Is Genuine Kosher Cheese an Oxymoron? Using Beef Rennet to Make Kosher Cheese

Can kosher cheese be made using rennet, an ingredient that comes from meat?

Parmigiano Reggiano is sometimes called the king of cheeses. Its unique flavor make it an essential part of many authentic Italian dishes. Any cheese sold with that name must legally made in the Parma region of Italy. (The name “Parmigiano” means “of Parma.”) A different spelling, “Parmesan,” can refer to a cheese that is of a similar style, even if it is not from Parma and does not follow the exact standards of Parmigiano. Those can be manufactured anywhere, which can significantly reduce the cost of production and importation. There are several kosher Parmesan cheeses. Some of them can be very tasty, but, as might be expected, they are not originals from Parma.

A new Parmigiano Reggiano, the true cheese from Italy, was introduced to the kosher market several years ago. This special, authentic Parmigiano Reggiano was made under kosher supervision by the Bertinelli company of Italy. In March of 2015, the company announced that its unique cheese was going to be supervised by both the OU and the OK. Within a few months, the OU then declined to certify it, and the OK proceeded, as described here. Bertinelli Parmagiano Reggiano is currently available in kosher stores with OK supervision.

A similar bifurcation exists in Israeli kashrus supervision. To the best of my knowledge, only two independent organizations in Israel supervise cheeses of the same genre. A package of cheese caught my eye as was shopping in one of the stores in my neighborhood. It was Grana Padano, imported from Italy, with the supervision of the Badatz Beit Yosef. Grana Padano is a quality cheese, similar to Parmigiana, and can be a tasty addition to pasta recipes. I noticed several similar cheeses, imported from Italy or Switzerland, with the supervision of Chug Chasam Sofer Bnei Brak.

Beef Rennet

The question regarding supervising these cheeses centers around a single ingredient, rennet. Rennet is an integral part of cheesemaking. It is the enzyme that makes cheese coagulate into cheese instead of becoming just spoiled milk. A tiny bit of rennet is enough to turn an entire vat of milk into cheese.

Traditionally, rennet is a meat product. It comes from the lining of the stomach of ruminants (animals that chew their cud). Yet, there are also non-animal sources of rennet. That is the type of rennet most commonly used in kosher cheese production. Those are labeled on standard kosher cheeses as “kosher rennet” or “vegetarian rennet.” Specialty cheeses such as Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano are protected trademarks. The names can only be used if they closely follow a list of required ingredients, including animal rennet. How can these cheeses possibly be kosher when they are made with meat sourced rennet? (Even if contemporary rennet is extracted from meat and processed before being used, Halacha focuses on its source and would still consider it as meat.)

What could be behind these different opinions? May one really use this cheese to make an unforgettable fettuccine alfredo? The answer starts off with a discussion in the Mishna and Gemara regarding cheesemaking, turns into a machlokes rishonim, is followed by a definitive ruling of the Shulchan Aruch, added to by two Teshuvos from the Acharonim, and ends up in the dispute between these contemporary Kashrus certifying organizations.

Bitul B’shishim and Davar Hamaamid

The background for this discussion uses one of the kosher kitchen’s most important rules – bitul b’shishim. It is well known that if milk falls into a pot of meat (or vice versa) it is usually permissible if the ratio is less than 1:60. The same holds if a bit of nonkosher falls in. The rationale is that such a miniscule amount does not impart its taste into the pot, so it is not noticeable. Halacha then considers it as if that little bit of food disappears.

There is a very important exception to this called davar hamaamid. Since the rationale behind bitul is that it is not noticed, it follows that if the small amount of food (milk, meat, or nonkosher) impacts the whole mixture, it is not batel. It follows logically. Bitul can only be said if the food disappears. But if the small drop has a powerful effect, then how can we say it is like its absent? To the contrary, its presence is very much noticed!

Davar Hamaamid and Cheese

The paradigm of davar hamaamid is the small amount of rennet used to make cheese. That is the primary source for the Gemara’s introduction of davar hamaamid. The Mishna (Avoda Zara 29) relates that cheese produced by a non-Jew is rabbinically prohibited. Shmuel (ibid. 35a) explains the reason. The rabbis were concerned that unsupervised cheese was made using rennet from a nonkosher animal. The Gemara (ibid, earlier on the daf) explains that since rennet creates the entire character of cheese, it is not nullified. Even a small amount of nonkosher rennet makes all the cheese it impacts nonkosher. The reason we cannot buy cheese today without kosher supervision is that Chazal were concerned that the cheesemakers used nonkosher rennet. (This is a rabbinic enactment and doesn’t change if animal rennet becomes less prevalent). 

