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, small families sharing the evening together, friends crowding into a booth, laughing about something. Couples, some older, sharing an intimate meal by candlelight.
At one table, the conversation drifted to a meal that the group had enjoyed in the past. At another table, they discussed their plans for the following dinner even though they had yet to finish the elaborate meal on the table before them.
And everywhere you looked, there was food. Food. Food. Food.
We need food. Along with air and water, it is essential to our 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 corporeal 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. From the finest meals prepared at four-star restaurants to the most modest meal found 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 the rabbinic sage Hillel who, to honor the gift God presented to the Jewish people in redeeming them from their bondage in Egypt, combined the Passover offering with matzah, and maror (bitter herbs) at the Temple to remind himself of the blessing of redemption without losing sight of the bitterness of slavery. For Hillel, it was not enough to eat the Passover meat and matzah, both of which signify God’s miracles in releasing the Jews from slavery, and maror (bitter herbs), 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.
Despite the noble Hillel sandwich, history assigns the honor of “inventing” the sandwich to John Montagu, the 4th 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. Following his example, men of the upper class began to order sandwiches while gambling, and it came to symbolize games and gluttony.
The sandwich—is it a 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 pre-sliced bread, the sandwich’s popularity rose significantly as its simplicity and portability made it a staple in middle-class 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.
Every culture embraced its own version, using its own type of bread and filling, usually ingredients common within that culture’s customs and traditions. 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. 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, fried balls or patties 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 and world cultures 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 high for our sandwich to be fulfilling. Quite the opposite—our sandwich is fulfilling because of the meaning it contains, not the calories.
As we see in the Hillel sandwich, food is nourishment and symbol. Similarly with the other Seder foods; the maror 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.
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 once more. Our feeling 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 keep our lives—the physical and the spiritual—in balance. By eating matzah and maror 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.
RABBI DR. ELIYAHU SAFRAN HAS BEEN SERVING AS EDITOR-IN-CHIEF OF BEHIND THE UNION SYMBOL SINCE ITS INCEPTION IN 1997.