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 – often the entire meal itself, or sometimes nothing more than a snack.
While usually 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.
In Southeast Asia, flatbreads called roti or chapati accompany most meals. Though not normally utilized in preparing what we might 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 universality 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 its 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 that 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; and 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 for us 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 in God – that He is watching in prosperous times and in miserable times as well – is necessary. He certainly challenges you, but He will always be there to strengthen you and to help you overcome those challenges.