An ancient matzo sandwich for Passover

Passover liturgy may feature history’s oldest sandwich created by the first century sage, Hillel.

Naga Bakehouse/AP
Matzo is used for Passover, the eight-day festival of spring and of slavery remembrance that calls for Jews to stay away from leavened grain.

Undoubtedly, matzo is the culinary star of the Passover Seder, or meal, with supporting actor roles doled out to bitter herbs, shank bones, salt water, charoset, and a few other dishes. But there's an unlikely recipe that also surfaces in the Passover ritual – a kosher-for-Passover sandwich made of paschal lamb and bitter herbs set between two pieces of matzo.

That sandwich, according to rabbinic tradition, dates back to the first century (BCE) sage, Hillel. If Hillel truly pioneered such a delectable configuration, he would have done so some 18 centuries before the fourth Earl of Sandwich (John Montagu), who is often credited with inventing the sandwich in 1762 to avoid leaving the gambling table.

The reference in the Haggadah (the guide to the Passover Seder) to Hillel’s sandwich is both a reflection on past ritual as well as an aspirational anticipation of a future Messianic era when the paschal lamb can again be consumed, according to Rabbi Josh Yuter, of the Stanton Street Shul (Orthodox) on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. (In modern Seders, there is no sacrifice of the lamb, since sacrifices are banned without a Temple.)

“It’s really impossible to know with historical accuracy what Hillel actually did,” Rabbi Yuter says. “It’s certainly tradition that this is what he used to do.”

Even if there is no evidence of Hillel’s sandwich, a Hebrew manuscript currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which dates back to 1454, features the liturgy that is credited to Hillel, and calls for observers of the Passover Seder to eat the sandwich. (The manuscript hasn't been on view publicly for a decade.)

In the exhibit, the manuscript, illuminated by Joel ben Simeon, who was born in Germany in 1420, is open to a page upon which the central text is circumscribed by twisted columns supporting a castle with three figures (perhaps three of the four sons?) peering out of circular windows. A man sits at the base of the central column supporting the pillar (Atlas like), while an elephant and a lion support the other two.

The animal and human supports for architectural forms are part of a larger tradition, which appears in goldsmith-work, stone pulpits, Christian manuscripts, and buildings, according to Barbara Boehm and Melanie Holcomb, both curators at the Metropolitan Museum and The Cloisers.

The central text on the page, in large red letters, refers to Hillel’s sandwich: “A remembrance to [the time of] the Temple like Hillel, who said, ‘On matzo and bitter herbs he shall eat it [the paschal lamb].’ ”

Hillel, then, was hoping to fulfil the charge of Numbers 9:11 to eat the Paschal lamb “on matzos and bitter herbs.” Yuter’s father has made a “big deal” over matzo that can fulfill the Numbers verse even before a “resurgence” in recent years of soft, floppy matzo, he says.

Yuter’s brother-in-law soaks his matzo at the beginning of the Seder, so that it will be more malleable when it’s time to compose the sandwich. The reference in the Haggadah, Yuter says, is to Hillel literally “folding” the meat in matzo. “You cannot fold our matzo.”

Hillel’s sandwich, then, is more like a present-day shawarma sandwich in laffa, or Taboon bread, according to Yuter. (There are references in the Talmud, which was compiled up to the sixth century, to fish sandwiches, according to Yuter, which require a less important blessing since the bread was merely an accessory to the fish.)

Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, the rabbi of the Pacific Jewish Center (Orthodox) in Los Angeles, agrees that Hillel’s meal was more like a shawarma wrapped in a laffa.

“Clearly, he [Hillel] had a soft kind of matzah and it was a proto-shawarma on laffa,” he says. “It's called korech, which means to wrap. So it's really more of a wrap than a sandwich. We do it today without the pesach (meat) part as a remembrance of the way Hillel would do it.”

Even without definitive proof from the first century BCE, then, the Haggadah at the Metropolitan Museum clearly codifies the ritual more than 300 years before the Earl of Sandwich, and if Hillel did in fact do as the text says he did, he had the earl beat by 18 centuries.

That's food for thought for those observing this ancient rite this Passover, although Yuter isn’t advocating too much patting on the back. “It would be a source of pride if we still had in our historical memory soft matzo,” he says. “When people think of matzo, they think of the wafers.”

Menachem Wecker is a freelance writer based in Chicago and the former education reporter at U.S. News & World Report.

A modern Hillel sandwich
From “The Jewish Holiday Kitchen” by Joan Nathan

Yield: 3 cups

6 peeled apples, coarsely chopped

2/3 cup chopped almonds [or walnuts]

3 tablespoons sugar, or to taste [or use honey]

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Zest of 1 lemon

4 tablespoons sweet red wine

Combine all ingredients in a bowl, mixing thoroughly. Add additional wine as needed. Blend to desired texture. Chill, then serve by spooning between two pieces of matzo.

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