The Gevinat Akum Prohibition: Part I by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


Unlike the prohibitions of Chalav Yisrael that we discussed for the past three weeks, the prohibition of Gevinat Akum, cheese produced by a non-Jew, is observed by all observant Jews in (mostly) the same manner.  In this essay and in next week’s essay, we shall outline the development and the parameters of this prohibition as well as some of the issues that are debated by twentieth century Poskim.  These essays will be based on three essays on this topic that have been recently written by three Kashrut professionals - Rav Yaakov Borow in Tenuva’s Binetiv Hechalav pp. 43-47, Rav Zushe Blech in the Orthodox Union’s Daf Kashrut of Adar I 5757, and Rav Avraham Juravel’s discussion that is published in a Kashrut journal known as Mehadrin, Adar II 5755.  

Talmudic Background

The Rambam (Hilchot Maachalot Asurot 3:12-13) notes that fundamentally, there is more reason to be lenient regarding cheese produced by a non-Jew than milk produced by a non-Jew.  This is because, the Rambam writes, milk from a non-kosher animal cannot be made into cheese.  Nevertheless, Chazal prohibited consuming cheese produced by a non-Jew.  The Gemara offers many possible reasons for this enactment, but the Mishnah (Avodah Zarah 29b and see Avodah Zarah 35a) indicates that Chazal at first concealed the reason for this enactment. 

The Gemara (Avodah Zarah 35) searches for the reason behind this enactment and cites a plethora of explanations.  One explanation is that non-Jews curdle the milk with the stomach lining from animals that were not properly slaughtered (Niveilot).  Another reason is that the non-Jews did not take adequate care to cover the milk that would be used to make cheese and Chazal were concerned that snakes would release their venom into the uncovered liquids.  Another is that the non-Jews smoothed over the cheese with pig fat.  Yet another explanation is that Chazal were concerned that there were leftover drops of milk in the cheese that did not curdle and these drops of milk might have been from a non-Kosher animal.  Another explanation is that they made the cheese from non-Kosher vinegar. 


The Rishonim debate which of these reasons is the accepted approach.  The Rambam (Hilchot Maachalot Asurot 3:13) codifies the reason that they use the stomach lining of Niveilot to curdle the cheese.  Rabbeinu Tam (cited in Tosafot Avodah Zarah 35a s.v. Chada), on the other hand, believes that the primary concern is that the milk was exposed to snake venom.  The Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 115:2) adopts the approach of the Rambam.

The Rishonim also debate whether the enactment forbidding Gevinat Akum applies even when the concerns for the enactment are not relevant.  Rabbeinu Tam (ibid) asserts that the concerns are not relevant today since snakes are not prevalent in our environs.  He argues that Chazal did not issue this enactment in a situation where concern for snake venom is not relevant.  Furthermore, he states:

“In many places Jews eat cheese produced by non-Jews since the non-Jews use flowers to curdle the milk and the Geonim of Narbonne (Southern France) permitted this practice.  However, in our places (Northern France and Germany) there is reason to be strict since they use stomach linings to curdle milk.”

The Rambam (Hilchot Ma’achalot Asurot 3:14), however, records that “some Geonim” rule that the prohibition of Gevinat Akum applies even when the reason for the enactment does not apply.  He writes:

“Cheese that non-Jews curdle with grass or with fruit juice such as date tree sap and it is evident in the cheese [that an animal product was not used to produce the cheese], some Geonim ruled that it is nevertheless forbidden because the enactment applies to all cheese produced by non-Jews whether or not a Kosher or non-Kosher curdling agent was used.”

It should be noted that the Rambam does not cite any authority that disputes the ruling of the Geonim and the Rambam does not criticize this ruling.  Rav Yosef Karo (both in his Kesef Mishneh commentary to the Rambam and in his Beit Yosef commentary to the Tur) asserts, therefore, that the Rambam concurs with the ruling of the Geonim.  The Maggid Mishneh explains that the reason for this ruling is that it is a Davar Sh’b’minyan, that whenever Chazal forbade something, the prohibition remains even when the reason for the prohibition is not relevant (see Beitzah 5a). 

Interestingly, Rav Blech writes that there is a type of cheese made in Portugal today that uses an enzyme derived from the thistle flower to curdle milk to make cheese.  In addition, Rav Juravel writes that during World War I when there was a severe shortage of animal rennet, people in many countries used date tree sap to make cheese.  He explains that there is an enzyme in this sap known as ficin that serves as a curdling agent. 

