The restaurant was bustling. Joyous noise and laughter filled the room as waiters and waitresses bustled to and fro, bringing trays of food or removing the empty plates of sated diners. The tables were filled with people enjoying their meals – extended families celebrating a birthday or graduation or promotion at some of the tables, small families sharing the evening together, friends crowding into a booth in the corner, laughing about something one of them had just said. There are couples, some older, some just married, sharing a quiet, intimate meal together at candle lit tables.
At one table, the conversation drifted to a meal that the group had enjoyed in the past. At another table, they discuss their plans for the following dinner, even though they had yet to finish the elaborate meal on the table before them.
And everywhere you look, there was food. Food. Food. Food.
We need food. Along with air and water, it is essential to our very survival. However, unlike air and water, which we too often take for granted, our thoughts are drawn to food; we look forward to meals; we talk about food even when we’re eating.
Our eating habits are defined – and constrained – by rituals, culture and preference. We eat to live but, because we are created in God’s image, even those things that are necessary for our corporal existence can be given greater meaning. Food is more than the stuff we eat. More than air and water, food has meaning to us. We enjoy an intimate relationship with food. We love food. From the finest meals prepared at four-star restaurants by the finest chefs to the most modest meal that we find in every culture – the sandwich – food is central to our sense of who we are.
So, what are we? Physical animals who, like all beasts, must consume food to live, or are we something more? The answer to our question can be found in the modest sandwich.
Whether plain or elaborate, bland or delicious, it is the cornerstone to our eating habits, always enjoyed – whether a simple peanut butter and jelly sandwich or an elaborate sandwich with “all the fixings” – but too rarely appreciated for its symbolic weight as for its taste and its calories. For a sandwich can be so much more than the sum of its parts; it can represent freedom and independence.
In other words, sometimes a sandwich is more than a sandwich.
The essence of the sandwich, the concept of placing various fillings between two pieces of bread, lies in a practice meant to reinforce a memory of slavery and hardship and, therefore, emphasize a sense of autonomy. It was Hillel who, to honor the gift God presented to the Jewish people in redeeming them from their bondage in Egypt, combined the Pesach offering, matzah, and marror (bitter herbs), at the Temple to remind himself of the blessing of geulah (redemption) without losing sight of the bitterness of galut (exile). For Hillel, it was not enough to eat the Pesach meat and matzah, both of which signify God’s miracles in releasing the Jews from slavery, and marror, which serves as a reminder of those difficult times, separately; they must be eaten together so as to make sure that the happy and sad memories are as united as the separate sandwich items.
For how could one truly appreciate geulah without galut? And how could one possibly survive galut without the promise and hope of geulah? Despite the noble Hillel sandwich, history does not assign Hillel the honor of “inventing” the sandwich. That honor falls to John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich.
Montagu’s purpose was significantly less noble than Hillel’s. Montagu happened upon the “sandwich” by requesting roast beef between two slices of bread so that he would be better able to eat while continuing to play cards. Hence, in the popular mind, the “sandwich” was created. Following his example, men of the upper class began to order sandwiches while gambling, and came to symbolize games and gluttony.
The sandwich – symbol of freedom and grace, or gluttony and gambling?
With the explosion of industry in Western Europe in the 19th century, along with the advent of sliced bread, the sandwich’s popularity rose significantly as its simplicity and portability made it a staple in middle- and working-class households. Soon, lands and cultures outside of Europe, including the United States, caught the “sandwich bug.” As bread – long the “staff of life” but not always so convenient or abundantly available – became a more essential part of the European and American diet, the sandwich became a quick, easy part of a meal, or even the entire meal itself.
The sandwich quickly became a worldwide phenomenon, with every culture embracing its own version, using its own type of bread and filling, usually ingredients common within that culture’s customs and traditions. For example, in Mexico and Central America where bread takes the soft, flat and pliant form of the tortilla, the sandwich is called the burrito – with the tortilla grilled or steamed and wrapped around fillings such as beans, rice, and meat. Or, in Southeast Asia, where flatbreads called roti or chapati accompany most meals. Though they are not normally used to make what we might commonly think of as a sandwich, diners often make use of chapati to get every last bite of food by wrapping them around each morsel of the dish. If that is not a sandwich, what is?
