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Judaism: The Hillel Sandwich

Symbol or meal?
Published: Wednesday, March 13, 2013 11:34 PM


A young construction worker lies in bed, the shrill shriek of his alarm still echoing in his room. He groans. He doesn’t want to get up to confront the day. He’s comfortable under the blankets, with the early morning sun streaming in through the crack in the drapes and landing across his face. Another few minutes… that’s all. When the alarm’s “snooze control” wakes him from his renewed slumber, he reluctantly pushes aside his blankets and begins his daily routine of shaving, showering, brushing his teeth. Once dressed, he goes into his kitchen, ready to make his lunch. He opens the refrigerator and quickly decides on the various ingredients – a roll, lettuce, tomato, turkey, mustard – that he will need to make his sandwich.

After working hard all morning, his lunch break arrives. He finds a seat on a stack of roof shingles and removes his lunch from its wrapping. He pauses and takes a moment to gaze out into the distance. From his vantage on the roof, he enjoys his expansive view of the town and its surrounding hills and forests. He considers his own labors in helping to build the building upon which he now sits, contemplating the world about him. Then he takes his first bite of his sandwich, and for that moment, all is right in his world.

The sandwich, a universally cherished food item, may be plain or elaborate, bland or delicious, but it is too rarely considered more than part of a meal; too rarely appreciated for its symbolic weight as well as its calories. For a sandwich can be so much more than its parts; it can represent freedom and independence.

Lunch is seldom more than a brief break from the monotony of a working day and most don’t bother to consider anything more than taste before it is gone. One is hard-pressed to imagine a ten-year-old earnestly considering his own liberty while enjoying his peanut butter and jelly sandwich on the playground; he is more likely to gobble it down to allow more time to play with his friends. But the fact of the matter remains that 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 maror, at the Temple to remind himself of the blessing of geulah without losing sight of the bitterness of galut. 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 maror, 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?

History, however, does not assign Hillel the honor of “inventing” the sandwich. That honor falls to John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich. History teaches that Montagu popularized the item by requesting roast beef between two slices of bread so that he would be better able to eat while continuing to play cards. And so, in the popular mind, the “sandwich” was created. A convenience to allow John Montagu to indulge in games and gluttony simultaneously. According to his example, men of the upper class began to order sandwiches while gambling. However, over time, the sandwich became more acceptable and spread to more “refined” venues among aristocrats in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

Then, with the explosion of industry in Western Europe in the 19th Century, as well as the advent of pre-sliced bread, the sandwich’s popularity rose significantly as its simplicity and portability made it a staple in middle- and working-class households. Its convenience and accessibility was key to its popularity. 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 and abundantly available, became a more essential part of the European and American diet, the sandwich became a quick, easy part of a meal – oftentimes the entire meal itself, or sometimes nothing more than a snack.

While most associated with European and American culture, the sandwich soon became a worldwide phenomenon, taking on many shapes and sizes. Almost every culture embraced its own version of the sandwich, 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?

Also, a 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 universiality of sandwiches and their significance to regional cultures – and world culture – cannot be overstated. McDonald’s, following its introduction in 1940, 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 they are not often “more 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.

Perhaps not as well known or universally enjoyed as the Big Mac, with its “billions and billions” served, the Hillel sandwich is much more than its parts; is much more than mere taste and calories; carries with it much more than the mere object of feeding the belly. The Hillel sandwich 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 simply to eat but to think and to feel as well. It is not to deny the pleasures of eating. Judaism does not deny or turn away from physical enjoyment. However, to reduce any action to mere physical satisfaction is to drain it of meaning and to diminish our understanding of God’s role in our lives and in the world.

To revel in the luxuries we have accumulated is our obligation, but it would be pointless and inherently disrespectful if that is all we did. 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 complexity, 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.

You do not need meats, cheeses, vegetables, and sauces piled a mile high. No, since 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 you but will always be there to strengthen you and to help you overcome those challenges.

What is the most significant part, though, is that after God has helped you overcome, after He has redeemed you, you cannot accept that redemption as an assured state. Salvation must always be looked upon as a precarious condition, one that could be taken away at any moment. By eating matzah and maror together we are reminded of this. Without all of the proper ingredients, freedom could not possibly taste as sweet. One could not exist without the other.