Religion and State

The unhealthy law against chametz in hospitals

There’s one thing such a law most likely won’t do, and that’s keeping chametz from being brought into hospitals

The law prohibiting entry of leavened products into Israeli hospitals during Passover will become yet another legal dead letter, and a source of unnecessary friction between religious and non-religious people. The law, like last Passover’s entire chametz-in-the-hospitals controversy, is a symptom of the disease that has gripped the Israeli public from all directions – the disease of power, heavy-handed decisions and tribal warfare. Here too, as for many other issues, a dialogue of mutual respect would bring about much more effective outcomes both on the societal level and with regard to kosher for Passover hospitals.

The “Chametz Law” (officially: the “Unleavened Bread Law”), which prohibits the sale of chametz in Jewish localities, was enacted almost 40 years ago. This is one of the few laws on the books in Israel that enshrines a halachic prohibition as an Israeli legal prohibition. And it has been a total failure. Anyone who spends time in secular Israeli cities over Passover sees restaurants and supermarkets openly selling chametz. The number of cases where the law is enforced is almost nil, and efforts to enforce it are minimal to nonexistent. Apart from generating resentment and increasing fractious public debate, the law has achieved nothing. This, in all likelihood, will also be the fate of the law banning chametz in hospitals.

Medical staff in Jerusalem’s Hadassah Ein Kerem Medical Center. Photo by Ohad Rosh/TPS

No one goes to a hospital out of choice. Hospitalization is a difficult experience for patients and their families. For religious patients during Passover, obtaining kosher-for-Passover food is a basic option. Because of the severity of the religious chametz prohibitions (“neither shall there be leaven seen with thee,” Exodus 13:7) many hospitals have posted guards at their entrances to make sure that no one, including secular Jews and non-Jews, brings chametz inside. This has the effect both of allaying remote concerns about the kashrut of the food served in the hospitals, and, of course, of ensuring that chametz shall not be seen on hospital premises.

This practice, which non-Jews and secular Jews feel has harmed their quality of life during the Passover week, led (as is customary in Israel) to a High Court petition. At first the Court tried to offer various compromises, such as the use of disposable dishware during Passover, or limiting the prohibition to specific areas. Unfortunately, the Chief Rabbinate rejected any compromise, while the petitioners were unwilling to make even the smallest concession on their “right to chametz.”

Therefore, the Court considered itself, not necessarily rightly, forced to rule on the matter. It determined that the practice of having hospital guards prevent the entry of chametz has no basis in law, and that, because it violates the rights of some patients to freedom of religion and to dignity, it should be nullified. The Court also added as a side note that the prohibition of chametz in hospitals is a bad idea that unduly undermines the rights of chametz-eating patients. And what of the kosher observant patients? The Court showed less concern for them.

The outcome of this dynamic – entrenchment and unwise adjudication – is the bad law that will likely be enacted in the coming weeks. One result that the law almost certainly won’t achieve is that of chametz not being brought into hospitals. As with the Chametz Law, so with the “Chametz in Hospitals Law”: many hospitals will not work very hard to enforce it in a serious way. Furthermore, we may expect that the law will become yet another bone of contention in the religious-secular battle over the Israeli public sphere, and that there will be enough devoutly-secular Jews to fight for the option of bringing their own food into the hospitals. There will also be unpleasant scenes of bag searches, and other invasions of privacy in places where the law is enforced. And so, there may be less chametz here and there, but antipathy toward Judaism and aversion to the prohibition of chametz will heat up, and the state’s Jewishness, even if enshrined in other legislation, will erode.

The ability to keep the hospitals kosher for Passover should not be a matter of legislation or of rummaging through the possessions of those entering hospitals. It is also not the most effective, practical, and social way to achieve it. Instead, it would be more appropriate to reach political and social understandings, and to impress upon the non-religious how important the prohibition, and the holiday itself, are to the religious. Interim solutions and appeals to respect the sensitivities of others without being forced by state law would achieve much more kashrut and promote social harmony. But our public representatives seem intent on choosing a different path, and to the great societal conflagration already raging, the “burning of chametz” will be added.

First published by ‘The Times of Israel’.