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Sandwiches: Symbol Or Meal?


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 – 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 construct 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. Following his example, men of the upper class began to order sandwiches while gambling. Over time, however, 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.”

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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