Bills advance to ban hametz from hospitals on Passover, boost rabbinic court powers

Legislation would allow religious courts to rule on civil cases when there is consent from both sides

Illustrative: A man shops for bread in a supermarket in Jerusalem. (Orel Cohen/Flash90)
Illustrative: A man shops for bread in a supermarket in Jerusalem. (Orel Cohen/Flash90)

Two contentious religion and state bills were approved in preliminary readings in the Knesset on Wednesday, one forbidding bringing leavened goods into public hospitals during the Passover holiday and another expanding the powers of rabbinic courts.

Both government-sponsored bills have met fierce resistance, including from some religious groups, which say they could antagonize Israelis against Judaism.

Legislation proposed by United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni would require public hospitals to ban leavened food items, known as hametz, during Passover. It was approved 60-49.

The bill is opposed by the Attorney General’s Office, which found that in its current form, the legislation goes too far and would be difficult to defend in court.

For years, most hospitals and other public institutions banned hametz during the week-long holiday — when Jews traditionally refrain from eating leavened goods — with some even instructing guards to search people’s bags for forbidden foods at the doors. But in 2020, the High Court of Justice declared that hospitals could not conduct such invasive searches, after years of pushing the government to find some compromise or pass some legislation on the issue, and last year the court issued a similar ruling regarding army bases.

Leavened products will still be permitted in medical centers that do not present themselves as being kosher, such as those that provide services to non-Jewish sectors of the population.

United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on January 18, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In a legal opinion, two advisers from the Attorney General’s Office warned earlier this week that the bill “as it is written today raises significant legal difficulties,” as it would not only ban leavened foods but all foods, save for fresh produce and packaged foods marked “kosher for Passover,” which would infringe on the rights of patients and their guests — and, because it would force hospital security guards to do something they were not hired to do by conducting searches, thereby infringing on their rights as well.

The legal advisers recommended further consideration “to find alternative solutions that would fulfill the underlying goals of the bill but without the state unnecessarily infringing on [civil] rights.”

Opposition MK Matan Kahana, a former religious services minister, has ridiculed the bill, saying it will almost surely have the opposite effect, with people intentionally bringing in leavened products as a challenge to the law.

The second bill approved by the Knesset Wednesday, also proposed by Gafni along with other MKs, is to expand the powers of state-run rabbinic courts, giving them the authority to again hear civil cases if both parties agree to it. It passed 58-43.

An explanation for the bill notes that the Supreme Court has “recognized the need for many groups among the Jewish public in Israel to settle disputes exclusively in courts that rule according to Torah law.”

It says that the need falls under the principle of “judicial pluralism” under which the state needs to provide populations with unique characteristics the means for settling disputes “through an alternative legal method acceptable to their communities.”

Illustrative: A man stands outside the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Until 2006, state-run rabbinic courts could hear such cases — disputes between workers and employees, between businesses, or between landlords and renters, for instance — but the High Court found that the rabbinic judges did not have the legal authority to do so and they were stripped of that power.

Currently, rabbinic judges are limited to overseeing marriage and divorce proceedings for all Jewish Israelis, as well as certain issues dealing with conversions, and occasionally with wills and inheritances. Private rabbinic courts are able to hear civil cases if both parties agreed.

The bill would restore the power of state-run rabbinic courts to adjudicate civil matters, provided both sides agree.

The proposal has greater support than the hametz law, including from some of the opposition, but faces significant criticism from religious pluralism groups that warn that parties — particularly women — could be socially pressured by their communities to have rabbinic judges rule on a case, even if they believe a civil court will be more balanced.

Gafni has tied both bills to the government’s ongoing push to drastically overhaul the judicial systems, saying the legislation is yet another move to combat High Court intervention in Israeli life.

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