one may eat cottage cheese that is not chalav Yisrael, even though one should otherwise always be careful to keep chalav Yisrael. He also held that there is no gevinas akum problem. What is the rationale for this?

I have two observations based on this anecdote quoting this esteemed gadol, whom I knew personally. The first is that this gadol disputed with Rav Moshe on a halachic issue. Whereas Rav Moshe contended that one should not rely lechatchilah that cottage cheese and other “soft” cheeses are not prohibited as gevinas akum, this other gadol apparently held that one may lechatchilah rely on this heter.

Is this the wrong whey?

My second observation is that I believe this gadol was unaware of a technical fact. It appears that he assumed that the liquid part of cottage cheese is the whey byproduct of the cheese manufacture, precisely what Little Miss Muffet ate. It may be that where this gadol grew up this was a commonly produced or purchased food, and indeed this food would have no problem of chalav akum. However, contemporary cottage cheese is made by adding milk to the cheese curd. Although the heter of “chalav companies” that Rav Moshe accepts applies here, this particular gadol did not rely on this heter, but held like the Chasam Sofer that one may not use milk that a Jew did not supervise. Nevertheless, this gadol permitted whey from unsupervised milk that was a byproduct of kosher cheese production because he felt that the same heter that permits cheese from non-supervised milk, should apply to the whey, its byproduct.  Note that I mentioned before that the Chasam Sofer ruled this way. (or is it “whey”?)

Perhaps this gadol had some other reason why he felt that the “dressing” added is not a chalav akum concern.

By the whey

Many years ago, a prominent rav living in a community where chalav Yisrael milk was available but just making inroads, was faced by a dilemma. People in his community were using non-chalav Yisrael, non-gevinas Yisrael cottage cheese, which Rav Moshe rules that lechatchilah one should not use, yet the market for fully chalav Yisrael/gevinas Yisrael cottage cheese did not yet exist. He arranged that a mashgiach add the rennet to non-chalav Yisrael milk to produce a batch of cheese curd from supervised kosher ingredients. The curd produced this way is gevinas Yisrael. The rav arranged that the milk added as “cheese dressing” to the gevinas Yisrael curd be chalav Yisrael, so that the resultant product was certainly kosher, gevinas Yisrael and containing chalav Yisrael, although its gevinas Yisrael was not made from chalav Yisrael.

At this point, I would like to address the second question I asked above:

“If gevinas Yisrael requires either that a Jew supervise the entire production, or that he own the milk or cheese, how can hechsherim supervise cottage cheese produced by a non-Jewish company without a mashgiach temidi?”

According to Rav Moshe’s teshuvah, the above-mentioned product should not be used lechatchilah, so how can someone provide it with a hechsher? The answer is that they feel that there was an old minhag, going back to Europe, to permit soft cheeses that were not gevinas Yisrael. Although Rav Moshe clearly was unaware of such a minhag (otherwise he certainly would have mentioned it), it seems that the other gadol I mentioned above, who was raised in Poland, was familiar with such a minhag.

We can now address the last question raised above:

Yaakov often travels in places where there are no kosher products available, and he has amassed a list of items that he can eat anywhere. Someone once told him that when traveling he may eat cottage cheese without any hechsher. What is the rationale for this psak? The answer is that the person who permitted him felt that when traveling he could rely on the minhag that “soft” cheese is not considered gevinas akum. We should realize that Rav Moshe rules that this product should not be used, and, furthermore, even those who permit this cottage cheese do so only in a place where the leniency to use “chalav companies” applies.

Conclusion

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.

*All names in this article have been changed.

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