The Halachic Challenges of the Cheesecake
The upcoming holiday of Shavuos, aside from its most common name, has several others: Chag HaKatzir (The Holiday of the Harvest), Atzeres (Assembly), Yom HaBikkurim (Day of the offering of the first fruits), and Zman Mattan Toraseinu (The Time of the Giving of the Torah). Yet, in Israel, it has gained a new moniker: Chag HaGvinah - The Holiday of the Cheese! Amazingly, and only in Israel, will you find a Jewish custom that has become so commercialized. Although no one really minds paying a lot less for all the various cheeses on sale during the weeks leading up to Shavuos, still, the idea that a “holiday” can be commercially sponsored (by the cheese companies, no less), should give us pause. Interestingly, having cheesecake on Shavuos is one minhag with which many non-practicing Jews are stringent! Have you ever met someone who turned down a piece of cheesecake? But where does this time-honored traditional custom of consuming cheesecake on Shavuos come from?
It seems that the earliest mention of such a minhag is by the great Rema, Rav Moshe Isserles, the authoritative decisor for all Ashkenazic Jewry, who cites the ‘prevailing custom’ of eating dairy items specifically on Shavuos. Although there are many rationales and reasons opined through the ages to explain this custom, the Rema himself provides an enigmatic one, to be a commemoration of the special Korban, the Shtei HaLechem (Two Loaves) offered exclusively on Shavuos during the times of the Beis Hamikdash.
However, since the connection between dairy food and a bread offering seems tenuous, the Machatzis HaShekel offers a remarkable glimpse as to the Rema’s intent. The halacha states that one may not use the same loaf of bread at both a dairy meal and a meat meal. The reason for this is that there may be some (possibly unnoticed) residue on the bread, and thus one might come to eat a forbidden mixture of milk and meat. Therefore, in order to properly commemorate this unique Korban which had two loaves of bread, one should have a separate dairy meal aside from the traditional meat meal one has on the holiday. This way, he will be mandated to have separate breads for each of these meals, as the loaf meant for the dairy meal cannot be used for the meat meal and vice versa. Ergo, by having an additional dairy meal, the outcome is a suitable commemoration for this distinctive Korban, as now on Shavuos, two separate distinct breads are being served.The venerated Rav Moshe Feinstein cites this explanation as the proper one for maintaining two separate types of meals on Shavuos, one milky and one meaty.
Terrific! So now we can appreciate that by eating cheesecake on Shavuos, we are actually commemorating a special Korban! But before we sink our teeth into a luscious calorie-laden (it can’t be sinful - it’s commemorating a Korban!) cheesecake, we should realize that, potentially, there might be another halachic issue involved: the prohibition against baking dairy bread.
Bread has been mankind’s basic staple since time immemorial. Therefore, Chazal worried that an unsuspecting person might mistake dairy breadfor plain pareve bread and eat it together with meat. He would thus inadvertently violate the prohibition of eating a forbidden mixture of milk and meat. They thereby decreed that one may not bake dairy bread unless certain criteria are met: either changing the shape of the dough prior to baking, making it instantly recognizable to all as milky, or baking dairy bread exclusively in small quantities. The same prohibition and exclusions apply to meaty bread as well, due to bread’s propensity to be eaten with a dairy meal.
Although several authorities extend this prohibition to include other baked goods, such as cookies and bourekas, which, if baked milky, might be mistakenly eaten with meat, nevertheless, the prevailing ruling is that the prohibition only applies to bread. Even so, aside from the signs in the bakeries proclaiming which items are dairy and which are pareve, it is nonetheless a widespread practice throughout Israel that bakeries form the dairy baked goods (cheese bourekas, anyone?) in a triangular shape and the pareve ones in a rectangular shape as an extra safeguard against mix-ups.
Does this ruling affect our beloved cheesecake in any way?
Actually, not much. In a typical cheesecake, since the cheese aspect of it is quite conspicuous, it would be considered as if produced with a changed shape from standard dough. Additionally, cheesecake is universally recognized as… containing cheese (!), and thus known world-wide as being dairy. No one would make a mistake confusing cheesecake with pareve bread. Therefore, even according to the opinions of those who feel that the prohibition of dairy bread extends to cakes, even so, they all agree it would be permissible to make plenty of cheesecake for Shavuos, even in large quantities.
Thankfully, when it comes time to indulge in a piece of traditional cheesecake on the holiday of Shavuos, we can “have our cake and eat it too”, both in the literal sense as well as in the spiritual sense; knowing we have fulfilled the halachic requirements and are even commemorating a unique Korban.
