Printed from OxfordChabad.org

A history of eating dairy among Jews of medieval England through the lens of a Hebrew manuscript at the Bodleian Library

Friday, 7 June, 2019 - 10:20 am

Cheesecake (650x245)The eating of dairy foods is one of the customs on the holiday of Shavuot – commemorating the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.[1] A reason for eating dairy on the holiday is due to the fact that the Torah is referred to as milk and Mount Sinai as cheese. In Song of Songs, it writes in reference to the Torah:[2] ‘Your lips drip flowing honey, O bride; honey and milk are under your tongue, and the fragrance of your garments is like the fragrance of Lebanon.’

 

Similarly, one of the names of Mount Sinai is Mount Gavnunim (lit. mountain of peaks) that is similar etymologically to the Hebrew word for cheese – ‘gevina.’ The Midrash says Mount Sinai had in fact six names:[3] Mount of G-d, Mount Bashan, Mount Gavnunim, Mount Moriah, Mount Horev, Mount Sinai. This may be found in Psalms:[4] ‘The mountain of G-d is the mountain of Bashan; the mountain of peaks (gavnunim) is the mountain of Bashan.’

 

The connection between gavnunim and Mount Sinai is twofold: Gavnunim means crook backed, suggesting that Mount Sinai was most desirable compared to other mountains that were not as desirable.[5] In a further Midrashic teaching, the significance of the word gavnunim is its similarity to the word gevina  cheese. In this context Mount Sinai was selected because it was: clean like cheese, clear from all blemishes.’[6]

 

The earliest mention of the consumption of dairy in the Torah can be found in fact in the book of Genesis, when Abraham served the angels cream and milk:[7] ‘And he took cream and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and he placed [them] before them, and he was standing over them under the tree, and they ate.’ The mention of cheese can be also found in I Samuel:[8] ‘And Jesse said to David his son, Take now to your brothers, an ephah of this parched corn and ten loaves of this bread… And you shall bring these ten cheeses (charitzei hachalav)[9] to the captain of the thousand.’

 

With the roots of the tradition to eat dairy on Shavuot, according to some opinions, going back as early as the time of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai,[10] it is interesting to explore the subject of dairy foods as found in Jewish tradition and offer an overview of an age-old dispute over thousands of years, sometimes heatedly, that impacted and divided the Jewish communities of Babylon and Israel in the ancient period, continued in dispute among the Gaonic sages themselves, and remained a subject of continued debate during the Middle Ages among the Jewish communities of Germany, France and England, and in fact continues until recent times. The subject pertains to the permissibility to eat milk, cheese, butter and cream made by a non-Jew and its related concerns.

 

A prohibition

 

The earliest text that presents a prohibition of dairy products by a non-Jew is the 2nd century work of the Mishna:[11]

 

And these are items that belong to gentiles and are prohibited, but their prohibition is not that of an item from which deriving benefit is prohibited: Milk that was milked by a gentile and a Jew did not see him performing this action.

 

The Mishna also mentions the prohibition of cheese from a non-Jew[12]

 

Rabbi Yehuda said: Rabbi Yishmael asked Rabbi Yehoshua a series of questions while they were travelling along the road. Rabbi Yishmael said to him: For what reason did the Sages prohibit the cheeses of gentiles? Rabbi Yehoshua said to him: Because gentiles curdle cheese with the stomach contents of an unslaughtered animal carcass, and as the carcass of an unslaughtered animal is not kosher, cheese that is curdled with it is likewise prohibited.

 

The Talmud in the 6th century proceeds to give seven reasons for the prohibition of cheese of a non-Jew: 1. Rabbi Shimon ben Pazi says in the  name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi: It was due to the concern for puncturing, i.e., the concern that a snake might have deposited its venom in the cheese, as gentiles are not assumed to be careful about this. 2. Rabbi Ḥanina says: The cheese is prohibited because it is not possible for it to have been made without containing particles of non-kosher milk. 3. Shmuel says: The cheese is prohibited because it is curdled with the skin of the stomach of an unslaughtered animal carcass. 4. Rav Malkiyya says in the name of Rav Adda bar Ahava: The cheese is prohibited because gentiles smooth its surface with pig fat. 5. Rav Ḥisda says: It is because they curdle it with vinegar produced from their wine, from which it is prohibited to derive benefit. 6. Rav Naḥman bar Yitzḥak says: It is because they curdle it with sap that is subject to the prohibition against consuming the fruit of a tree during the first three years after its planting [orla]. 7. Due to the concern that it may become mixed with non-kosher milk and there is milk that remains between the crevices of curdled cheese.[13]

