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Thought for the Day: חלב ישראל and Camel Milk

Here's a fact that probably doesn't interest you at all:
Aside from cattle, many kinds of livestock provide milk used by humans for dairy products. These animals include buffalo, goat, sheep, camel, donkey, horse, reindeer, and yak. The first four respectively produced about 11%, 2%, 1.4% and 0.2% of all milk worldwide in 2011. (From Wikipedia... so you know it's true!)
Notice that most of those animals are kosher, so their milk is also kosher.  The only non-kosher animal that even made it into the top four is camel at 1.4%.

Why might that be an interesting factoid for you to file away?  The gemara wonders (Avoda Zara 35b) why Chazal instituted the decree of חלב ישראל.  After all, explains the gemara, milk from a kosher animal is white and can be made into cheese, whereas milk from a non-kosher animal is creamy/yellow and cannot be processed into cheese.  That being the case, we could easily detect if milk from non-kosher sources was added, so why do we need a special decree?  Now here's the deal... camel milk is white as snow (or at least as cow's milk) and you can actually make cheese from it.  Check it out.  Now what?

Before we talk about how to understand that this gemara in light of those facts, though, we need to ask a different question: Yeah!  Why did Chazal make a special decree for חלב ישראל?  If non-kosher ingredients were added, then of course it isn't kosher and if I don't have adequate supervision then of course I can't eat it!  After all, that is my answer to anyone who asks why I don't eat vegetarian or fish meals in non-kosher restaurants?

The answer to that question is that we don't really expect the goyim to add milk from non-kosher animals.  But it's one of those things that you don't really expect to have to worry about.  There is another food like that: דמאי (yes, Wikipedia has a Hebrew presence also).  These are cases where the Chazal saw a certain laxity in observance to which they wanted to encourage more care.

Given that, the gemara is not at all questioning what the purpose of the decree, the gemara is wondering where there is room for laxness.  After all, you can see the color and you can't make cheese out of it.  Regardless of the answer (see there), we still need to deal with the apparent contradiction of the gemara's statements to the reality we see with our own eyes.

The cheese issue is easiest.  The gemara is not telling you a הלכה למשה מסיני, it's telling you an observation.  In those days they didn't have the wherewithal to make cheese from camel.  Or can also say (as some rishonim do) that the gemara meant you can't make hard cheese; which is also true by observation.

The color issue is a bit trickier, but along the same lines.  The gemara is telling you an observation made in Babylonia that milk from kosher animals is white and from non-kosher animals is yellow/creamy.  In fact, the milk from a yak -- also a kosher animal and also not available in Babylonia -- is also yellow/creamy.  What about camels, though?  They certainly had camels and milk from a camel is certainly white.  To answer this requires some speculation, but its a very reasonable speculation (the kind where I am tempted to say, "so you have to say", but I never, ever say that).

Why would a goy add milk from a non-kosher animal into cow's milk?  Because he will otherwise have to throw it away.  Nobody drinks horse (mare) milk, nor cat milk, nor dog milk; so if the goy has a mare or a cat or a female dog (no, I am not going to say it), then he might throw that worthless milk into the mix.  However, he is most certainly not going to throw camel milk in there -- because he can sell camel milk!  And camel's milk is a lot more expensive than cow's milk.  If anything, he is more likely to put cow milk into the camel milk.

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