Cholov Yisroel: Unraveling the Mysteries

(This article originally appeared in the Daf Ha-Kashrus.)

“There is no purpose in drinking cholov Yisroel today, as the government inspects the dairies and makes sure that all the milk is kosher.” “What makes milk cholov Yisroel? Isn’t all milk with a hechsher under rabbinical supervision anyway?”

Cholov Yisroel is one of the most misunderstood concepts in all of kashrus. Let’s try to clarify and demystify things.

The Halacha

Chazal decreed that milk is only permitted when the actual milking was supervised by an on-site Yisroel, serving as the mashgiach. (Avodah Zarah 35b, Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 115:1) This gezeirah is due to the concern that milk from non-kosher animal species may be mixed into the otherwise kosher milk. In modern times, many people and communities follow the ruling of R. Moshe Feinstein zt”l (Igros Moshe YD 1:47-49) that since the government inspects dairies and makes sure that milk from non-kosher species is not present in the milk supply, our knowledge of this fact is the halachic equivalent of a mashgiach witnessing it (based on the halachic axiom of Anan sahadei - that firm knowledge of something is equal to witnessing it). According to R. Moshe, all milk in counties with adequate dairy regulations benefits from "virtual supervision", as Klal Yisroel's knowledge that the milk is under tight government control which keeps out milk from non-kosher species is halachically equal to us witnessing the milking and handling of the milk; all domestic commercial milk therefore satisfies the halachic requirement that a Yisroel supervise it. Such milk is commonly referred to as cholov stam.

However, not all poskim concur with R. Moshe's approach. Some poskim rule that the presence of a live, on-site Yisroel as the mashgiach is indispensable, and that milk which lacks this supervision is non-kosher (cholov akum). My recent article in Mesorah presents differing opinions among Rishonim about the kashrus of milk that is supervised in the absence of a live, on-site mashgiach. Those opinions in the article that rule strictly assumedly would not permit cholov stam.

Regular OUD milk is cholov stam, as it is not supervised in accordance with cholov Yisroel regulations. Standard OU-certified milk processing plants are visited by OU supervisors on a spot-check basis to assure that all ingredients (such as vitamins, flavors and any incoming bulk liquids) are kosher and that the equipment is kosher.

How Is Cholov Yisroel Supervision Conducted?

In order to understand what cholov Yisroel supervision entails, we need to first briefly discuss cholov Yisroel farms.

There are two types of cholov Yisroel farms, each with its own protocol:

Part-Time Cholov Yisroel Farms:

These are farms that do not normally have on-site supervision for cholov Yisroel; their regular milk is cholov stam. However, every so often, a cholov Yisroel production is scheduled. This involves a team of mashgichim coming to the farm for a special production of cholov Yisroel over the course of a day to many weeks straight. The mashgichim kasher all equipment that had hot contact with cholov stam, as well as all milk holding tanks and silos that held cholov stam for 24 hours or more straight (the axiom of kovush), and the mashgichim remain at the farm for the duration of the cholov Yisroel production.

Full-Time Cholov Yisroel Farms:

These farms are cholov Yisroel year-round. Mashgichim live at these farms, or within a few blocks of them, as supervision is needed 24/7/365, with a mashgiach present for every single milking throughout the year. Any hot-use equipment and milk holding tanks and silos on these farms was kashered prior to starting cholov Yisroel service, and the equipment retains cholov Yisroel status thereafter.

(It must be noted that cholov Yisroel mashgichim, as well as almost all other mashgichim who work at facilities that require 24/7/365 kosher supervision, live with unimaginable mesiras nefesh. Most cholov Yisroel farms and hashgocho temidis food plants are located in extremely far-flung areas, remote from any Jewish communities (and often from “civilization” in general). These mashgichim sacrifice the most basic of needs and comforts, as they live and work in isolation in order to provide their brethren with kosher food.)

What Exactly Do Cholov Yisroel Mashgichim Supervise?

The short answer is that the mashgichim supervise every milking session in order to verify that only cows are used (or goat or sheep, in the case of goat and sheep farms). The mashgichim also assure that no unsupervised milk is brought in and incorporated into the farm's cholov Yisroel milk. Although this may sound straightforward, there are many critical details, all of which are addressed in the primary halachic sources.

