By: Emil G. Hirsch
The curd of milk run into molds and allowed to coagulate. This article of food was known to the ancient Hebrews. Three expressions seem at least to indicate that various kinds and forms of cheese were in use: 1. "Gebinah" (Job x. 10) denotes the ordinary article, prepared in Biblical times as it is to this day in Syria. Milk is passed through a cloth, and the curd, after being salted, is molded into disks about the size of the hand and dried in the sun. From such cheese a cool, acid drink is made by stirring it in water. 2. "Hariẓe he-ḥalab" (I Sam. xvii. 18) appears to have been made of sweet milk, and to have been something like cottage-cheese. It is not certain what "shefot baḳar" (II Sam. xvii. 29) signifies. Perhaps the Masoretic reading is corrupt. If not, "cream"or "cheese" may be its meaning. 3. "Ḥem'ah," ordinarily "cream," signifies "cheese" in Prov. xxx. 33.
In post-Biblical days the manufacture of cheese was in the hands of a distinct gild. Josephus ("B. J." v. 4, § 1), at all events, mentions "the valley of the cheese-makers," and many are the references in the Talmudic writings to the preparation of hard cheese (Shab. 96a; Tosef., Shab. x.; Yer. Shab. vii. 10a, end; Yer. Ma'as. ii. 3a; Yer. B. M. vii. 11b). Yer. Sheḳ. vii. 3c mentions a disk ("iggul") of cheese. Cheese and water are mentioned as constituting a very poor meal (Yer. M. Ḳ. iii. 83b; Yer. Ned. v. 40d, beginning).
Cheese was one of the articles included in the list of eighteen prohibitions enacted at the famous meeting in the upper chamber of Hananiah ben Hezekiah ben Garon (Shab. i. 7), which could never be revoked because they who had adopted them gave their lives for them (Yer. Shab. i. 7; 3c. The Mishnah does not enumerate them specifically; in the Gemara there are long debates concerning them; but a Baraita in the name of R. Simeon ben Yoḥai (ib.) furnishes the particulars. According to this war measure, Jews were forbidden to buy bread, oil, cheese, wine, vinegar, etc., from an idolater. In the Mishnah ('Ab. Zarah, ii. 5, 29a) cheese from Bet Oneiki (= Bithnica; Yer. reading ; Tosefta has here ; according to Rapoport, "Erek Millin," Veneca in Media is referred to) is declared to be "issur" (interdicted), Rashi explaining that Cheese from any other locality may be eaten. According to R. Meïr this issur carries with it the prohibition against using cheese for other purposes than eating, an opinion not accepted by the Rabbis. R. Joshua is reported as accounting for the prohibition by the fact that the makers of cheese, who were all either pagans () or Bithynians (see Pliny, "Historia Naturalis," xi. 97; Wiesner, in "Ben Chananja," 1866, col. 75), placed the cheese (to ripen it) in the rennet-bag of an animal that had died of disease. Another of the reasons advanced is that most of the Bithynian calves whose stomachs were used in the manufacture of cheese, were slaughtered for idolatrous rites ('Ab. Zarah 34b). Besides this, the contact of the rennet with the cheese would come under the general prohibition against mixing milk and meat.
The later religious practise has been to interdict all cheese made by non-Jews suspected of idolatry. Cheese made by Jews from the milk of animals originally destined for idolatry seems also to have been forbidden, and so was cheese of heathen manufacture, even if kept in leaves or herbs (see Shulḥan 'Aruk, Yoreh De'ah, 115, 2; "Yad," Ma'akalot Asurot, iii.). So strictly was this prohibition observed that for a long time the Jews of England used to get their cheese from Holland so as to be certain that it had been prepared according to Jewish custom.