Can Kosher Cheese Be Made With Beef Rennet?

The Rishonim are perplexed. If davar hamaamid negates bitul, then it seems a small amount of kosher meat rennet cannot be used to make cheese either. Since it is the catalyst for the milk to become cheese, it should be a davar hamamamid and should not be batel?

Yet, the Mishna (Chullin 116a) seems to permit cheese made from kosher meat rennet. It states that cheese made using stomach meat of a properly slaughtered kosher animal is still nonkosher if one can detect the flavor of meat in the cheese. The Rishonim (Rashba ibid. and Ran ibid. quoted in Beis Yosef at the end of Yoreh Deah 87) highlight two important implications from this Mishna:

  1. If one cannot detect the flavor of kosher meat in the cheese, the cheese is permissible. That means that if a small amount of meat rennet is used to make the cheese, the cheese is kosher. 
  2. It is only acceptable if one used kosher meat. If one were to use nonkosher meat rennet, the cheese is not kosher, even if only a small amount of rennet is used. The dispensation is only true if the rennet is sourced from kosher meat. 

The second statement, that nonkosher rennet results in nonkosher cheese, fits with the ruling of davar hamaamid. Rennet is not batel. But the Rishonim are perplexed why kosher sourced rennet is different. If a bit of meat falls into a vat of milk, it is batel. But if it is rennet, it is the maamid and defines the cheese, so it should not be batel?

The Revolution of the Ri MiGash

The Rishonim answer with a concept introduced by the Ri MiGash (who lived in the 11th century, in Megilas Sesarim printed in Likutim to Rambam Frankel ed. Hilchos Maachalos Asuros Chap. 3, and subsequently in Ran and other Rishonim). Davar Hamaamid only applies by something which is already nonkosher, like treif meat. When meat that is already treif gets mixed into something, the rule of davar hamaamid means that it is not batel. In contrast, milk and meat are each permissible substances. They only become prohibited if they mix and give flavor to each other. If milk and meat are in the same area but can’t exchange flavor, then basar b’chalav is not created. Even though davar hamaamid ascertains that the rennet is not considered as if it disappeared, it is still not in a potent enough ratio to create basar b’chalav. It is as if the cheese has bit of tasteless meat floating around in it. That meat is not batel, but still halachically irrelevant. It can’t create the prohibited basar b’chalav mixture. (Since it has no taste, it is also irrelevant for other rules, such as waiting after consumption or eating it together with milk.)

As per the introduction of this concept by the Ri MiGash, the Rambam (Maachalos Asuros 9,16) and the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 87, 11) rule that one may use kosher animal sourced rennet to manufacture cheese. 

The Opinion of the Mordechai

Although the Shulchan Aruch rules that one may be lenient, another opinion is important to notice. Rabbeinu Shimshon Ben Avraham quoted in the Mordechai (Chullin 733) that maintains that it is categorically prohibited to use even kosher rennet. Rabbeinu Shimshon extends the prohibition of davar hamaamid even to meat that falls into milk. Since davar hamaamid means that a substance is not batel, it is also potent enough to create basar b’chalav. Therefore, cheese made with nonkosher rennet is prohibited. This opinion is echoed by Tosafos Rid (Avoda Zara 35., mahadura basra, highlighted in Sefer Yismach Lev on Chullin, Siman 25) and Rabbeinu Yerucham (quoted by Beis Yosef, ibid.). 

(In sharp contrast, Rabbeinu Tam is of the opinion that davar hamaamid does not even apply to nonkosher rennet (Chullin 99b end of d.h. Lo, Mordechai ibid.). According to him, even cheese made with nonkosher rennet is permissible once the ratio is greater than 60 parts milk to the prohibited rennet. He has a vastly different understanding of davar hamaamid. These opinions are succinctly summarized by Rav Shlomo Hakohein MiVilna (Hagaah to Mateh Yonasan, Yoreh Deah end of 87).)

The Conclusive Ruling

The normative approach of the Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch and the commentators is that cheese made with kosher rennet is permitted, but with nonkosher rennet is prohibited. Accordingly, there should be no problem for even the most scrupulous individual to consume one of these gourmet cheeses.

