Mrs. Emmert and the state of Israel
Among the Israeli government’s proposed new legislative measures is a bill having to do with taking hametz (leavened goods) to hospitals on Passover.
The original bill banned all hametz except for produce and store-bought “Kosher for Passover” products, whereas the revised bill gives greater control to hospital directors to set hametz policy.
The bill can be seen as a response to a 2020 Supreme Court ruling that hospitals cannot ban patients and visitors from entering their premises with hametz during the holiday.
Last year, in advance of the holiday, Minister of Health Nitzan Horowitz sent a letter to hospital directors reminding them of the court’s ruling—this, after a media report that Hadassah Hospital was looking for ways to bypass the ruling.
Horowitz’s letter led to the resignation of MK Idit Silman from Prime Minister Bennett’s governing coalition, which led in turn to new elections and to the current government.
Yes, hametz is serious business in Israel.
Please note that it is taken for granted that the only food served at Israeli hospitals during our spring holiday is food that is strictly Kosher for Passover. The proposed law, therefore, concerns visitors who wish to bring hametz into a hospital.
But now you’ll ask: Why make a big deal about someone else’s hametz? After all, if the hametz is not yours then it typically poses no religious problem for you (which is why there is a practice of selling one’s hametz before the holiday). Surely, we are not meant to assume that after their covert operation, hametz smugglers will then do something like switch Kosher for Passover croutons with the real thing for unsuspecting religiously observant soup-loving hospital patients? No, of course not.
But it does seem that in Israel the very sight of hametz is injurious to a religious person’s feelings. This principle goes back to a 1986 Israeli law that proscribes the public sale of hametz—defined as bread, rolls, pita and products made from flour. There are a number of exceptions to the law, chiefly dealing with areas in Israel where a majority of residents are not Jewish.
In explaining the need for the law, those who proposed it cited growing instances of the public sale of hametz and that this “hurts the feelings of a majority of the religious public.”
Clearly, the 1986 hametz law should not be conflated with Jewish law, or no one could properly keep Passover in the diaspora—where there is plenty of hametz available in public spaces. My hunch is that this seems to be one of those areas relating to religion and state where Israelis want to say: In our country we can pass a law like this; in our country we have the luxury of being sensitive to the sight of hametz.
By way of explicating my hunch, let me take you back to the late 1960s, to Harrison Elementary School in Omaha, Nebraska. It’s Passover and an 8-year-old girl named Sarah Jane Ross had finished her school lunch. Only she hadn’t in fact finished what she was given—she had not touched her mac and cheese.
As Sarah went to clear her tray into the garbage, the sixth-grade monitors spot the infraction (children were required to eat all that they were given), and Sarah was sent back to finish her food. Sarah waited patiently at her table, thinking that an adult would come around to save her. The person who came by was the principal, Mrs. Emmert. Sarah explained: “I can’t eat the noodles because it’s the Passover holiday.”
Mrs. Emmert told Sarah that she had to finish her plate, and she stood over the crying little girl making sure that she did so.
I think of Israel’s hametz law as a reaction to Mrs. Emmert. The state of Israel in effect tells that crying little girl: Here, you will be respected; here, not only will there be no need for you to eat noodles on Passover but no one will even be able to buy noodles during the holiday—we are that sensitive to you.
As far as the current brouhaha over hametz at Israeli hospitals, former Minister of Education Rabbi Shai Piron has a simple solution: Hospitals should designate a comfortable, pleasant room where all those who wish to eat hametz can come and do so.
As Israel nears its 75th anniversary, laws that seem more appropriate as reactions to the Mrs. Emmerts of the world need to give way to the vibrant and diverse actuality of Israel’s population. It would be wonderful if Rabbi Piron’s proposal would be adopted.
TEDDY WEINBERGER is a contributing writer to Jlife magazine. He made aliyah with his family in 1997 from Miami, where he was an assistant professor of religious studies. Teddy and his wife, Sarah Jane Ross, have five children.