The bánh mì is a Vietnamese sandwich made with a Vietnamese baguette and native Vietnamese ingredients like coriander, hot peppers, fish sauce, pickled carrots, meats, and tofu. Falafel, a fried ball or patty made out of chickpeas and spiced fava beans, is often served sandwiched in the “pouch” of pita bread and has become a principal food in the Middle East.
The universality of sandwiches and their significance to regional cultures – and world culture – cannot be overstated. Following its introduction in 1940, McDonald’s quickly became the most successful restaurant chain in history – all thanks to their signature sandwich, the Big Mac!
Yes, sandwiches are universal and universally enjoyed. But unlike Hillel’s sandwich, they are not always “greater than the sum of their parts.” The Torah teaches that man does not live by bread alone. It is with the wisdom of this insight we return to the significance and importance of that first “sandwich” – Hillel’s.
While perhaps not as well known or universally enjoyed as the Big Mac, with its “billions and billions” served, the Hillel sandwich is a more perfect example of how food nourishes more than our stomachs; that a sandwich is much more than its parts; is much more than mere taste and calories. The Hillel sandwich makes clear that food must also feed the soul.
As with the entire Passover Seder and meal – which is not designed solely to gather with family and enjoy one another’s company, have a satisfying meal and engage in conversation – the point of the Hillel sandwich is not merely to eat but to think and to feel as well. Hillel does not seek to deny the pleasures of eating. Far from it. Just as Judaism does not deny or turn away from physical enjoyment, neither does Hillel. However, he rebels against reducing eating – or any action – to mere physical satisfaction. To do so robs it of meaning and diminishes our understanding of God’s role in our lives and in the world.
To enjoy and appreciate the luxuries we have accumulated is our obligation, but it would be pointless and inherently disrespectful if we viewed the acquisition of luxuries as being the point of our lives. So, when we celebrate the blessings of our freedom, it would be disrespectful if we did not also make sure to honor our ancestors’ hardships in Egypt. Noting how the Jewish people won their independence from slavery is as important as, if not more important than, taking pleasure in that independence. This complex balance, this intricate idea of honoring the past and living in the present, of embracing two divergent feelings to create a single whole, is realized in the simplicity of the Hillel sandwich.
What does the Hillel sandwich teach us? That we do not need meats, cheeses, vegetables, and sauces piled a mile high for our sandwich to be fulfilling. Quite the opposite. Our sandwich is fulfilling because of the meaning it contains, not the calories. The Pesach meat cannot be eaten. Only maror is necessary to stand for the bitterness of enslavement and only matzah to both recall the austerity of slavery and also to symbolize God’s miracles. The Jews did not have time to allow their bread to leaven because God decreed that the time to be saved was immediate. With the minimal combination of maror and matzah, you are reminded that God is always with the Jewish people.
Full faith is in God, that He is watching in prosperous times and in miserable times as well, is necessary. He certainly challenges us but will always be there to strengthen us and to help us overcome those challenges.
As we see in the Hillel sandwich, food is nourishment and symbol. The marror enlivens our taste buds but also reminds us of the bitterness of slavery. The charoset, with its sweet texture, brings to mind the mortar our ancestors used to build the pyramids. The karpas reminds us of the season of our redemption, when the cold depths of winter gives way to the rebirth of Spring.
Or the Four Cups of wine we drink at the seder. For millions, wine numbs and denies feelings. For Jews, on seder night, wine teaches us the sweetness of God’s blessings, of our redemption and our freedom, of overcoming the yoke of enslavement.
What is the most significant part, though, is that after God has helped us overcome, after He has redeemed us, we cannot accept that redemption as an assured state.
How many times, after overeating, have we told ourselves that we would “never be hungry again.” And yet, as surely as day follows night, we hunger again. Our feelings of being sated passes. Satisfaction is precarious. So too, salvation must always be looked upon as a precarious condition, one that could be taken away at any moment.
Recognizing the powerful symbolism of the food we eat helps us to keep our lives – the physical and the spiritual – in balance. By eating matzah and marror together we are reminded that God’s gift of salvation is always there, but we must remain aware of it for it to touch our lives. Without all of the proper ingredients, freedom could not possibly taste as sweet. One could not exist without the other.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.