How Kosher is Your Milk?

June 7th, 2012


On our wedding day last year, my wife and I decided that, due to our Jewish convictions, we would no longer drink milk or consume any dairy products. This is a vow we have remained deeply committed to, but we never expected it to become mainstream. Then we found out that one of the greatest Jewish legal authorities in America, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, has made public that he had stopped consuming dairy products due to kashrut concerns. I now feel our once-private decision is worthy of a discussion on a larger level.

Jewish law prohibits consuming the milk of a tereifah (an animal that is sick or injured, and therefore unkosher), (Exodus 22:30; Bekhorot 6b; Chulin 116b; Hilchot Shechitah 10:9; Shulchan Aruch YD 81:1); the Talmud lists 18 different organic diseases or conditions, and the Rambam has 70 (Hilchot Shechita 10:9). However, because the milk we buy in stores today comes from different cows and is all mixed up, as long as we know that the majority of the milk (“rov,” Exodus 23:2) comes from healthy cows, then we may consider it all kosher without any examination(Chullin 11a-12a).

On the other hand, when even a minority (mi’ut ha’mazui) of the cows are shown to be frequently sick, then Jewish law requires that we must examine the animals to confirm there is no problem (Hullin 11a, 12a; Bi’ur ha-Gra YD 1:4). Dairy production has generally not been considered a problem, and thus the authorities of kashrut have been lenient on consumption.

That situation may be changing among some halachic authorities. Rabbi Schachter, the leading rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University, is not an animal welfare activist, but he is a halachic adviser to the kashrut division of the Orthodox Union and is unwavering in his commitment to the integrity of Jewish law. He believes that today we cannot be sure that more than half of the cows producing milk for mass-market consumption aren’t injured, sick or have adhesions (growths on the lungs).

We don’t milk our own cows in our backyards anymore, and most small dairy farms have long been put out of business. Today, it is very likely that unkosher milk is all too often being mixed together with kosher milk at unacceptable levels. As Rabbi J. David Bleich wrote in an article on the online site Tradition: “In the modern age, commercial dairies collect milk from, literally, hundreds of cows. Milk from all of these cows is combined, pasteurized and then bottled. Statistically, since a mi’ut ha’mazui [a frequently found minority] of dairy cows are indeed treifot [not kosher], it is virtually certain that milk bottled in a dairy [farm] contains an admixture of non-kosher milk,” (Contemporary Halachic Problems, Volume 6, “Is the milk we drink kosher?”).

A tereifah is an animal that will not live for more than 12 months (tereifah einah chayah). If these statistics are accurate, and a substantial portion — if not a majority — of dairy cows qualify as tereifot, this means that these animals are so sick that, according to Rabbi Schachter, more than half of them are dying. The fact is, the milk industry is potentially of greater concern for observant Jews than the meat industry, as the slaughtering process requires checking the killed animal’s organs for illness, necessitating more care to avoid abuses. Checking for sicknesses and internal adhesions not visible to the eye cannot be done in the dairy industry in the same way, as the animal is milked, not slaughtered. 

For those among us who have always attempted to follow halacha to the letter, this matter is worthy of consideration, as it is for anyone who cares for animals and the ethics of how and what we eat. The dairy industry has changed drastically since the original leniencies on drinking milk and consuming other dairy products in America were given decades ago.

Next time you stand in the dairy aisle, consider trying a dairy-free month for Jewish law and ethics and for your health.

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