Yet, the Chasam Sofer (Teshuvos Yoreh Deah 81, quoted in summary by the Pischei Teshuva ibid. 19) adopts a surprisingly stringent stance. He was asked to find a way to help a scholar who could not make ends meet and wanted to produced cheese with beef rennet to earn his livelihood. In the middle of a length response, and almost tangentially, the Chasam Sofer remarks that one should be concerned about the opinion of the Mordechai stating that a davar hamaamid not being batel also means that it creates basar b’chalav. He does not permit the destitute scholar to make cheese with beef rennet unless he finds other leniencies. (The Chasam Sofer suggests using kosher enzymes together with the rennet in amounts that the cheesemaker is uncertain that each one would be sufficient to make the cheese. In such a case, he could rely on the halachic leniency of zeh v’zeh goreim – that both of them joined to create this mixture.)

The Chasam Sofer‘s comment is surprising because it marshals a ruling that was rejected from the vast majority of halachic decisions. Even though the Mordechai is mentioned in the Beis Yosef and the Shach, they do not suggest concern for his opinion. Likewise, the Shulchan Aruch does not even mention his stringency. Yet, the fact that the Chasam Sofer seems is concerned with it would be one reason to for an organization to question giving supervision to cheese made with beef rennet.

Creating Bitul L’chatchila

Another issue to consider is raised by Rabbi Akiva Eiger (lived in the lat 18th century, Teshuvos Kama, 207). He remarks that the centuries old Jewish tradition has indeed been to use kosher animal rennet for cheese production. Yet, he is perplexed because we have a rule that ein mivatlin issur l’chatchila. One is not allowed to intentionally take a bit of nonkosher and drop it into kosher, even if it is less than 1:60. One can only rely on bitul b’shishim if it is b’dieved, already done. But one is not permitted to intentionally create a scenario of bitul. In fact, if one does it on purpose, bitul doesn’t even apply. Therefore, Rabbi Akiva Eiger wonders how one is allowed to intentionally put small amounts of rennet into milk to create cheese. One is knowingly creating a situation of bitul and in apparent violation of ein mivatlin issur l’chatchila

Rabbi Akiva Eiger answers by introducing a revolutionary concept. He maintains that ein mivatlin issur l’chatchila only applies when you introduce something that is already prohibited into something that is permitted. If you do so in a small ratio, you are still nullifying it. In contrast, milk and meat are both permissible and only become prohibited when they are mixed in a ratio that they impart flavor into each other. If they milk and meat are mixed together in an amount that does not create an exchange of flavor, it is a null substance. Nothing happened. No new food was made, and it is not even considered bitul. Halachically, nothing was created in the first place. It is like one merely sloshed around some milk, but did not create basar b’chalav. That is not prohibited according to the rule of ein m’vatlin issur l’chatchila.

Combining the Ri Migash and Rabbi Akiva Eiger

The Ri Migash and Rabbi Akiva Eiger can be seen as echoing the same concept. Basar b’chalav only exists if the milk and meat ingredients pass a certain threshold. They need to give flavor into each other, which requires a ratio greater than 1:60. If that threshold is not met, basar b’chalav will not exist. That means that one can mix them together as long as that ratio is not met. It also means that halachic amplifiers, such as davar hamamid, will not be able to create an alternate reality. If there is no ratio and no actual flavor exchange, there is simply no basar b’chalav. It is not even a halachic problem to make such a mixture.

Rabbi Akiva Eiger addresses a problem with is answer that would arise if a cheesemaker uses actual meat to catalyze the milk. Indeed, the proportion of meat substance in the vat of milk is insufficient to create basar b’chalav. Yet, a small amount of that milk permeates the piece of meat. In that piece alone, there is a large amount of milk vis a vis the meat. Consequently, that piece of meat would become basar b’chalav and then prohibit the entire volume of milk.

He responds by concluding that the piece of meat is not cooked in the milk, it is only immersed there. Therefore, it would not become basar b’chalav according to the Torah. It is only rabbinic basar b’chalav and one can be lenient.

Rabbi Akiva Eiger’s answer to that question is not necessary in contemporary cheesemaking. In the current process, an actual piece of meat is not immersed into the milk, so the question does not start. Common rennet comes in powdered or liquid form, which would obviate that concern altogether. No piece of meat exists to absorb some milk and become basar b’chalav.

Rabbi Akiva Eiger extrapolates from cheesemaking to all cases of mixing milk and meat. He maintains that one is allowed to mix milk and meat as long as the proportions are less than 1:60.Although Rabbi Akiva Eiger does quote implications from some sources against him point, he holds strong and does not renege. His initial proof and catalyst for a lengthy discussion is this age old custom of making cheese with rennet.

