Ask the Rabbi: Dairy farms operating on Shabbat

The Tnuva milk under the “mehadrin” kashrut certification label does not include milk produced on Shabbat.

Cow 521 (photo credit: Wikipedia Commons)
Cow 521
(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.
The Talmud 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.
Rashi asserts 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.
Dairy cattle 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 fee.
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.
This invoked the ire of some European scholars, including Rabbi Haim Grodzinski, who scorned “irreverent nationalists” for believing that employing Jewish laborers overrides Shabbat restrictions.
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.
Much to the chagrin of many Zionist farmers, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook took a fervently stringent stand, deeming proper Shabbat observance as central to the Jewish renaissance.
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 Shabbat.
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.
Rabbi 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 Jews.
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.The writer, online editor of Tradition, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel and directs the Tikvah Israel Seminars for Post-High School Students.