Halacha requires the mashgiach to be present for techilas ha-chalivah, the commencement of the milking session, in order to examine the milking equipment and assure that it contains no residue of other milk. The mashgiach must then be present at least on a yotzei v'nichnas(spot-checking) basis during each milking session. (Remo in Yoreh Deah ibid., Shach s.k. 4) The mashgiach also has to be present for the completion of each milking session (sof ha-chalivah), in order to affix his special kashrus seals to the holding tank or silo where all of the milk just collected is stored, thereby assuring that no unsupervised milk is incorporated into the cholov Yisroel.

Rav Chaim Yisroel Belsky told me that Rav Shimon Schwab established the cholov Yisroel supervision at farms that provided milk for cheeses under the hashgocho of K’hal Adath Jeshurun (KAJ – “Breuer’s”) as follows: a) The mashgiach would be present at techilas ha-chalivah; b) the mashgiach would make at least one unannounced visit in the middle of each chalivah; c) the mashgiach would be present for sof ha-chalivah. This fulfills the halachic mandate for cholov Yisroel supervision without question.

The truth is that since cholov Yisroel farms are almost always located so remotely far from Jewish communities and from other places of interest, once the mashgiach is at the farm, it is not really possible to go elsewhere, even if the farm is a part-time cholov Yisroel facility and the mashgiach does not live there year-round. Thus, the mashgiach is normally present anyway for the entire chalivah. Furthermore, it is clear as day to anyone who visits a commercial dairy farm that the only animals on-site are cows (or sheep/goat), and the Halacha is that if a farm has no non-kosher animals, the mashgiach need not witness the actual milking, as even if he is stationed outside of the milking parlor (the room where milking occurs) and verifies that no non-kosher animals enter, the milk is kosher/cholov Yisroel. (Avodah Zarah 39b, Shulchan Aruch ibid.) Nonetheless, common protocol of the kashrus agencies which certify cholov Yisroel is for the mashgiach to physically be present in the milking parlor for chalivah.

After all milking is completed and the milk in the farm’s holding tank or silo is ready to be shipped to a dairy processing plant, which will homogenize, pasteurize and bottle the milk, or will use the milk to manufacture cholov Yisroel cheese, butter, ice cream and the like, the milk is loaded into a bulk tanker truck for transport to the processing dairy. The farm mashgiach will supervise the opening of the holding tank or silo and the piping of the milk into the tanker, and he will affix new kashrus seals onto the ports of the tanker, so that no other milk can be loaded into the tanker between its departure from the farm and its arrival at the dairy processing plant. The mashgiach will also inspect the tanker to assure that it is totally clean of any prior milk residue before the cholov Yisroel is to be loaded, and he will verify that the tanker is either in dedicated cholov Yisroel service or that it has undergone a kashering from any 24-hour straight cholov stam use.

When the tanker arrives at the dairy processing plant, that plant’s mashgiach will inspect the kashrus seals of the farm mashgiach and, assuming all checks out fine, will then authorize the unloading of the milk for cholov Yisroel production. Should the dairy processing plant not be a fully cholov Yisroel facility, its mashgiach will supervise kashering of the plant’s equipment from cholov stam status, and he will typically remain present throughout the entire production, making sure that only cholov Yisroel milk and cholov Yisroel and pareve additives are used, and that cholov Yisroel labels are sealed up after production, preventing their use in the absence of a mashgiach.

Displaced Abomasum (“DA”) Cows

On occasion, a cow’s abomasum (keivah – fourth stomach section) can fill up with gas and reposition, creating a health hazard for the cow, which requires immediate intervention. This condition, referred to as displaced abomasum or “DA”, is caused by grain-based cattle feed.

There are various methods employed to treat DA. Some farmers merely roll the cow over (sometimes in a trough of water!), enabling the abomasum to naturally relocate. In other cases, veterinarians surgically correct DA, using less invasive to very invasive procedures, including puncturing the abomasum flush with a trocar (a sharp, hollow surgical instrument) into the bloated abomasum to relieve gas accumulation and enable the abomasum to return to its proper location.

An animal whose vital organs or limbs have been perforated or torn is rendered a tereifah, and its milk is non-kosher. The poskim of the major national kashrus agencies have ruled that the regular milk supply is kosher, despite the likely presence of small amounts of milk from DA cows in the milk supply. (This p’sak is based on factors of halachic majorities and the specific parameters of tereifos, which are beyond the scope of this article.) Some poskim, however, argue that milk is acceptable only when free of DA cow sources.

