Why the Chametz Law Matters

This time Tzippi Livni got it exactly right. “Davka because I am not a religious person, I want to preserve something in Tel Aviv that symbolizes the Chag; something in the public square that does not coerce anyone to do anything or refrain from doing anything in the privacy of his home,” she said in a recent discussion of the Chametz Law.

The Chametz Law, which forbids the public display of chametz (leavened products) for the purpose of sale during Pesach, benefits the secular Jewish state, not religious citizens. As an instrument of enforcing compliance with halacha, the law is totally ineffective, and would be counterproductive if it were effective: Many Israeli Jews – 70% of whom do not eat chametz on Pesach, according to a recent Yediot Aharonot poll – would davka do so if the state prohibited it.

Nor is the law for the protection of the sensitivities of religious Jews. There is no prohibition against seeing chametz in someone else’s possession. What does – or should – pain religious Jews is that other Jews feel no connection to the performance of mitzvot, not that they are witness to that fact.

Rather the law serves to remind Israeli Jews that they are members of a people with a very long history and distinctive practices that set it apart from all other peoples of the world. Strengthening national identity, as many secular Israelis have come to recognize, is the key to Israel’s long-term survival. And symbols that have their origin in traditional religious practice – e.g., bans on the sale of pork, Shabbat closure laws, the closing of restaurants on Tisha B’Av – play a role in instilling Jewish national identity.

The Palestinians strategy is predicated on draining our will. They have long regarded the diminishing connection of the Jews of Israel to their past and the Land as their Achilles tendon. That is why Arafat tried so hard at Camp David to get the citizens of the secular Jewish state to admit that the Temple Mount is far more important to the Palestinians than to them, for by doing so he would have succeeded in severing one more tie between the Jews of Israel and their history.

A story from the memoirs of Palestinian parliamentarian Selah Temari encapsulates Palestinian thinking on this point. While imprisoned in an Israeli jail for security offenses, Temari came to the conclusion that Israel was far too powerful to ever destroy. He even began to study Jewish history to gain insight into the perseverance of the Jewish people in the face of so much adversity.

Then one night he was looking through the bars of his cell, and he saw his Jewish jailer eating a pita. “How could you be eating bread?” he asked. “Don’t you know it is Pesach.” The jailer replied,” Do you really expect me not to eat bread because of something that happened 3,300 years ago?”

That night, records Temari, he twisted and turned all night. By the morning, he reached the conclusion that the Palestinians could expel the Jews. A people that had lost its sense of connection to its past and to the Land could be defeated.

JUDGE TAMAR BAR-ASHER TSABON, who ruled two weeks ago that the chametz Law does not apply to restaurants and supermarkets selling chametz, but only to displays of chametz that can be seen from the public thoroughfare, all but invited the Knesset to rewrite the statute. Meir Shetreet’s statement in this week’s cabinet meeting that there is no room for further legislation because the court has spoken is pure ignorance. Judge Tsaban did not presume to say what the law should be or question the power of the Knesset to amend it.

Her decision was a narrow, technical one that turned entirely on the interpretation of one word — b’pumbi (in public) — in the statute. Her opinion had nothing in common with that of Court President Aharon Barak four years ago striking down a longstanding Knesset statute empowering municipalities to ban the sale of pork within their borders. In that case, Barak created out of whole cloth a “right” to easy access to pork products.

Second, Judge Tsaban did not suggest that the law in question could not be enforced because it has its source in traditional Jewish religious practice. She did not follow the path of Justice Barak in the Mealreal case, in which he struck down a 50-year-old administrative ban on the import of non-kosher meat on the grounds that Israel is not a “theocracy.” In Barak’s eyes, any law that has an obvious source in religious practice is inherently suspect, even if enacted by a democratically elected, secular Knesset. Banning the sale of whale meat on ecological grounds is permissible; banning the sale of pork out of respect to Jewish tradition is not.

Finally, she did not seek to uproot the legislative intent root and branch, as the Supreme Court did when it allowed Kibbutz Mizra to restyle itself as an agricultural research institute, and under that guise to continue the commercial production and sale of pork products, thereby circumventing a Knesset statute against raising pigs.

BY LEAVING THE DOOR OPEN for the Knesset to amend the chametz Law by simply erasing a single word, or by substituting the words “in a public place (b’makom tziburi)” for the word “in public,” Judge Tsaban pointed the way for the Knesset to reinforce Jewish identity in Israel.

Some might argue that such symbolic statements have no impact. My own life, however, gives me a different perspective. I grew up in a highly identified but non-observant Jewish home. Friday night was always a special meal – attendance was mandatory, attire semi-formal, the Shabbat candles lit, and Kiddish recited. The food might not have been kosher, and the candles may have been lit after Shabbat, but there was a sublimal message: Being Jewish is a privilege, and like all privileges it imposes obligations.

But for that Shabbos table, I doubt that either I or three of my brothers who also became religious would have ever been prompted to inquire more deeply into what it means to be Jewish. That’s why Tzippi Livni is right to insist on the educative power of certain symbols.