At the same time, the conventional Jewish practice is not to mix milk and meat in any amount, even far less than the amount of shishim. We would shy away from adding a drop of milk to any chulent, no matter how large. Assuming that Rabbi Akiva Eiger’s approach is novel and not unanimously accepted, we are still left wondering how kosher cheese using rennet has been made for centuries.

The Right Intentions

It is possible that adding beef rennet to cheese does not violate ein mivatlin issur l’chatchila for a different reason. Ein mivatlin issur l’chatchila only applies when one adds a food to a mixture because he values it as a food and wants to use the halachic loophole of bitul. It does not apply when one is interested in adding the small amount of food for an ancillary reason. A cheesemaker is not interested in the potential taste of the rennet, but in its value as an enzyme. When he adds meat to the milk he does not even want to nullify it. Quite to the contrary, he wants it to be there – not for the flavor, but because it will create his cheese. When one substance is added to another in less than 1:60, for a purpose other than flavor, then it is not considered mivatlin issur l’chatchila.

This idea was first suggested by the Rivash (lived in the 14th century, Teshuva 349) who was asked about the part of the process of making wooden barrels to store wine. Barrel makers wanted to use nonkosher fat to seal cracks in the wooden slats so that wine would not leak out. The fat was a negligible amount and would be batel in the large amount of wine in the barrel. Yet, the barrel makers wanted to intentionally apply the fat in a way that they knew would become batel. Was that a concern of ein mivatlin issur l’chatchila?

The Rivash ruled that one may use the prohibited fat to seal the barrels. One is only considered as being mevatel l’chatchila if his intent is to benefit from the prohibited substance as a food. In this case, his intent is to seal the cracks, not to eat the fat. He is not trying to nullify the food and benefit from its taste. He just wants to fix his barrel and seal its cracks. For that he is allowed to rely on bitul.

It seems that the same logic applies to using rennet. When one adds rennet to milk, he is not interested in the beef flavor. In fact, a proud vintage cheesemaker wants no foreign flavors influencing his cheese, including beef! The cheesemaker merely want to take advantage of an ancillary property of the meat, that in catalyzes milk into cheese. When he adds the small amount of rennet into the vat of milk, he is not trying to be mevatel its flavor. He is just interested in making cheese. He is like the barrel maker that just want to seal his barrel with a small amount of fat as a sealant. In both cases, they are not interested in the flavor properties of the foodstuffs that they are using. Adding them in small amounts is not a violation of ein mivatlin issur l’chatchila.

Dried Out Meat

Rabbi Akiva Eiger himself adds another reason to be lenient with beef rennet. Meat used to manufacture rennet is desiccated until it is inedible, so it loses its status of meat. The Ram”a (Yoreh Deah end of Siman 87) clearly states that one is allowed to use desiccated meat to make cheese. Although the Shach (33) says that one should ideally not rely on that, Rabbi Akiva Eiger explains that the Shach is not referring to this case. He is talking about a cheesemaker using a sack made of actual stomach to manufacture cheese. There the volume of meat to cheese is high. The full sack is filled with cheese, which clearly does not have shishim. (Contrast the phraseology of the Ram”a in seif 10 with that of seif 11.) Since bitul b’shishim cannot help, the Shach recommends not using the dried stomach because it might not be sufficiently desiccated.

On the other hand, the cheese production that Rabbi Akiva Eiger was discussing was a more common case, where one is using a small piece of meat to catalyze a large vat of milk. There, one can stack the leniencies. Even if the meat would not be fully dried, there is certainly a volume greater than 60:1. The only problem if it would not be completely desiccated is that the cheesemaker would be intentionally creating bitul, – mevatel issur l’chatchila. Since he believes it is fully dried and is not sure if any edible meat is present altogether, that is not considered as intentionally nullifying the meat.

Rabbi Akiva Eiger concludes that one may definitely make cheese using dehydrated meat. Even if the meat was not dehydrated, it is not considered mevatel issur l’chatchila because milk and meat are allowed to be mixed in small amounts. Even of one does not accept that new approach of Rabbi Akiva Eiger, using a small amount of dehydrated meat is certainly OK. The dehydration itself is sufficient to render the meat inedible and not halachically significant. Even on the off chance that the meat was not completely dried out, one can rely on the bitul b’shishim of the meat. Since one presumes the meat is dehydrated and is using bitul as a backup, that is not considered a violation of ein mivatlin issur l’chatchila.

