Israelis pick Passover food fight

The Israeli public is less concerned than the litigants might like about a Supreme Court case over the widely observed prohibition on unleavened food in hospitals during Passover.

al-monitor Ultra-Orthodox Jewish women prepare matza, a traditional unleavened bread eaten during the Jewish holiday of Passover, in Komemiyut, Israel, March 20, 2018.  Photo by REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun.

Topics covered

religious freedom, health care, food, hospitals, israeli right wing, jewish culture, passover

Apr 4, 2018

Should the Israeli state mandate kosher Passover food in hospitals? This issue has become the center of a secular-religious battle. A group of secular activists petitioned the High Court against the regulation that prohibits bringing leavened bread, or chametz, into hospitals during Passover. But the petition seems like a fight for the sake of a fight and not motivated by a true desire to allow families to bring food for their hospitalized loved ones. The Israeli public is clearly smarter than those purporting to fight for it and knows how to be flexible and considerate when necessary. 

In general, hospitals in Israel forbid bringing in food except that in its original sealed packaging. In practice, however, the prohibition isn’t meticulously enforced. A deputy director of operations at one of the hospitals in Jerusalem admitted in private conversation with Al-Monitor that the Israeli public cannot comply with this decree, and so long as they don't bring enormous pots or cause real disturbance to the other patients and hospital routine, hospitals turn a blind eye.

According to the kashrut regulations of the Chief Rabbinate and at the instruction of the Ministry of Health, there is also a specific prohibition against bringing in leavened food into hospitals during Passover, since they undergo Passover cleaning and their food service items are intended only for kosher Passover food. Accordingly, hospital security guards have been instructed that from the morning that the hospitals are cleaned for Passover until the end of the holiday, they must enforce the rule and not allow visitors to bring food that’s not kosher into the hospital area. 

This year the Secular Forum, whose stated goals include fighting “religious radicalization,” decided to petition the High Court against the prohibition on bringing leavened food into hospitals. Knesset members Ksenia Svetlova (Zionist Camp), Michal Rozin and Mossi Raz (Meretz) joined the effort. The chairman of the Secular Forum, Ram Fruman, claimed, “This instruction takes advantage of patients. The State of Israel is not a state governed by Jewish law, and therefore it isn’t ethical, proper or legal that its institutions trample on the rights of citizens.”

In response, the state claimed that the prohibition on bringing leavened food into hospitals during the Passover holiday is “reasonable and proper,” since it is intended to ensure that medical facilities “remain open and accessible to those who keep the laws of kashrut during the holiday.” According to the state, the injury to those who don’t keep kashrut is minor and amounts to a few days a year of eating kosher food.

Several hospital directors have announced that they won’t enforce the regulation, angering Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman of ultra-Orthodox Yahadut HaTorah. “There’s no authority for a director not to uphold or implement the regulation that’s been in place for 60-70 years. This is the regulation that has existed until now, and we will maintain it,” he said. 

According to the hospital official who spoke with Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, during Passover most of the public refrains from bringing food into hospitals at all. “Visitors are mostly aware of the problem regarding kashrut for Passover and prefer to make do during the holiday with food provided by the hospital to their hospitalized loved ones,” he said. According to him, most of those who have brought food with them during Passover were simply unaware of the regulation and, aside from isolated arguments, visitors have accepted the prohibition and left the food they brought at the entrance to the hospital.

Rabbi Menachem Rosenberg, the rabbi of Kupat Hacholim Hakelalit (Israel’s largest HMO that operates 14 hospitals there), said that leading up to the holiday, signs were posted at hospital entrances asking visitors to respect the public who observes the holiday and refrain from bringing in leavened food. Volunteers also explain to visitors the importance of the matter. In his experience, people usually cooperate and understand the importance of the matter. He didn't discount the possibility that some people have brought leavened food into hospital areas unobserved, but he said no complaints have been received on the matter. The public has solved the issue without the help of the High Court or a public battle. 

A survey by Ynet revealed that in most hospitals security guards do not conduct “chametz checks” and anyone who wants to bring in food does so. At the Soroka Hospital in Beersheba checks were conducted, and if leavened food was found it was kept at the entrance in designated boxes. In most cases, it was pita bread brought by families of Bedouin patients.

Aviad Hacohen, president of the Academic Center for Law and Science, described the fight against the chametz regulation as pointless. He said that when an unenforceable law exists, “It turns into a battle instead of tolerance, which is true freedom. It’s simple humanity between people.”

There are quite a few loaded issues of religion and state in Israel, some of them fundamental. The issue of bringing unleavened food into hospitals is not one of them, but it’s being used by the two sides to create the impression of a rift. But even the High Court has delayed its decision until after Passover, as if telling the litigants that not everything is a judicial issue. 

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