 

Medieval dispute

 

In the medieval period there was a dispute as to which of the seven reasons is the main reason for the prohibition of cheese. Rashi maintained the reason was due to the concern that it may become mixed with non-kosher milk.[14] Rabbi Chananel and Rabeinu Tam write it is due to the concern for puncturing, i.e., the concern that a snake might have deposited its venom in the cheese. Maimonides writes that the cheese is prohibited because it is curdled with the skin of the stomach of an unslaughtered animal carcass. Rabbi Moses of Coucy[15] writes that although today most of the reasons for the prohibition of cheese of a non-Jew are no longer applicable, the prohibition stands since it was established by a great number of the Jewish people and a greater number would be needed to revoke the law. Rabeinu Tam and Rabeinu Peretz in his commentary to Rabbi Isaac of Corbeil’s Sefer Mitzvot Katan,[16] argue that the above reason is not sufficient for the law to be upheld and rather the reason is because we are concerned that if we permit the cheese of a non-Jew in a place where there is no concern of puncturing we might permit cheese in a place where there is such concern.[17]

 

In England, Rabbi Jacob ben Judah Chazan writes in his work Etz Chaim[18] following the reasoning of Maimonides:

 

When a person partakes of cheese from gentiles or milk that was milked by a gentile without a Jew observing him, he is given stripes for rebellious conduct,[19] for all milk found in the hand of a non-Jew is forbidden lest the gentile have mixed the milk of a non-kosher animal with it.[20] And the cheese of the gentiles, even though the milk of a non-kosher animal will not curdle to form cheese, nevertheless, the age of the Sages of the Mishnah forbade it, lest they use the skin of the stomach of an animal they slaughtered - which is forbidden as a nevelah - to cause it to solidify and it does not become nullified because it is used as the catalyst to cause the cheese to curdle.[21] There are some of the Gaonim who have ruled that even when it is apparent that the cheese was left to solidify with herbs or fruit juice, e.g., fig syrup it is forbidden, for our Sages already decreed that all the cheeses of gentiles are forbidden.[22]

 

Butter

 

While milk and cheese of a non-Jew is prohibited from the Mishnaic period according to all opinions, even though there is lack of agreement what the precise reasoning is, butter of a non-Jew is far less clear. It is possible to trace the discussion on this subject and its lack of clarity of any conclusion until today. The premise is while there is a difference between production of milk and cheese, since cheese can be curdled only from a kosher animal as opposed to milk where there is the concern of admixture of non-kosher milk, there is no dispute that cheese of a non-Jew remained prohibited. The same should be the case regarding butter. However, this essay will demonstrate that this is not the case; cheese remained prohibited while butter according to many is permitted.

 

Jerusalemite Talmud

 

The Mishna and the Babylonian Talmud – the two major sources of Jewish law regarding cheese, are both silent regarding butter. The standard version of the Jerusalemite Talmud is also silent regarding the law pertaining to butter produced by a non-Jew. The earliest source that mentions a prohibition is an edition of the Jerusalemite Talmud as quoted by Catalan Rabbi Judah Barzilai (end of the 11th and the beginning of the 12th century) in his legal work Sefer Ha’itim, that butter of a non-Jew is one of the eighteen decrees 2nd century Mishnaic sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai instituted. Rabbi Moses of Coucy writes[23] however that this is not the version found in the Jerusalemite Talmud that we are familiar with.[24]

 

While there is no standard version of the Jerusalemite Talmud that supports a prohibition, the subject of whether one may eat butter of a non-Jew was a dispute between the Jews who lived in Babylon who permitted butter of a non-Jew and the Jews who lived in Israel where it was prohibited.[25]

 

Gaonim

 

There is a general rule that Halacha follows the custom of Babylon over Israel and as the Jews of Babylon ate butter from a non-Jew, the custom should have followed this view. The dispute existed amongst the Babylonian Gaonim themselves, whereby some Gaonim permitted it, because milk of a non-kosher animal does not curdle and the Sages only decreed against cheese, while some of the Gaonim forbade it because of the drops of milk that remains.[26] Furthermore, since the whey in the butter is not mixed with the butter it will also not be nullified (according to the Halachic rule of 1/60).