The author wishes to thank friend and colleague Rabbi Elie Schoemann, Rabbinic Coordinator of the London Beth Din Kashrus Division (KLBD), as his relevant article served as the impetus formy interest and research on this topic.
Rema O.C. 494, 3.
This topic has been addressed by many - see the relevant commentaries to the Rema’s comment. There is even a recent sefer, Meta’amei Moshe, who lists 149 (!) different reasons for this minhag.
See Shemos (Parsha Ki Sisa) Ch. 34, verse 32; Vayikra (Parshas Emor) Ch. 23, verses 15 - 22; Bamidbar (Parshas Pinchas) Ch. 28, verse 26. This is the first Templeoffering from the new wheat crop.
Machatzis HaShekel ad loc. 7, s.v. h”h.
Shulchan Aruch 89, 4 and relevant commentaries. See also Kaf Hachaim (Rav Chaim Falag’i - 24, 20) and Yalkut Me’am Loez (Shemos - Parshas Mishpatim pg. 890 s.v. basar achar gvina). See also Shu”t Igros Moshe (Y”D vol. 1, 38) for the parameters of this halacha.
As mentioned in a previous article “Salting With Sugar?!”, the Midrash compares our tables to the Altar. Therefore, serving a food item at a meal is considered an appropriate commemoration for a Korban.
Shu”t Igros Moshe (O.C. vol. 1, 160).
Devarim (Eikev) Ch.8, verse 3.
Gemara Pesachim 30a and 36a. The hetter is known as “k’eyn tura” (like the eye of an ox). Although this expression is debated by the Rishonim [Rashi (ad loc. s.v. k’eyn tura) feels it means a small amount, while the Rif (Chullin 38a), Rashba (Toras Habayis Hakatzer Bayis 3, Sha’ar 4, 86a), and Rambam (Hilchos Ma’achlos Asuros Ch. 9, 22) maintain that it is referring to a changed shape that is obvious to all that it is dairy or meaty], nonetheless, the Shulchan Aruch (Y”D 97, 1) rules that both are acceptable ways to ensure that the dairy bread will not be mixed-up.
According to the vast majority of poskim this leniency only applies if the change was made prior to the baking [Including ad loc. - Pri Megadim (S.D. 1 s.v. v’im), Pischei Teshuva (3), Gilyon Maharsha (2), Chavaas Daas (Chiddushim 5 & Biurim 3), Arugas HaBosem, Maharsham (Daas Torah 1), Ben Ish Chai (Year 2, Shelach 17 & Shu”t Rav Pealim vol. 2, Y”D 11), Yad Yehuda (Pih”a 3), Zer Zahav (on the Issur V’Hetter 40, 4), Levushei Srad (Y”D 41, 139), Ksav Sofer (Shu”t Y”D end 61), and Aruch Hashulchan (9)]. See also footnotes 13 & 14.
Shu”t Mahari”t (vol. 2, 18), Pischei Teshuva (Y”D 97, 3), Pri Chadash (ad loc. 1), Pri Toar (ad loc. 2 - who adds that this is an issue only lchatchila), Chochmas Adam (50, 3), Aruch Hashulchan (ad loc, 7), Kaf Hachaim (ad loc. 12). They all maintain that the shinui made to allow dairy bread must be known to all, and not just the local townspeople. The dissenting opinion is that of the Yad Yehuda (ad loc. Piha”k 7), who argues that we need not concern ourselves with visiting guests.
There is an interesting debate on “biskugies”, apparently a type of bread that was commonly sold as pareve, with the Mahar”i Chagiz (Shu”t Halachos Ketanos vol. 1, 56) writing briefly that since they are a type of bread and everyone assumes they are pareve, they also fall in the category of the dairy bread prohibition. This is according to the understanding of the Yaave”tz (Shu”t Sheilas Ya’avetz vol. 1, 62), Zivchei Tzedek (Y”D 97, 8), and Chida (Shiyurei Bracha Y”D 97, 1), and not like the Mahar’i’s own son who wrote (by adding a few words to his father’s responsum) that his father meant to permit them. The Ya’avetz himself concludes that he does not know what “biskugies” are, but if they are, as he suspects, biscuits or cookies, then they are permitted to be baked dairy as they are not an actual bread. See also footnotes 15 & 16.