This stricter position is taken with regard to cholov Yisroel, and all cholov Yisroel farms thus maintain systems to remove DA cows from the milking herd. A significant part of the work of cholov Yisroel farm mashgichim is tracking cow health and veterinary procedures, and monitoring the removal and continued segregation of DA cows from the milking herd.

Fringe (Halachic) Benefits of Cholov Yisroel

The OU’s position is that cholov stam is acceptable without question. However, there are some unknown halachic benefits to cholov Yisroel milk and dairy products (including those under OU certification, of course):

  • “Soft” cheeses, such as cottage cheese and cream cheese, are formed primarily through the use of acid cultures, which coagulate the milk’s protein and form cheese curd. These soft cheeses are referred to as acid-set cheeses. Almost all national kashrus agencies adhere to the ruling of Rav Yosef Eliyohu Henkin (and other poskim) that acid-set cheeses are kosher so long as the ingredients and equipment used for their manufacture are kosher. Thus, these cheeses are normally supervised by yotzei v'nichnas kashrus visits. However, there is a significant opinion of halachic authorities that acid-set cheeses are subject to the stringencies of gevinas akum, meaning that unless the cheese is produced with a full-time on-site mashgiach, it is non-kosher/gevinas akum. (V. Chochmas Odom 53:38 and Aruch Ha-Shulchan YD 115:16.) Cholov Yisroel acid-set cheeses are all made with full-time, on-site kosher supervision, thereby fulfilling this stricter approach.
  • Modern cheese plants quite often have closed rennetting systems, by which the rennet enzyme used to produce “hard” (rennet-set) cheese is dosed by electronic activation into the milk vat through pipes, under the control of a computerized system, rather than being poured into the vat manually by a worker (who stands at the top opening of the vat with a container of liquid rennet solution and decants it downward). Closed rennetting systems factor significantly into kosher cheese production, as although the Halacha follows the ruling of the Remo that cheese is kosher so long as a mashgiach is present throughout to verify that the rennet being used is kosher, several major rabbinic authorities maintain that the mashgiach must physically pour the rennet into the milk in order for the resultant cheese to be kosher. (V. Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 115:2, Shach ibid. s.k. 20, Bi’ur Ha-Gro ibid. s.k. 14, Pischei Teshiva ibid. s.k. 6, Aruch Ha-Shulchan YD 115:19.) Closed rennetting systems pose a substantial challenge for those who adhere to this stricter position, as it is thereupon necessary that the mashgiach activate the electronic rennet feed for each vat of cheese that is made, in order to fulfill the requirement that a Yisroel administer the rennet for all kosher cheese production. Programming and coordinating this mashgiach-controlled electronic cheese-making system requires extra work and expertise. However, even though cholov Yisroel cheese is manufactured at such plants via electronic rennet activation by the mashgiach for each vat of cheese, it is worth noting that in light of the fact that cholov Yisroel cheese is made from milk that is owned by a Yisroel (i.e. the cholov Yisroel companies), and since the Halacha is that cheese that is owned by a Yisroel from the start, even if the cheese is made by nochrim, is kosher/gevinas Yisroel (Shach ibid. s.k. 20.), the cholov Yisroel cheeses should be kosher even without the mashgiach activating the electronic rennetting system, as the cheeses would anyway be under the ownership of a Yisroel throughout, thereby satisfying the kashrus requirements for cheese. Thus, cholov Yisroel cheese should automatically clear the halachic hurdle posed by closed rennetting systems and should always qualify as gevinas Yisroel, as cholov Yisroel cheese enjoys the benefits of ownership by a Yisroel throughout manufacture, thereby exempting the cheese from the prohibition of gevinas akum. This same logic would also apply to cholov Yisroel acid-set cheeses. (The prohibition of gevinas akum and the requirement for kosher cheese to be gevinas Yisroel are totally unrelated to the question of cholov Yisroel versus cholov stam, just as the categories of bishul akum and bishul Yisroel are totally unrelated to the categories of cholov akum, cholov stam and cholov Yisroel.  V. Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 115:2.)
  • As explained above, cholov Yisroel farms have systems to keep DA cows out of the milking herd, thereby producing milk that meets the requirements of those poskim who take the stricter approach on the matter.

The OU certifies approximately 1200 cholov Yisroel products, and the list is growing. Every OU product whose label bears the phrase “cholov Yisroel” is manufactured according to the stringent protocols described in this article, thereby fulfilling the OU’s mandate to service the entire spectrum of Klal Yisroel.