(photo credit: Wikipedia Commons)
The question of operating a dairy farm on Shabbat raises many questions that go
well beyond the issue of milking cows. These include concerns for animal
welfare, national security, the state’s economy, and the use of automated
technology or gentile workers to solve modern problems.
definitively proscribes milking a cow on Shabbat, yet leaves ambiguous the
nature and severity of the prohibition. In general, all Shabbat prohibitions are
included within the 39 categories of forbidden labor, and medieval commentators
struggled with how to classify the activity of milking.
that milking falls under the category of threshing (dosh), which is defined as
the act of extracting something from where it is grown, such as grain kernels
from their chaff. But according to most decisors, the prohibition of threshing
only includes earthgrown items. Some commentators, however, do assert that cows
fall under this category since their sustenance is from the earth. Others demur
from this broad classification and suggest that milking falls under the
categories of sorting (borer) or shearing (gozez). Rabbeinu Tam, the prominent
Tosafist, suggests that squeezing the udders falls under the category of
smoothing a surface (memahek).
Given this complexity, some scholars
assert that milking is a rabbinic proscription. However, the majority of
scholars, including Maimonides, assert that milking a cow remains a biblical
prohibition. If one milks the cow without collecting any of the milk (le’ibbud),
however, then the action is at best a rabbinic prohibition.
will suffer greatly if left unattended for the duration of Shabbat. In
sensitivity to their pain (tza’ar ba’alei hayim), Jewish law encourages cow
owners to arrange for a gentile to milk the cow. Scholars argue whether or not
the Jewish owner may make use of the milk after Shabbat, with most arguing that
it is permissible, especially if the Jew pays the gentile a nominal
THIS SYSTEM worked, more or less, until the 20th century, when Jews
began to re-settle the Land of Israel and dairy farms, among other agricultural
enterprises, were deemed critical to the national economy. Many Zionist
ideologues promoted the importance of exclusive Jewish labor (avoda ivrit) as
central to the nation’s political and cultural renaissance.
the ire of some European scholars, including Rabbi Haim Grodzinski, who scorned
“irreverent nationalists” for believing that employing Jewish laborers overrides
Zionist ideology aside, the use of Arab laborers
was deemed dangerous because of security concerns as well as the spread of
animal diseases from Arab farms, thereby spawning four different approaches to
solve this issue, each of which reflect broader legal philosophies.
to the chagrin of many Zionist farmers, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook took a
fervently stringent stand, deeming proper Shabbat observance as central to the
Even as he generally favored using Jewish laborers,
he contended that any Jewish state would inevitably rely on the use of some
gentile workers, and if current security conditions did not allow for their
employment, then Jewish workers could only squeeze the udders but not make use
of the milk.
This sentiment was derided by Rabbi Haim Hirschensohn, who
asserted – based upon minority positions – that one must construct a more
realistic solution, taking into account Jewish sovereignty. He argued that if
the milking could be done in an unusual manner (shinui) in order to prevent the
cow from suffering, then a Jew could do the work and use the milk after
A more moderate proposal was offered by Rabbi Ben-Zion Uziel.
Like Hirschensohn, Uziel argued that we may rely upon minority opinions but only
if a gentile is truly unavailable for the work. To minimize the severity of the
action, he argued that the milking should be done privately, with a tool and not
by hand, and slowly so that each squeeze could be deemed as relieving the
animal’s pain, as opposed to extracting its milk for consumption.
Shaul Yisraeli combined these leniencies with another notion: that squeezing is
permissible if the liquid flows into a food rather than into a retaining vessel.
As such, some farms collected the milk into bread and later used it (albeit at
less profit) for the production of cheese.
The solution that has become
ultimately most accepted was offered by Rabbi Abraham Karelitz. Opposing the use
of Jewish laborers, he instead suggested that Jewish farms operate automated
machinery that can perform the milking, with Jewish laborers – when necessary –
only doing preparatory work before the milking actually begins. Organizations
like the Tzomet Institute have developed sophisticated machinery which is
employed at many Israeli dairy farms, even those not run by Shabbat-observant
Not all decisors approve of these types of solutions, and therefore
Tnuva milk under the “mehadrin” kashrut certification label does not include
milk produced on Shabbat. Yet many Tnuva products do rely on this technohalachic
solution, an advancement which many support to facilitate both Shabbat
observance and the continued Jewish renaissance in this land.
online editor of Tradition, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel and directs the Tikvah
Israel Seminars for Post-High School