Shulchan Aruch and Codes

The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 115:2) unequivocally rules in accordance with the ruling of the Rambam.  The Rama adds that this is the accepted custom and warns against being “Poreitz Geder” breaking the fence enacted by Am Yisrael regarding this matter.  The Rama adds, though, that an exception to this lenient ruling is a place where the Jewish community has a tradition to follow the lenient ruling of the Geonim of Narbonne.  The Beit Yosef, on the other hand, is far less tolerant of those places that maintain their tradition to follow the lenient approach to this issue.  He strongly urges those few communities who follow the lenient view to adopt the practice of the overwhelming majority of Jewish communities throughout the world to be strict about this matter. 

The Chochmat Adam (53:38 and 67:7) and the Aruch Hashulchan (Y.D. 115:16-17) rule completely in accordance with the strict view and express harsh words against those who follow the lenient opinion.  These authorities, writing in the nineteenth century, make no mention of communities that are lenient regarding this issue.  It seems that by their time there were no longer any communities that followed the lenient tradition. 

This is an especially relevant issue today, as cheese is made either from non-animals sources such as microbial rennet or animal sources that have been reduced to a powder, which seems to cause the stomach lining to lose its prohibited status as it has been reduced to “mere wood” (Rama Y.D. 87:10).  Accordingly, the reason for this enactment is virtually never relevant today.  Nonetheless, the prohibition still applies and all observant Jews strictly adhere to this prohibition.

Stomach Lining of a Kosher Animal

Rishonim ask why the stomach lining of a N’veilah renders cheese not Kosher.  Indeed, only a small amount of the lining is used and there is certainly more than sixty times of milk than stomach lining and thus the stomach lining should be nullified (Battel) by the milk.  The Rambam (Hilchot Maachalot Asurot 3:13) answers that the stomach is a Davar Hamaamid (it establishes the form of the item, in this case it is the catalyst that turns the milk into cheese) and is not Battel even if it less than sixty times the product it was placed into.  This approach is exceedingly logical.  The reason why something is Battel is because if it is less than sixty times the product it was placed in, then it has lost its significance.  The stomach lining, though, cannot be described as insignificant since it is indispensable in creating the cheese. 

The Maggid Mishneh (ad. loc.) cites a different answer presented by the Ramban and the Rashba, that the fact that the taste of the stomach lining is nullified is irrelevant because Chazal enacted the prohibition of Gevinat Akum to create a social barrier between us and non-Jews and not because of a Kashrut problem.  This approach is quite cogent in light of our practice to prohibit Gevinat Akum even if the reason for its enactment does not apply.   

The Rambam (Hilchot Maachalot Asurot 9:16), in turn, asks that if the stomach lining is never Battel because it is a Davar Hamaamid, then cheese made from the stomach lining of animal that is slaughtered properly should also be forbidden because of the mixture between milk and meat.  The Rambam answers (following the approach of his father’s Rebbe, the Ri Migash) that the rule that a Davar Hamaamid is never Battel applies only if the Davar Hamamid is prohibited already (such as the stomach lining of a non-Kosher animal).  An item that is Kosher (the stomach lining from a properly slaughtered animal) cannot create a prohibited mixture of milk and meat because it is a Davar Hamaamid.  See Tosafot (Avodah Zarah 35a s.v. Mipnei) for a different resolution of this problem. 

 One may ask then how is it permissible to make Kosher cheese if we are forbidden to intentionally nullify prohibited items (“Ein Mivatlin Issur Lichatchilah,” see Shach Y.D. 87:33).  For example, we are not permitted to intentionally place a bit of meat into a glass of milk if we wish to drink the milk, even if there is at least sixty times more milk than meat.  How then are we permitted to add a bit of stomach lining to milk in order to make cheese?  Rav Akiva Eiger (Teshuvot number 207, cited in the Pitchei Teshuva 87:19) explains that the prohibition of Ein M’vatlin Issur L’chatchilah does not apply if two lenient factors are in effect - the use of completely desiccated stomach linings and the fact that the stomach linings are nullified because they are less than sixty times the milk that it is placed in. 

The Aruch Hashulchan (Y.D. 87:43) records the common practice to produce cheese with completely desiccated stomach linings mixed together with other items.  When the stomach lining is mixed together with other items to effect the curdling process, we may be lenient because this is a situation of “Zeh Vizeh Goreim,” an item that was created by two factors, one permissible and one forbidden, where we may disregard the permitted item if the permitted item could have accomplished the task even without aid of the forbidden item (see Rama Y.D. 87:11 and Shach Y.D. 87:35).  For further discussion of this issue see Pitchei Teshuva (Y.D. 87:19) and Darkei Teshuva (87:138). 


Next week, Bli Neder and Im Yirtzeh Hashem we shall complete our discussion of the Gevinat Akum prohibition.  We shall discuss whether Jewish participation is required in the process of cheese making and whether soft cheeses and whey are included in this prohibition.

The Gevinat Akum Prohibition: Part II by Rabbi Chaim Jachter

Chalav Yisrael: Part III by Rabbi Chaim Jachter