 

With no clear law or custom from the Talmud or the Gaonim, the custom in the Middle Ages continued to vary from country to country throughout the ages. Maimonides (1135-1204) – perhaps after having left to Egypt - writes that if one cooks the butter of a non-Jew it is permitted:

 

It appears to me that if one purchased butter from gentiles and cooked it until the drops of milk in it disappeared, it is permitted. For if one will say that drops of non-kosher milk were mixed with the butter and it was all cooked together, they became insignificant because of the small quantity involved.

 

Catalan

 

Catalan Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet (1235-1310)[27] and the Raavad (1125-1198) maintain there is no difference between the prohibition against cheese and butter. In both cases it is prohibited and cooking the butter does not help.

 

France

 

13th century French Rabbi Peretz writes in his commentary to the Semak that there is a difference between butter and cheese in that cheese has holes where the whey can be found whereas butter has no holes and is therefore permitted even without cooking the butter to remove any whey residue. Similarly, Rabbi Jacob Tam (1100-1171) ruled that butter is permitted and such would have been the custom in France based on his permission. He writes however if there is known to have whey mixed with the butter it would be prohibited. Where in doubt it is permitted.

 

Germany

 

In most of Germany however it was prohibited. Rabbi Jonah Gerondi (d. 1264) writes that in Germany it is widespread custom that it is completely prohibited to eat butter of a non-Jew. Similarly, German Rabbi Isaac Dueren (second half of 13th century) writes in his classic legal work of the time Sharei Dura[28] that it was not the custom to eat butter of a non-Jew and he who follows this stringency will be blessed. German Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel (1250-1327) however writes that he does not know a reason it should be prohibited and one may follow the custom of the place where one resides. 15th century German Rabbi Jacob Baruch ben Judah Landa writes that he saw his father, Rabbi Judah Landa, following the custom of the place. German Rabbi Yaakov ben Moshe Levi Moelin  (c. 1365 – 1427), known as Maharil, writes that in all the land of the Rhine it is prohibited. German Rabbi Israel Isserlin (1390-1460), author of Terumat Hadeshen, also writes that it was customary to prohibit butter in all the German lands and not a single person is lenient.[29] 

 

__

Footnotes

[1] Tamei Haminhagim, Inyanei Chag Hashavuot, p. 281. See Kol Bo quoted in Tamei Haminhagim (ibid) that it was customary for milk and honey to be eaten.

[2] 4:11. See Rashi commentary.

[3] Bamidbar Rabba 1:8.

[4] 68:15-17.

[5] Bamidbar Rabba 1:8.

[6] Exodus Rabba 2. Tamei Haminhagim, Inyanei Chag Hashavuot, p. 281.

[7] 18:8.

[8] 17:17-18.

[9] Rashi commentary.

[10] A reason given for eating cheese is due to the fact that when the Torah was given together with the kosher dietary laws it was on Shabbat, when koshering of utensils is not permitted. The Jewish people therefore ate at that time dairy. Tamei Haminhagim, Inyanei Chag Hashavuot, p. 281.

[11] Avodah Zara 35b.

[12] Avodah Zara 29b.

[13] Avodah Zara 35a-b.

[14] Rashi commentary on Avodah Zara 35b.

[15] Semag, negative commandments 132.

[16] 223.

[17] Even though this logic does not apply with the concern of puncturing of water, in the case of cheese where there is numerous reasons given for the prohibition of non-Jewish cheese and not everyone knows that the main reason follows Rabbi Yehushua ben Levi that the reason is because of puncturing, if we were to disregard the reason where in practice there is no concern, it will be overlooked in a place when there is concern also. This is not he case with water whereby the sole reason for prohibition is due to puncturing.

[18] Laws of Forbidden Foods, ch. 11, p. 75 (Mosad Harav Kook)

[19] Mishneh Torah Ma’achalot Asurot 3:15.

[20] Mishneh Torah Ma’achalot Asurot 3:13.

[21] Mishneh Torah Ma’achalot Asurot 3:13.

[22] As some use forbidden entities. Mishneh Torah Ma’achalot Asurot 3:14.

[23] Sefer Mitzvot Gadol, Negative Commandment 132.

[24] Jerusalemite Talmud Shabbat 1:8.

[25] Shaarei Dura 78 in the name of Rabbi Eliezer m’Toch. Etz Chaim, forbidden foods, in the name of the Ri.

[26] Tshuvot Hagaonim, Iyei Hayam, ch. 188.

[27] In his commentary on Talmud Avodah Zarah 35b.

[28] 78.

[29] Commentary on Sharei Dura 78:4.

