Law Banning Sale of Chametz Widely Flouted

Despite the ongoing political clashes around the chametz (leavened bread) ban and its interpretations, this year as every year, the ban was only symbolically enforced. From Jerusalem - which had once seen stormy pickets outside restaurants that dared sell products deemed not kosher for Passover - to secular Tel Aviv and proudly interreligious Haifa, there's no difficulty finding chametz in all its varieties.

Local authorities freely admit that municipal inspectors, charged with enforcing the ban, only use their powers in a handful of cases every year. "This year Judaism was saved from the ultra-Orthodox politicians who pretend to protect it but damage it much more than any chametz-eater," commented Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the Hiddush organization for religious freedom and equality.

Yesterday, "Yehoshua" and "Restobar", two coffeeshops on popular Gaza Street in Jerusalem, were packed with diners. The tables were adorned by glasses of beer, plates of pasta, and, heaven protect us, loaves of bread. Unlike the popular image of Jerusalem, many restaurants and eateries at the very heart of the capital, like Ivo Meat Burger, Mahneyehuda and Pizza Chili, go on serving their ordinary menus.

Although some proprietors ask not to specify the names of their businesses, others seemed proud. "I would love the ultra-Orthodox to come and protest," said Yehoshua's co-owner Yair Danziger. Secular activists in the city carefully ventured that the ultra-Orthodox have either given up or lost this particular fight, at least until their parliamentarians amend the chametz ban to make it practically enforceable.

And while the Jerusalem municipality officially stated it would abide by the law, sources in city hall said, off-record, that inspectors will not be patrolling businesses for chametz and will only enforce the law if someone lodges a complaint.

In Tel Aviv, many of the chametz-prone businesses remained closed, as owners commemorated the slavery in Egypt by fixing up the place, or else paid tribute to the Israelites' liberation by taking a week off. By contrast, steakhouse owner Yossi Saadon surveyed his teeming little restaurant yesterday and swelled with pride. "No one leaves this place hungry, despite Passover," he declared.

Saadon, who has owned the steakhouse for a decade, keeps it open on the holiday but serves his kebabs wrapped in wetted matzos, or else in special Passover-kosher pitta bread. "It's a hit," he said. "Try it out, people love it here - it's as good as regular bread."

Sayeed Abu Jamil, who runs a Tel Aviv hummus place, also had his hands full yesterday. "These are just out of the oven," he explained, as he rushed a basketful of warm pitas and a plate of mashawsha to another hungry customer. "Clients keep coming, baruch hashem," said Abu Jamil. "They eat pitas and they eat hummus, and there's plenty of work. Can't complain."

Tel Aviv's municipal inspectors were instructed to enforce the ban in public, and some tickets were already issued yesterday. But officials were keen to stress they had no desire for stringent application of the law. "It's Tel Aviv, it's a secular city, and we're not looking out for people selling chametz," one official told Haaretz. "We get in on it only if somebody complains or if there are public sales."

Haifa, the urban capital of the north, takes an even more tolerant approach. The city's cultural and religious diversity, officials say, has a clear influence on their policy. Visitors to the city could find restaurants and shops selling chametz next to groceries that covered their bread and pastry sections for the holiday. The coexistence was underscored by two of the city's most popular restaurants: Mt. Carmel's Sandwich Bar, which goes on selling chametz throughout Passover, and Burekas Bachar, which closed all its outlets in the city for the holiday.

"The clientele coming doesn't abide by kashrut rules, especially in Passover when the demand goes up," said Adam Daud, co-owner of the Sandwich Bar. Although the place doesn't have a kashrut license on any day of the year, Daud stresses they offer matza-bread sandwiches to discerning customers. "Actually, yesterday someone asked for a cheese and hot dog sandwich in a matzo bun," he said.

The chametz ban, which specifically prohibits displaying chametz in public, is practically dead letter today, mostly thanks to former Jerusalem mayor, Uri Lupolianski. Under Lupolianski, who is ultra-Orthodox, city hall decided to press charges against four restaurateurs for flouting the ban. The verdict, issued two years ago by local affairs court judge Tamar Bar-Asher-Zaban, annulled the indictments and ruled a restaurant or a shop cannot be considered "public" by the spirit of the law. Despite demands by ultra-Orthodox MKs, then-Attorney General Menachem Mazuz declined to appeal against the verdict, allowing it to effectively empty the chametz law of all practical meaning.

The MKs then moved to close the loophole by amending the law, getting rid of the word "public" and adjusting it to a complete ban on chametz sales. A political backlash convinced them to instead work to replace the word "public" by "public domain," but as of today the amendment process is at a standstill.

"We didn't want another coercive law, we want to reach some agreements," MK Avraham Michaeli (Shas) explained.