Israel Ends Ban on Hotels Having Christmas Trees

Chief Rabbinate curbs kashrut supervisors' authority to food only, after religious-freedom NGO threatens court action.

Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson
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A man dressed as Santa Claus walks on the wall of the Old City in Jerusalem, Dec. 22, 2014.
A man dressed as Santa Claus walks on the wall of the Old City in Jerusalem, Dec. 22, 2014. Credit: AP
Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson

The Chief Rabbinate of Israel has issued new kashrut regulations to hotels, significantly reducing rabbinic involvement in matters unrelated to the kosher status of food regarding the behavior of hotels on the Jewish Sabbath.

Following a petition by freedom of religion NGO Hiddush, bans against stationing Christmas trees, allowing Jews to accept money on Sabbath and filming events on hotel premises and other non-food related regulations on Sabbath were rescinded. For years, the Chief Rabbinate had a list of demands that had no direct connection to food but were intended to create a religious atmosphere on the Sabbath in hotels and restaurants, which it imposed as conditions for awarding a kashrut certificate.

Because the rabbinate is a monopoly in the field of kashrut in practice, hotel managers who refused to meet these demands lost their kashrut licenses. In the expired regulations for hotels, for example, it was demanded that all elevators in a hotel would be operated as Sabbath elevators, stopping automatically at every floor, that laundry rooms would be closed, that there would be no filming and music at hotel events, that the hotel would not place Christmas trees in public spaces and that payments at the cash register would be made only with non-Jews – and done discreetly at that.

In December 2013, Religious Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett and his deputy, Eli Ben Dahan, announced their intention to promote legislation that would give more authority to kashrut inspectors. In response to the declaration, Hiddush CEO Rabbi Uri Regev demanded that Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein put an end to legal infractions the chief rabbinate was committing in the field of kashrut. Regev, a Reform rabbi, referred to the regulations for hotels, hostels and event halls, by which the rabbinate conditioned kashrut certificates to general Sabbath observance and not employing Christian symbols.

He argued the regulations violated the kashrut law, according to which “the rabbi will only take into account kashrut laws when giving a kashrut certificate.” The regulations also violated High Court of Justice rulings that clarified that the rabbinate would only consider kashrut laws – and not Sabbath observance or modesty – in awarding a kashrut certificate. Regev threatened to go to the High Court of Justice if he did not receive a response.

Last Thursday, the Chief Rabbinate announced that its council had approved a host of changes, among them rescinding the ban on using video, audio and musical equipment at hotel events on the Sabbath, save for times when food is served. The requirement that only non-Jews welcome guests and discreetly take payments from them was canceled, save for instances related to ordering and paying for food. The Sabbath elevator requirement was also lifted, save for elevators delivering food.

The ban on using symbols of Christian holidays, such as Christmas trees, was also lifted.

“The significance of the decision is dramatic,” Regev said, explaining that from now on Israelis and groups of tourists would be able to hold conferences and events on weekends without restrictions on filming, screening films and presentations, and playing music.

“We put an end to the zany phenomenon by which hotels cannot welcome groups of pilgrims arriving in the country in their masses at the end of the civil new year with a fir tree,” he said. “We should be thankful that the attorney general and the Religious Affairs Ministry made it clear to the Chief Rabbinate that Israeli law applies to them, and their regulations cannot contradict the law.”

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