The Knesset enacted legislation Tuesday that enables hospitals to ban the entry of leavened food, or hametz, ahead of next week’s Passover holiday, during which observant Jews eschew such products.
A softened version of an earlier proposal, the bill enables hospital administrators to set a policy against bringing in hametz and to post it on their website or with signage at entrances, but does not explicitly allow security guards to search patients’ or visitors’ bags to enforce the policy.
The policy can be set after “consideration of other alternatives and taking into account patients’ rights and needs” as well as those of employees.
The bill passed 51-46.
Opposition leader MK Yair Lapid denounced the legislation, telling the Knesset plenum it would cause pushback against what many feel is religious coercion.
“You will cause there to be much less Passover [observance] and fewer people” refraining from eating leavened products in general, he warned.
The Israel Hofsheet organization, which advocates for religious freedom in Israel, slammed the legislation, saying it “sends the hospital administrators to create religious coercion in order to solve a problem that does not exist,” according to a Channel 12 report.
Passover begins on the evening of April 5 and continues for seven days.
A number of large hospitals across Israel said they would indeed post signage on hospital premises but would not search bags to enforce the restrictions.
The Rambam Medical Center in Haifa told Channel 13 stated that the hospital will install signage in several languages “explaining the spirit of the law” and place lockers at the entrance for anyone wishing to keep their hametz. But the hospital said guards will not inspect bags or request to search for hametz.
Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon said it too will put up notices asking people not to bring in hametz or consume it openly, but ill not search anyone’s belongings.
Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv said it will “behave as we do every year — nothing has changed.”
Ultra-Orthodox party United Torah Judaism sponsored the hametz bill, 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 prior version of the bill blocked any foodstuffs that were not either fresh produce nor 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.
The defector, now Environment Minister Idit Silman, welcomed the passage of the law on Tuesday, saying “when something needs to be corrected, we know how to correct it.”