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Hillel and the Earl: The Spirituality of the Sandwich

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This year, sloppy eaters everywhere are celebrating the 250th anniversary of the invention of the sandwich by its eponymous Earl in 1762. As part of a yearlong celebration of the quarter-millennial, a food-makers guild known as the British Sandwich Association (no joke) has even launched an international campaign to promote sandwich awareness. On their website, they retell the familiar tale about how the Earl of Sandwich was this oh so classy guy who liked to gamble while gobbling lunch meat and came up with the sandwich as a way to continue scarfing down coldcuts without getting his playing cards greasy. Maybe the story is true. Kind of pathetic if it is, but even so, the following must be said:

Sandwich did not invent the sandwich.

Who did?

I'll get there, but first some background.

This April 6, in the year that is supposedly the sestercentennial of the sandwich, Jews all over the world will get together for about the 3,300th year in a row and eat a meal known as a seder. At the seder, we will recount the story of the miraculous birth of our people and we will do a little show-and-tell as well. Among the edible mitzvos at the seder are the matzah, to remind us how we fled from Egypt so fast that the bread didn't have time to rise, and the bitter herbs, to recall how slavery embittered our lives. In ancient times when the Holy Temple in Jerusalem stood (i.e., before the Romans destroyed it in the year 70 C.E.) we used to also have special meat at the seder meal. The meat was from the paschal lamb that each family or group of friends would roast and eat together on Passover in fulfillment of the verse (Exodus 12:8), "Eat the meat on this night, roasted over fire. With matzah and bitter herbs you shall eat it."

Did you catch what it said in that verse? For the first thousand years or so of celebrating Passover, there was roasted lamb; and the roasted lamb was eaten with matzah and bitter herbs. Now, it doesn't say how to eat those items. I suppose there were a lot of different styles. But about 2,000 years ago -- right at the end of the time when the Temple still stood -- there was a great sage by the name of Hillel and he initiated the practice of actually putting the meat and the bitter herbs and matzah all together and eating them all stacked or wrapped together, sort of like er, well, a sandwich. Except they wouldn't have called it a sandwich 2,000 years ago, now would they?

Ask a Jew who has been to a seder and they will likely tell you about the famous "Hillel sandwich" that is made to this day. There's even an official introductory line that we read from the Haggadah (the official seder text) that says: "Thus did Hillel during the time when the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was standing: He would combine the meat of the Passover offering, the matzah and the bitter herbs and eat them together."

In Hebrew, this part of the seder is called korech, which literally means "to wrap" -- as in to wrap all the ingredients together. (For the sake of historical accuracy, it should be noted that it is not clear to us today what the precise configuration of Hillel's "wrap" was. We don't know how he stacked the various food items and in what order. But being that in ancient times they knew how to make the matzah much softer than we know how to today, it is possible that Hillel was able to sort of bend the matzah around the meat and bitter herbs. Think shawarma laffa. If you're from Utah, just Google it. You'll see what I mean.)

If this is so, then why does everyone call a sandwich a sandwich? We should all call it a hillel? Let's undo Sandwich's revisionist legacy!

There's a precedent for this after all. There's a group of islands in the South Pacific that used to be called the Sandwich Islands. That's what Captain Cook named them when he landed there in the 1770s when his expedition was funded by -- yes, you guessed it -- the Earl of Sandwich. But the Hawaiians called their home Hawaii long before Cook decided to name it after Sandwich. In the end, the Hawaiians made their point. Maybe we need to do like the Hawaiians and call sandwiches hillels, or at least korechs -- but korech has that guttural chhhh sound that most English-speakers can't pronounce so forget it, let's go back to the first suggestion and call them hillels. The point is, the Hawaiians did it and maybe so should we. Then again, the Hawaiians invented poi.

But kidding aside, there's a real reason not to disrupt the 250-year-old status quo, as erroneous as it may be.

I say, let Sandwich's legacy be the sandwich. It suits him. If you learn about the life of Sandwich, it turns out that he was a real sicko. But I could have guessed that without having read the histories. The guy was a fresser. And if you don't know what a fresser is, that's Yiddish for "a guy who can't put down the deli meat long enough to finish a game of Pinochle." The idea of stacking your food into an edible carrying case so you can cram as much of it in your mouth as possible without having to use silverware is just not worthy of being the namesake of the kind of spiritual giant who gave us teachings like: "If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?"

The sandwich and the hillel represent two outwardly similar but inwardly opposite approaches to our relationship with the physical world. The sandwich says let's cram all of the base pleasures of life into each moment while the hillel says let's use this world as an interface for connecting with something greater than ourselves.

To spell it out -- Hillel's hillel wasn't designed for recreational eating, it was designed for doing a mitzvah -- actually, three mitzvahs wrapped together. A hillel isn't something you pick up during lunch break and then wolf down in your car, it's something you have once a year (OK, actually, we have a seder on both of the first two nights of Passover, so twice a year, but you get the point). A hillel isn't something you eat so fast that you hardly know you ate it. Eating a hillel is an act of devotion. It's meditating and eating all in one. I'll let the pleasure-seeking Sandwich keep the subs and clubs and PBJs that carry his name. As for me, come Passover night, you'll know where to find me. I'll be doing as Hillel did and hopefully I'll be doing it with even a smidgen of the spiritual bliss and mindfulness with which Hillel made his hillel so many years ago.

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