[30] https://hebrew.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/catalog/manuscript_203. Accessed 4 June, 2019.

[31] Fol. 7b-8a. https://digital.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/inquire/p/d7d20532-5812-4a2f-b52c-7323c1282cf8. Accessed 4 June, 2019.

[32] The full text from the Etz Chaim by Rabbi Jacob ben Judah Chazan of London regarding the subject of milk, cheese, butter and cream made by a non-Jew is as follows: When a person partakes of cheese from gentiles or milk that was milked by a gentile without a Jew observing him, he is given stripes for rebellious conduct (Mishneh Torah Ma’achalot Asurot 3:15), for all milk found in the hand of a non-Jew is forbidden lest the gentile have mixed the milk of a non-kosher animal with it (ibid. 3:13). And the cheese of the gentiles, even though the milk of a non-kosher animal will not curdle to form cheese, nevertheless, the age of the Sages of the Mishnah forbade it, lest they use the skin of the stomach of an animal they slaughtered - which is forbidden as a nevelah - to cause it to solidify and does not become nullified because it is used as the catalyst to cause the cheese to curdle (ibid. 3:13). There are some of the Gaonim who have ruled that even when it is apparent that the cheese was left to solidify with herbs or fruit juice, e.g., fig syrup it is forbidden, for [our Sages] already decreed that all the cheeses of gentiles are forbidden (ibid. 3:14). With regard to butter produced by gentiles, some of the Gaonim permit it, because milk of a non-kosher animal does not curdle (reason added in Etz Chaim) and our Sages only decreed against cheese, and some of the Gaonim forbid it, because of the drops of milk that remain in it. For the whey in the butter is not mixed with the butter so that it will be nullified (ibid. 3:15). And in the Jerusalemite Talmud that states that butter is one of the eighteen things that were decreed, as it states in the Mishna (Shabbat 1:4): On that day they decreed on their bread, buried pots, soaked foods, salted foods, their cheeses and their butters. Rabbi Isaac the Elder (Ri) responded regarding the butter that this is a dispute between the Jews living in Israel and Babylon. The people in the East permit it and they say that milk of a non-kosher animal does not become butter, and people from the West forbid it because of the concern of milk that was milked by a gentile without a Jew observing him and because of the concern of the mixing the milk of a non-kosher animal. Ri heard that they would eat butter in France according to the ruling of Rabeinu Tam. And some are concerned that it should be prohibited because they would mix congealed whey in the land of the islands (England). One does not prohibit butter for this reason because since milk from a non-kosher animal does not curdle its whey is not found in it unless it is from a kosher animal. The reason that one should not eat food cooked by a non-Jew is also of no concern because it may be eaten without being cooked. The Ri prohibits if there is whey in the butter but he did not want prohibit it in a case of doubt because one may be lenient when there is a doubt regarding a rabbinic law. In conclusion: there is no concern regarding butter. So write also Rabbi Moses of London. According to the Jerusalemite Talmud that I brought earlier, however, one who is stringent should be blessed. Regarding cream, it was the opinion of Rabbi Moses of London that it is completely prohibited, because it is not usual to take cream from milk that had been produced for the purpose of curdling because it would result in the weakening of the cheese, and since the milking was for eating one is concerned that milk from a non-kosher animal was mixed with it. It appears to Maimonides that if one purchased butter from gentiles and cooked it until the drops of milk in it disappeared, it is permitted. For if one will say that drops of non-kosher milk were mixed with the butter and it was all cooked together, they became insignificant because of the small quantity involved. When, however, the butter is cooked by gentiles themselves, it is forbidden because of the effusion of gentile foods, as will be explained (ibid. 3:16).

[33] See Oxford MS. Can. Or. 1 (Würzburg Siddur, 1303-4), fol. 7b-8a, marginal note: Rabeinu Tam and Ri would permit butter made by a non-Jew and so is written in the response of the Gaonim but in a Responsa of the Gaonim that I have by Rabbi Nathan from Afirik (Africa?) it says that since there were people who defrauded… whoever eats it should be excommunicated. However since it has already been permitted by important rabbis if butter made by a non-Jew had been cooked in a pot one need not kosher the utensils for someone who is not accustomed to eat the butter. It is the custom in German lands not to eat butter made by a non-Jew besides cities that are near the border with France.

 

Comments on: A history of eating dairy among Jews of medieval England through the lens of a Hebrew manuscript at the Bodleian Library
There are no comments.