At no time of the year are we surrounded by so many symbols whose meaning is engrained in the collective conscious of the Jewish people as at the Seder table tomorrow night.

Chag Kasher ve’Sameach.

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7 Responses

  1. Shira Schmidt says:

    I disagree with Jonathan on the value of symbols. On this I will quote from an essay by my late father-in-law, Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, in his book “Remarks on Parashat Hashavua,” Parashat Bo (Chemed Books). He wrote:
    I was invited to participate in a seminar on “Judaism, Jewish People, and Jewish State” organized by the IDF, a seminar for senior military officers, which was held in hol hamoed Pesah at an IDF base. The deliberations were very earnest and all the participants treated the topic seriously, as something close to their hearts. A senior officer pointed to Pesah as a national heritage which we have in common. He said, with sincerity and with great emotion, “Even if we have different attitudes toward Pesah, we all observe the Seder, in one form of another, because we all are conscious of the history of the Jewish people, which started – either historically or symbolically – with the Pesah event and which we all wish to continue.”
    My rejoinder to him: “Imagine that I were not invited here this seminar in an IDF base, but would have hiked through the countryside with my wife. Let’s say it were a very hot hamsin, and we were thirty and would have some upon your secular kibbutz. Do you know that today we could not even drink a cup of water in your home (in those days there were no disposable cups) because of the hametz in your dishes? You are the commander of my sons and grandsons in the army, and today I could not drink a cup of water in your home. Pesah today is not a common heritage for us, rather, if anything , the festival expresses a deep rift between us.”
    The man responded to this with deep emotion: “It is true that you have mentioned a fact which is frightening, and nevertheless – we have a common awareness of Pesah. After all, we all regard Pesah as the symbol of the beginning and the continuation of the history of the Jewish people, and we are all united in our desire and in our aim of being a continuing link in this historical chain.”
    I was forced to point out his error to him, even in regard to this awareness. I told him: “I understand and can feel the sincerity in your words and the profound emotion contained within them. For you, Pesah is indeed a great symbol of the history of the Jewish people. But for my wife and myself, Pesah is not a symbol, but a reality. Pesah is not expressed in the fact that we, using certain symbols, remind ourselves of the beginning of the history of the Jewish people. The significance of Pesah for us lies in the fact that for seven days we actually live a life different from all the other weeks of the year: for before Pesah we, or to be more accurate, my wife, turns our house inside out in order to prepare it for Pesah. For you, Pesah is a sentimental and nostalgic matter, and I am not trying to belittle it: sentiments are of great importance. Nevertheless, for you it is only a sentimental matter, whereas for us Pesah is an existential issue – an issue dealing with our existence in the present, on this day and at this hour, and not only a remembrance of an event. Pesah thus presents us with the most profound problem which confronts the Jewish people and Judaism today.”

  2. Chareidi Leumi says:

    WADR to mrs. Schmidt and in turn to Dr. Leibowitz. The good doctor seems to be nitpicking rather talking about an essential problem. In fact, there is nothing in Dr. Leibowitz’ point that is in any way specific to the symbol of pesach. His point could be illustrated through countless other halachot which create walls between secular and traditional Jews. I am left with the impression that he was just being contrarian.

    Of course Pesach creates common ground for countless Jews of all stripes. We can see this in communal seders on army bases. We can see this in the desire of the vast majority of Jews to preserve the public nature of pesach here in Israel. We can even see it in that most Jews identify with many of the underlying messages of the seder and its symbols. No, pesach does not “present us with the most profound problem which confronts the Jewish people and Judaism today.” The most you can say is that looking from a particularly cynical angle, Pesach illustrates some of our issues pretty well, but such a view comes at a cost of many other angles which are much more optomistic and relevant to actually solving our problems.

  3. Steve Brizel says:

    I think Ms. Schmidt is correct because to any Torah observant Jew, Torah and Halacha are a lot more than symbols to be dusted off once a year as if they are museum artifacts placed on some sort of display. It is indeed a tragedy that we live in a generation that far more of our Jewish brothers and sisters can tell you more about the events of 1933-45 in all of their horrible detail than they could about the contents of Echad Mi Yodea.

  4. Chareidi Leumi says:


    You are also commiting a logical falicy. The fact that to a observant Jew, pesach is a lot more than just a symbol does not mean that the symbols are not a source of common ground, which was the original point of the post.

  5. Daniel Weltman says:

    Is it not true that glasses, which hold cold drinks, would be allowed to use on Pesach (and even if they held hot drinks at one time that were chametz, they would be permitted to use on Pesach for cold water, since cold water would not cause any pletot)?

    Why could YL not drink water from a glass (or cup) at a secular kibbutz on Pesach?

  6. Daniel Weltman says:

    It is frustrating to see a person who sees himself as religious pounding a stake into the cracks in our unity, especially when his example of disunity is disingenuous.

  7. zalman says:

    Thank you for making clear that the ruling could have been minimized as a technical, legal analysis — entirely appropriate before imposing a penalty on an individual — not an attack on religious symbols. I don’t understand why this take was not more widely adopted.

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