The Chumra of the Chasam Sofer

In sharp contrast to Rabbi Akiva Eiger, the Chasam Sofer (Teshuvos Yoreh Deah 81, quoted in summary by the Pischei Teshuva ibid. 19) does not allow one to rely on dehydration to permit using meat. Since the Halacha does not quantify the extent of the dryness that is necessary, it is hard to know if any given specimen reached sufficient desiccation. Consequently, the Chasam Sofer considers making cheese a violation of ein mivatlin issur l’chatchila. (This is in addition to the aforementioned concern that it would be problematic according to the Mordechai. Both issues would be solved had the meat been dried out enough to be considered completely inedible.)

Rabbi Akiva Eiger presumed that contemporary rennet comes from meat that is sufficiently dried out. The Chasam Sofer did not agree. He also does not accept the revolutionary approach of Rabbi Akiva Eiger that meat and milk may be mixed in ratios less than 1:60.

Rabbi Yisroel Belsky zatza”l restricts the chumra of the Chasam Sofer. He felt that even the Chasam Sofer would no longer be concerned if the meat was dehydrated for at least twelve months. This is based on the rationale that in other areas of Halacha, a year is enough time to consider something dried out. (Conveyed by Rabbi Eli Gersten, Rabbinic Coordinator at OU Kosher, charged with recording OU piskei halacha). As such, the Orthodox Union would theoretically certify cheese that used rennet processed from meat that was dehydrated for at least twelve months, but is not willing to be lenient on anything less than that.

As long as the meat is not sufficient dried out, the Chasam Sofer is stricter than Rabbi Akiva Eiger. He is concerned about about ein mivatlin issur l’chatchila and not seem to accept any of Rabbi Akiva Eiger’s ways of resolving that. He raises another concern, too. The Shulchan Aruch codifies the ruling of the Ri MiGash who says that there is no concept of davar hamaamid with kosher meat. Yet, the Mordechai quotes the opinion of Rabbeinu Shimshon ben Avraham who disagrees. He maintains that davar hamaamid means that if something causes the very character of a mixture, it is like it is still there. Consequently, it will even create basar b’chalav. The Chasam Sofer is not comfortable making cheese in a way that the Mordechai would consider basar b’chalav.

The Chasam Sofer presents three chumros. Firstly, he is concerned with the opinion of the Mordechai that davar hamaamid creates basar b’chalav. Secondly, he considers making cheese bitul issur l’chatchila. Thirdly, he does not consider contemporary meat to meet the threshold of dryness.

Regarding the first chumra, the Shulchan Aruch rejects the Mordechai and does not seem concerned with it like the Chasam Sofer is. As far as the second chumra, Rabbi Akiva Eiger suggests a way to deal with ein mivatlin issur l’chatchila. He also states as evidence that the tradition was to use meat rennet. The third point of the length of time it takes for meat to dry seems to also be addressed by Rabbi Akiva Eiger. The thrust of his response is that the meat used to make the rennet of his time was sufficiently dries out.

If a kashrus organization would certify meat based rennet in accordance of the Shulchan Aruch, they are certainly within the rights of legitimate halachic process. At the same time, it seems that some organizations shy away from doing so, in deference to the Chasam Sofer’s chumros.

A Final Word

In summary, the discussion of using animal derived rennet to make kosher cheese has spanned the millennia. It centers on the twin issues of bitul b’shishim and davar hamaamid. Since rennet creates the very nature of the cheese, it is potentially halachically significant even in small amounts. Yet, the Ri MiGash rules that its significant presence is insufficient to create basar b’chalav. The normative approach, as codified by that Shulchan Aruch, is that one may use rennet from an animal that is kosher and shechted, to make kosher cheese. Rabbi Akiva Eiger adds that this is not even considered relying on bitul because with milk and meat, adding a small amount doesn’t meet the threshold to have halachic significance. The Rivash’s ruling that adding a small amount of foodstuff for a nonfood property is not considered mevatel issur l’chatchila. In contrast, the Chasam Sofer does feel that using a small amount of rennet is considered mevatel issur l’chatchila.

Rabbi Akiva Eiger adds that desiccated meat is no longer considered meat. Yet, the Chasam Sofer is unsure how much time that would take and does not rely on it. In addition, the Chasam Sofer is machmir for the opinion of the Mordechai that even rennet from kosher meat creates basar b’chalav because it is a davar hamaamid.

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