Softened bill banning Passover ‘hametz’ from hospitals cleared for first reading

After fiery debate, MKs tweak legislation to give hospital directors more control over how to keep leavened goods out during Jewish holiday, rather than imposing a blanket ban

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

A woman shops for matzah at a supermarket in Jerusalem on March 31, 2020. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90/File)
A woman shops for matzah at a supermarket in Jerusalem on March 31, 2020. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90/File)

The Knesset’s Health Committee on Wednesday approved a contentious bill to ban leavened goods, or hametz, from public hospitals during the week-long Passover holiday, paving the way for it to be brought to the plenary for a first reading later in the day.

The government-backed bill met significant resistance, including from some religious groups and religious opposition MKs, who see it as more likely to antagonize Jewish Israelis against religion than to bring them closer to it. The bill’s supporters see it as a necessary corrective, after the High Court of Justice ruled that hospitals could not force security guards to search the bags of visitors for hametz.

The bill, which was significantly moderated in the Knesset Health Committee from its initial version, was scheduled to be brought for a vote — the first of three — later in the day on Wednesday.

If the bill passes, which it is expected to do, it would still require two more readings before becoming law. Before then, the bill can still be amended.

The initial version of the bill demanded a flat, across-the-board ban in all hospitals of not only leavened goods, but any food besides store-bought products explicitly labeled as kosher for Passover and fresh produce. The revised bill would give greater control to hospital directors to decide how to ensure that their facilities accommodate religious patients and visitors who cannot eat leavened goods on Passover.

The new reading of the bill grants hospital directors “the special arrangements needed to ensure the patients can keep kosher for Passover. Among other things, this includes — once other alternatives have been considered — establishing protocols banning or limiting the entrance of hametz into the hospital building, in full or part, during the Passover holiday.”

The more progressive religious advocacy group ITIM, which participated in the committee’s deliberations, hailed the revised version of the law, saying that there would be “no searching bags on Passover,” a reference to concerns that people visiting family and friends in the hospital would be subjected to invasive searches during the holiday.

“Thanks to the opposition by us and other civil groups, the formulation of the hametz bill that was approved today in the Health Committee ahead of its first reading has been significantly moderated. The new formulation will give hospital directors the authority to set the hametz policy for their hospital and to inform the public of this policy. There will be no authority to search patients’ bags, nor will there be fines for violating the law,” ITIM said in a statement.

Despite the alterations, opposition Knesset members fumed at the bill, saying it would alienate secular and non-Jewish Israelis who would be more likely to intentionally bring non-kosher for Passover food to hospitals to protest the law.

“I worked as a nurse in a hospital and people would bring food during Passover and respect one another. People who weren’t Jewish were especially respectful, leave the room to have their [non-kosher-for-Passover] food,” said Yesh Atid MK Debbie Biton. “Now I see young people writing that they’re waiting for Passover just to bring sandwiches to the hospital. We don’t need to legislate these things.”

Director-General of the Chief Rabbinate Yehuda Cohen said he supported the revised bill that left much of the practicalities up to the individual hospital directors.

“Hospitals know how to work. They monitor things year-round. They know and are sensitive to the populations they serve,” Cohen said.

For years, hospitals and other public institutions banned hametz during the week-long Passover 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.

The initial legislation — proposed by United Torah Judaism MKs Moshe Gafni, Yaakov Asher, and Yitzhak Pindrus — would have not only permitted public hospitals to ban hametz, but would have required them to do so.

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

In an opinion, two legal advisers from the Attorney General’s Office warned 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, infringing on their rights as well.

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

Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah, a liberal Orthodox group, which initially decried the bill, said it still opposed the measure in principle, but indicated it was less concerned about it than it had been.

“The law is different than as it was initially proposed and it is now a declaratory law that will not allow bag searches,” the group said.

“We believe that it is important for public institutions of the state, particularly hospitals that provide services to patients who have no choice in the matter, will maintain their Jewish character and allow those who follow the commandments to keep Passover according to Jewish law. At the same time, we are convinced that changing the law is not necessary in order to achieve this goal,” it said.

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