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Give Me A Troika: The Hillel Sandwich


When fulfilling the commandments God has given us, I often think of dedicated high school athletes who, when their coaches say “Jump!” do not seek an excuse to do less but rather focus on doing what the coach said, and then some.

How much more should we seek to fulfill God’s commandments! So it was for our great sages and so it is why, in remembrance of the Temple, we do as Hillel did in combining Pesach, matzah and maror in a sandwich and eating them together. He did this in literal fulfillment of the commandment given in Bamidbar 9:11 – “They shall eat it with matzot and bitter herbs.”

During the Seder, once we have fulfilled our obligation to eat first the matzah and then the maror, we are confronted with Hillel’s view that “the Pesach offering, matzah and maror” must be eaten together. Since the destruction of the Temple, we no longer are able to bring the Pesach offering. How then to “combine Pesach, matzah and maror in a sandwich and eat them together”?

If we were less dedicated than a high school athlete, we might satisfy ourselves with the sad fact that we cannot do all that we are commanded to do. But even in a world in which the Temple does not stand, that is not enough.

We must enthusiastically preserve Hillel’s practice by doing whatever remains of his approach. With no Temple and no Temple sacrifice, we cannot eat the Pesach meat, matzah and maror together, but we can still combine matzah and maror.

Why combine the Pesach meat, which signifies the redemptive act, together with matzah, which also represents the miraculous geulah, with the maror, which is a reminder of the bitter state of galut and slavery? Hillel’s sandwich combines such odd bedfellows! A blending of apples and oranges. Galut and geulah. How and why bring these opposites together in one sandwich?

Hillel, in his wisdom, understood that to fully appreciate the sublime taste of freedom (the Pesach sacrifice) one must first fully digest the bitter ingredients of slavery (matzah and maror). Every aspect of the Hillel sandwich has power and meaning.

Two matzot – one symbolizing the bitterness of galut and the other the sweetness of geulah.

Maror is inseparable from the redemption experience. No joy exists without bitterness.

But it is not enough to remember, or even understand, the two distinct phases of the Mitzrayim experience. If that were Hillel’s goal, he would simply have followed the chronology of our slavery, listing maror first followed by Pesach and then matzah. After all, maror and pain and suffering of galut preceded the redemptive acts of Pesach and matzah.

But it was not Hillel’s goal to simply remember; not enough to simply “jump.” His intent was to do more. Hillel meant to teach that maror is part and parcel of the geulah/redemption troika. Pesach and matzah do not stand alone as geulah reminders. Maror does not stand in a separate category of the galut/enslavement.

They are three parts of the same whole.

Like Hillel, Rabban Gamliel also insisted on the geulah troika. “Whoever has not explained the following three things on Pesach has not fulfilled his duty, namely: Pesach, matzot, maror.”Rabban Gamliel, like Hillel before him, understood that to fully comprehend and appreciate the magnificent grace of redemption, and be able to fulfill the obligation of recalling the wonders and miracles of our exodus from Egypt, one must view all the elements of geulah as equal and vital components of the process.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein teaches that the Pesach offering symbolizes that God is the absolute Ruler of this world – that man is not his own master. This truth was not fully recognized even by the generation of the Exodus until God saved them so quickly as when “the dough of our fathers did not have time to become leavened.” Matzah too is an integral part of the redemptive process. Even in the most unbearable and seemingly hopeless of times, when hope seems lost, God’s redemption is at hand.

God needs no warm-up or preparation time to perform miracles or bring salvation.

However, when we relax our spiritual zeal and take God’s protection and providence for granted, particularly in times of peace, prosperity and tranquility, then maror rears its ugly head yet again. Maror periodically issues a stern warning to Jews and forewarns of our ever-present vulnerability. The commandment to eat maror together with the Pesach and the matzah not only symbolizes the correct approach to life but represents a danger flare should we stray from it. Redemption, once attained, is not guaranteed. It must be safeguarded and protected.

As miraculously and suddenly as geulah appears, it may disappear. Like sand between our fingers, it could quickly escape our grasp unless. Unless we vigilantly guard our borders from maror. We need to remember that the Egyptians were initially kind to our ancestors and only later embittered their lives with persecution.

Hillel’s sandwich teaches us this very lesson. The Pesach meat, matzah and maror are all parts of the same redemptive process. Should one of the ingredients be missing, we lose the ability to fully appreciate what it means to become truly free.

The maror sandwiched between two matzot conveys a similar message. The Torah gives us two reasons why matzah is eaten on Pesach. Matzah is lechem oni, the bread of affliction. It reminds us the hardship of our slavery. Even as it recalls our slavery, it reminds us of the swift and hasty manner of our redemption.

Matzah represents the rush to freedom as well as the bread of affliction.

Both reasons create the basis for the mitzvah to be observed at all times, and the rationale for continuing Hillel’s practice even when the Pesach meat can no longer be consumed. When the nation of Israel finds itself safe and secure in its own land, freed from foreign rule and dominion, matzah is to be eaten as lechem oni, lest the nation suffer the illusion that its present state is natural and sure to continue. Remembering the past prompts us to “keep our guard up” and to maintain a vigil against external, as well as internal, intrusions.

When we are not safe and galut and maror overwhelm our existence; when the nation of Israel is once again under foreign rule, the matzah we eat will remind us that, “You came forth out of the land of Egypt in haste.”

There is always hope in the Eternal. Our fate can change in an instant.

The lechem oni of the past need not be reinforced in the present state of affairs, when oni is yet again relived in our contemporary galut. What needs reinforcement, then, is the chipazon element of our faith, remembering that even when one sees no glimmer of hope and is apt to despair, God can change it all in a moment.

In galut conditions, matzah saves the nation from despair. At the same time, when the nation is in geulah, the matzah is like the watchman, keeping the nation from being seduced by the illusion of security. This is the reason the Torah tells us to “remember the days you left Egypt all the days of your life.” That is, during the days of geulah as well as the days of galut.

The forever dynamic of galut and geulah is the essence of the Jewish experience. They make up a single sandwich – a single experience.

Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran is OU Kosher’s vice president – communications and marketing. He is the author of “Kos Eliyahu – Insights on the Haggadah and Pesach.”

About the Author: Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran is an educator, author and lecturer. He can be reached at e1948s@aol.com.


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