Israel's High Court Says Hospitals Can't Bar Visitors From Bringing Bread During Passover

The Chief Rabbinate expressed disappointment with the decision, saying it 'harms a majority of the public and the Jewish character of the state'

Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel
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Ultra-Orthodox Jews burning leavened bread before Passover, Jerusalem, April 19, 2019.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews burning leavened bread before Passover, Jerusalem, April 19, 2019. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel

Israel's High Court of Justice on Sunday denied a request for a rehearing of its ruling last year saying hospitals can't ban visitors from bringing bread or other leavened products that aren't kosher during Passover.

In denying the request by the Chief Rabbinate and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit to reconsider the ruling, Supreme Court President Esther Hayut said that searching visitors’ belongings at hospital entrances and forbidding them from bringing in hametz, as it is known in Hebrew, violates the visitors’ basic rights. The decision is now final as far as the courts are concerned and can only be altered through Knesset legislation.

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The Chief Rabbinate expressed disappointment with the decision, saying it “harms a majority of the public and the Jewish character of the state.” The rabbinate called on Knesset members to address the issue. A new Knesset is being elected on March 23, just days before this year’s Passover holiday.

A three-justice High Court panel ruled last April that hospitals do not have the authority to ban bringing hametz into hospitals on Passover, to search the food that visitors might be carrying in with them or to comment on the foods’ compliance with Jewish religious dietary requirements. The ruling was a response to a petition by the Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel and the Secular Forum.

Ruling for the majority, Justices Ofer Grosskopf and Uzi Vogelman, with Justice Neal Hendel dissenting, stated that a sweeping ban on bringing in hametz “undermines fundamental rights of the first order (regarding) the autonomy of the individual and freedom from religion.”

In her ruling on Sunday, Hayut stated that there was no justification for revisiting it and that concern over undermining the kashrut of the food provided at the hospitals could not supersede the fundamental rights of visitors to the hospitals. In response to the concern expressed by the rabbinate over its impact on the kosher food provided by the hospitals, Hayut stated: “Such concern cannot constitute a source of authority for a considerable violation of the fundamental liberties on which we have insisted, not as long as the declared basis for the ban is religious considerations and related to sensitive issues of religion and state, without the (Knesset) having stated its opinion on the matter.”

Responding to Sunday’s ruling, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate said: “Not enough weight was accorded to the majority of citizens of the State of Israel who refrain from consuming or coming into contact with hametz during Passover and who may need to be hospitalized during Passover, thereby dealing a critical blow to the majority of the public.”

Staff members at the Mayanei Hayeshua Medical Center in Bnei Brak. The hospital has a rabbinical board in addition to its board of directors.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

The rabbinate said it would now be difficult to ensure that the food provided at hospitals is kosher and expressed the additional concern that permitting members of the public to bring hametz into hospitals on Passover “would lead those who keep kosher to avoid going to hospitals, denying themselves medical treatment, thereby putting their health at risk.” The country’s two chief rabbis called on public representatives who feel an affection for Jewish tradition to act to rectify the court’s decision.

Religious members of the Knesset were roundly critical of the decision. The leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, Arye Dery said, “It’s inconceivable that in the Jewish state, hospitals will be forced to let hametz in during Passover.” Immediately following the Knesset election in March, the Shas Knesset faction will seek to introduce patients’ rights legislation that would maintain the status quo and give hospital directors authority over the issue, Dery said. “A hospital that serves the Jewish population is not the same as hospitals serving minority populations,” he said.

United Torah Judaism Knesset member Moshe Gafni said, “The impudent High Court justices are taking advantage of the period between one Knesset and another when we cannot introduce my amendment to the law on this issue and aren’t giving consideration to kashrut-observant Jews who need hospital services on Passover.” His party, he said, would energetically pursue legislation allowing the Knesset to override the Supreme Court to put a halt to what he called the high court’s “unlimited power.”

Similar outrage was expressed by Bezalel Smotrich of Yamina; “One of the main tasks of the next government is to correct the bullying wild behavior and the lack of authority of the High Court in deciding a set of values for the State of Israel,” he remarked.

For her part, the leader of the Meretz Knesset faction, Tamar Zandberg, welcomed the ruling. “It’s not the state’s job to stick its hands into people’s plates, and there is no basis for a hametz police in Israel, certainly not at hospitals. Anyone who observes kashrut has the right to do so, of course, but he doesn’t have the right to impose it on others. The High Court is doing justice against coercion in a democratic country.”

The petitioners in the original case echoed that position. The deputy director of Adalah, Sawsan Zahar, said that there had been no legal justification for the rabbinate or the attorney general to ask for a rehearing.

“Today an end was put to the humiliating and degrading custom of hospitals imposing Jewish religious law on Arab visitors and employees through their security guards while trampling their dignity,” Zahar said. “It’s good that they won’t be searching anymore for pita at hospital entrances and that every person will conduct himself according to his faith.”

The Secular Forum said in a statement, “With this the end has come to the efforts by the Health Ministry and the rabbinate to harass secular and non-Jewish patients, and during the coming Passover holiday, all the patients and their visitors will be able to consume the food that they wish that comforts them, even if it isn’t kosher for Passover. This is a great day for the secular public in the State of Israel and a victory in the long struggle to assure the right to freedom from religion in this country. Moreover, it’s a ruling that will serve as legal precedent and make the secular fight possible in other arenas.”

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