According to the Shulchan Aruch (Y”D 97, 1) the small amount that is permissible to make is only enough for one meal. This is how Sefardim rule (See also Ben Ish Chai Year 2, Shelach 17, and Kaf Hachaim Y”D 97, 7). The Rema (ad loc. Toras Chatas 36, 9) is a bit more lenient, allowing an amount necessary for one day, a 24 hour period (Pri Megadim ad loc. S.D. 1, s.v. v’im; Chavas Daas ad loc. Biurim 3; Yad Yehuda ad loc. Piha”k 6; Aruch Hashulchan ad loc. 4; Atzei HaOlah Hilchos BB”C 12, 1; Darchei Teshuva ad loc. 17). This is the custom of Ashkenazim.
Although most authorities are stringent even if someone violated the prohibition accidentally, (see footnote 10), there are those however, who are lenient if a tiny amount of milk accidentally spilled on bread (Shu”t Aish Das end 12; Shu”t Shoel U’Meishiv, Tinyana vol. 4, end 189; Nachlas Tzvi Y”D 97, 1; Shu”t Nefesh Chaya 36; Imrei Binah, Hilchos BB”C 13). The Kreisi U’Pleisi (ad loc. Pleisi 1 s.v. shamaati, Kreisi 3) quotes his grandfather as allowing one who made a large batch of dairy bread without a shinui to divide it up into small quantities and give it out to various households. Although the Chamudei Daniel (Taaruvos 2, 18) agrees with this, most authorities do not (see footnote 10) and rule that it is prohibited. The Kreisi U’Pleisi himself concludes that it is tzarich iyun to be lenient with this, and only as a snif lehakel. Yet, the Yad Yehuda (Y”D 97, Pih”a 3), Chochmas Adam (50, 5 & Binas Adam 51 (70), Zivchei Tzedek (Y”D 97, 6), Atzei HaOlah (Hilchos BB”C 12, 3) and Kaf Hachaim (Y”D 97, 9 & 11), rule that in case of great loss and it was done accidentally, one may rely on this. This is also the ruling of the B’tzeil HaChochma (Shu”t vol. 6, 84, 3-4) and the Maadanei Hashulchan (3 and Shu”t Maadanei Melachim 123). The Ksav Sofer (Shu”t Y”D end 61) maintains that a baker is allowed to mass produce dairy bread on condition to sell a small amount to each family, as that is the normal method of selling. See also Shu”t Shevet HaKehasi (vol. 5, 128) and Shu”t Even Yisrael (vol. 9, 67).
Including the Taz (Y”D 97, 1), Pri Toar (ad loc. 2), Erech Hashulchan (2), Zivchei Tzedek (ibid.), and Ben Ish Chai (ibid.).
Including - ad loc. Shu”t Mahari”t (ibid.), Pri Chadash (1), Minchas Yaakov (60, 3), Chavas Daas (1), Chida (Shiyurei Bracha 3), Pischei Teshuva (end 3), Yeshuos Yaakov (1), Ya’avetz (ibid.), Machatzis HaShekel (s.v. ayin), Chochmas Adam (50, 7), Atzei HaOlah (ibid. 4), and Aruch Hashulchan (2). See also Shu”t Shulchan HaLevi (vol. 1, Ch. 22, 7 - 8).
Since at busy bakeries the potential for mistakes is quite high, this is done as an extra precaution, even though m’ikar hadin it is deemed unnecessary by most authorities.
The Be’er Sheva (Shu”t 32) maintains as long as some cheese is noticeable, it is considered an adequate shinui to allow it to be made. This is also cited by the Pri Chadash (Y”D 97, end 3), Pri Megadim (S.D. 1), Zivchei Tzedek (ad loc. 10), Aruch Hashulchan (Y”D 97, 5 - who calls it “Minhag Yisrael Torah’), and Kaf Hachaim (ad loc. 1). Although the Atzei HaOlah (BB”C 12, Chukei Chaim 1) is uneasy about a small amount of cheese being noticed, and others, including the Gilyon Maharsha (ibid.) and Chamudei Daniel (ibid.) maintain that said shinui must affect the entire dairy bread, nevertheless, where it would be recognizable throughout, as a cheesecake is, it would definitely be permitted.
Mahari”t (Shu”t ibid.), Pri Chadash (Y”D 97, 1), Ben Ish Chai (ibid.), Yad Yehuda (Piha”k), Aruch Hashulchan (ad loc. 8), Kaf Hachaim (ad loc. 12, s.v. u’va’ir). See also footnote 11 - If it is recognizable to all, it is considered a proper shinui.
For any questions, comments or for the full Mareh Mekomos / sources, please email the author: email@example.com
Disclaimer: These are just a few basic guidelines and overview of the Halacha discussed in this article. This is by no means a complete comprehensive authoritative guide, but rather a brief summary to raise awareness of the issue. One should not compare similar cases in order to rules in any real case, but should refer his questions to a competent Halachic authority.