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One Muslim key to Passover's food ritual Add to ...

In a crisp black suit and checkered tie, Hussein Jaber is surprisingly calm for what is the busiest week of his year.

As the food and beverage manager of an upscale Jerusalem hotel, he's in charge of making sure everything served during Passover meets the holiday's strict kosher restrictions, a responsibility that has his mobile phone ringing constantly and occasionally requiring great diplomacy to soothe an irate guest.

As if that weren't enough, he's got an extra responsibility on his hands just now: For one week, this devout Muslim is the holder of an entire state's supply of food forbidden during Passover, ranging from stores of bread and pasta to thousands of dollars' worth of beer and whisky. Net worth? About $150-million (U.S.), he says.

"From a legal point of view, I sit here before you owning everything hametz in the state of Israel. I'm very rich," said Mr. Jaber, allowing a smile to crack his otherwise serious face.

It's against Jewish religious and dietary laws to possess hametz -- food products containing leavened wheat, barley, rye, oats or spelt -- during Passover, leading observant households to clean obsessively to banish any forbidden crumbs. Uneaten leftover bread, pasta, pretzels, cookies and the like are traditionally burned, or simply thrown away.

But when it comes to major Israeli companies such as Osem, makers of cookies, soups and other prepared foods, and Angel, Jerusalem's best-known bakery, factory owners can't just throw away their supplies and start over again.

Instead, rabbinical wisdom has come up with a loophole: a symbolic sale of the offending products to a non-Jewish person. The state and companies sign ownership of their forbidden stores to the country's chief rabbis, who then sign it over to Mr. Jaber.

Mr. Jaber, who is also deputy mayor of the nearby Arab-Israeli town of Abu Ghosh, has been playing that role since he met Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, a former chief rabbi, 13 years ago while he was on holiday in the hotel. Each year, in a regular photo-op just before Passover begins, he hands over an envelope of 20,000 shekels, or just under $5,000, and signs a bill of sale promising to hand over the balance before Passover ends. The bill is then locked securely in a safe.

"If I have the money at the end of Passover, I will take it all," he says, eyes twinkling. "If I don't, the deal is broken and the state will take it all back."

For a millionaire, even a temporary one, he's a humble man, working evening shifts at the hotel where he began as a waiter 24 years ago to support his wife and four children.

He describes the annual ritual a gesture of peace and goodwill, an attitude he ascribes to most of the residents of Abu Ghosh.

WHAT'S KOSHER

Passover, which began at nightfall on Monday and ends April 9 in Israel, is the Jewish holiday marking the Israelites' flight from slavery in Egypt. Religious laws forbid observant Jews from owning or consuming any food that contains or may have touched leavened bread or products made from forbidden flours. Instead, Passover meals feature matzo, an unleavened bread, as a symbol of the Israelites' quick departure before their bread had time to rise.

Every year there are rabbinical rulings and new approaches to making an observant household kosher for Passover. The Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot reports that a Jerusalem woman has put together a team of six dogs who can be hired for pre-Passover housecleaning to sniff out overlooked food items.

Israel's Green Leaf Party announced last week that, following rabbinical consultation, marijuana has been deemed not kosher for Passover under Ashkenazi traditions, which also prohibit legumes, prompting a quick cleanout by observant smokers.

Israeli Coke drinkers have access to Kosher Coke, which is sweetened with sugar rather than corn syrup.

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