Hospital confiscates pregnant woman’s cookies as new hametz law goes into effect

Guard at Netanya’s Laniado said to block entry over wafers, days before Passover starts; hospitals look to balance compliance with longstanding respect for all religious practices

Renee Ghert-Zand is the health reporter and a feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Laniado Hospital, also known as the Sanz Medical Center, in Kiryat Sanz in the coastal city of Netanya, March 26, 2020. (Gili Yaari / Flash90)
Laniado Hospital, also known as the Sanz Medical Center, in Kiryat Sanz in the coastal city of Netanya, March 26, 2020. (Gili Yaari / Flash90)

A hospital guard in central Israel confiscated cookies that were not kosher for Passover from a pregnant woman checking into the medical center on Sunday, days before the start of the holiday, and as hospitals nationwide prepare to implement the government’s new “hametz law” passed by the Knesset last week.

The law bans hametz (leavened food) in hospitals during the week of Passover, during which observant Jews eschew such products, and leaves it to hospital directors to “use their own judgment in how to notify visitors and staff” either by posting their policies on their website or with signage at entrances, but it does not explicitly allow security guards to search patients’ or visitors’ bags to enforce the policy.

Passover begins on the evening of Wednesday, April 5, this year.

Several large hospitals across Israel said they would post signage on hospital premises but would not search belongings to enforce the restrictions. Some said they would set up designated spaces or lockers for anyone wishing to keep hametz there.

But on Sunday, according to a Channel 12 report (in Hebrew), an employee stationed at the entrance to Laniado Hospital, a private religious hospital in Netanya, prevented a woman with a high-risk pregnancy from entering with a package of wafers that were not kosher for Passover, and she was required to leave the food outside. The hospital was founded in 1976 by Rabbi Yekutiel Yehuda Halberstam and is owned by the Sanz Hasidic sect, though it has also received state funding.

“The holiday hasn’t even started. And there is also nothing in the law that says that you have to leave food outside. The hospital is acting against the law,” the woman’s irate husband told Channel 12. “Why did the hospital take this freedom of action?”

The husband, whose name was not disclosed, said a tent was set up at the hospital’s entrance where patients and visitors were required to hand over any food that was not kosher for Passover in exchange for a ticket to later get their food back, and gain entry to the hospital.

“They told her, ‘You have food that is non-kosher for Passover, leave it outside and we’ll get you a ticket.’ She has a high-risk pregnancy and it does not make sense that she should go into urgent treatment without food to sustain her throughout the day,” he added, explaining that his wife receives treatment at the hospital every two weeks during the pregnancy.

“This is an illegal act and contrary to the hametz law. It is simply outrageous,” he went on. Efforts to get clarification from hospital authorities have gone unanswered, he said.

Over in Haifa, the Rambam Medical Center has not indicated whether it will separate people from their hametz to gain entry, but it has put up prominent signage next to its entrances saying that it is providing lockers for people to leave their leavened food.

Signage at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa is put up after the hametz law is passed by the Knesset on March 28, 2023. (Courtesy of Rambam Medical Center)

Of the several large hospitals contacted by The Times of Israel, Rambam appears to be taking the stricter approach against bringing hametz onto its premises. Its signage includes instructions regarding a “ban” on hametz, stating that Israeli law “forbids” leavened food on the hospital premises.

The signage explains that “the hospital undergoes full certification of kashrut for Passover, and if this kashrut is violated, it could prevent religious people from receiving medical services they require.”

In a tense period due to the government’s intended judicial overhaul and an uptick in terror attacks, other hospitals are hoping to steer clear of conflict over comestibles.

Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center-Ichilov Hospital CEO Prof. Ronni Gamzu warned against provocations in the public sphere, including public hospitals such as Ichilov.

In an official tweet, Gamzu characterized Ichilov as a public institution that respects Jewish tradition. At the same time, he clarified that “we never checked bags for hametz and we won’t be doing it this year.” He called for mutual respect among Israelis concerning religious differences.

Other hospitals issued statements indicating that they will observe the law, but they lacked specifics. The emphasis was on their dedication to serving patients from all sectors and religious and ethnic backgrounds.

A general view of Ichilov hospital in Tel Aviv on November 10, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem reiterated its 120-year history of “preserving mutual respect among all sectors within the unique and multifaceted human fabric in Jerusalem that allows it to find the right balance for allowing people to live alongside one another rather than at the expense of one another.”

A spokesperson for the hospital was quick to add that guards would not be inspecting people’s belongings.

Also in Jerusalem, Hadassah Medical Center referred to its “spirit and values that lead to the excellent care and personalized treatment” it provides its “patients from all ethnic groups, communities, and nationalities, showing consideration for their religious beliefs.”

As of the writing of this article, Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer — Israel’s largest hospital — had not released a statement about how it will implement the new law. A spokesperson said that the hospital was finalizing its plan and putting together a related public relations video to share with the public.

Illustrative: Bread for sale at the Rami Levy supermarket in Jerusalem on July 17, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The new hametz law was sponsored by the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, outraged after a 2020 High Court of Justice ruling blocked hospitals from searching bags to check for hametz in response to petitions decrying the searches as invasive and religiously intrusive. The court extended its ruling to army bases last year.

A previous version of the bill that became law blocked any foodstuffs that were not either fresh produce or prepackaged with a kosher-for-Passover label from being brought into hospitals, including homemade food.

Hospital staff members and employees, many of whom are not Jewish, could have been barred from bringing home-prepared lunches and other items if the bill had been advanced in its original construction.

The fight over hametz in hospitals has transcended the holiday, becoming a symbol for both secular and religious Jews of their fight over religion’s place in the Jewish state. Opponents say it interferes with their freedom by forcing religious restrictions on secular Jews and non-Jews, whereas supporters point to the need to enable patients to maintain a kosher environment during the holiday, which can be spoiled by contamination with leavened food.

The issue came to a crescendo last April, when the fight over hametz and its ties to religious values in the state was the immediate catalyst for a struggling member of the razor-thin coalition to defect, kicking off a three-month tumble toward the previous government’s collapse.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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