As far as sandwiches go, the Hillel sandwich isn’t really all that elaborate. You might have the ingredients on hand, but unlike peanut butter and jelly, it’s probably not one you’ll whip up for lunch. Rather, it’s the significance of the ingredients and the Hillel sandwich’s nuanced origin story that make it so special; a bitter herb-and-apple mixture shoved between two unleavened crisp crackers symbolizes the story of ancient slavery, freedom. And with so much turmoil in the world right now, it’s a lesson we could all use in our daily lives today.
A Hillel sandwich is a snack, really. It’s eaten during the reading of the Haggadah (a Jewish text) at Seder dinner — just before the Shulchan Orech (festive meal) — on the first two nights of Passover, which begins the evening of April 8 and lasts through April 16 this year.
Passover is a major holiday in the Jewish faith, one that commemorates the liberation of the Jewish people from Egyptian slavery. It’s a timeless story of hope, but one that carries extra significance amid the coronavirus pandemic.
A Seder dinner is full of symbols telling the story of — and encouraging participants to relive — the liberation: a shank bone, a roasted egg, salt water, parsley and, of course, the Hillel sandwich.
“A lot of the symbols of Passover are double-sided. They’re symbols of the redemption but they’re also symptoms of the slavery itself,” says Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum of Herzl-Ner Tamid on Mercer Island.
“Passover represents being free. That we’re privileged to sit around a Seder table and have our friends over … people really had a lot of hardships to get us to this point,” says Judy Ziedman, a member of Rosenbaum’s congregation.
In her kitchen in Woodinville with her daughter, Brandyn Hull, Ziedman ties on what she calls her “Passover apron” with a flourish, then ticks off ingredients for the Hillel sandwich one by one: apples, cinnamon, red wine, matzo, red horseradish.
“It just seems like white horseradish is weird. You gotta have red,” she says by way of explanation.
When it comes to matzo, Ziedman says she just buys “whatever is cheapest.”
“It all tastes the same,” Hull interjects.
The sandwich consists of two pieces of matzo and two additional ingredients: maror, which translates to a “bitter herb,” hence the red horseradish (which is dyed with beet juice), and charoset — a sweet paste made from fruit and nuts and eaten at Seder. Almost every family has a recipe for charoset. They all include apples; some have walnuts or sugar. Ziedman roughly chops her apples and adds only cinnamon and a splash of red (kosher for Passover) wine.
A Hillel sandwich is incredibly simple – one that Hull says you get excited about during the reading of the Haggadah solely because it’s one of the last things that happens before the portion of the Seder that’s purely devoted to eating dinner.
“It’s on Page 27,” Ziedman says with a chuckle. “The upside of using the same Haggadah year after year, you’ve got it memorized.”
The Hillel sandwich, says Rosenbaum, is critical to the message of Passover.
The matzo represents the duality of freedom and slavery. Freedom because, the story goes, when the Jewish people left Egypt, they left so quickly that there was no time to let their bread dough rise, and when they baked it, it came out flat.
“The flatness of the matzo reminds us of the moment of redemption itself. At the same time, matzo is [a] poor man’s bread. It’s dry and crusty, it doesn’t taste that good and you can also say it’s the bread of no time,” Rosenbaum says.
That’s where slavery comes in. Rosenbaum says at its essence, matzo is bread that is oppressed.
“In order to make matzo you have to beat the bread down and you have to keep beating it down. Matzo is made by continually beating that rising bread down until it’s flat and, you know, its spirit has been killed,” Rosenbaum says.
The maror symbolizes the bitterness of slavery and commemorates how difficult it was. It’s also a symbol of the Egyptians and a reminder that the world isn’t black and white. Rosenbaum says the “greatness” of the story lies in that it doesn’t divide the world into a binary of bad guys and good guys.
“The Bible doesn’t paint the Egyptians as completely evil and it doesn’t paint the Jews as completely good, and that’s a lesson that’s been lost on us in modern day America,” Rosenbaum says. “By sticking that maror in between the two pieces of matzo, it’s like our tradition is saying don’t give up, even on that maror. There’s even something good that might come out of that maror if you know how to look.”
The charoset is sweet, and it’s there not only to balance the bitterness of the maror, but to symbolize the sweetness of freedom. Additionally, it’s like a mortar gluing the sandwich together, serving as a symbol of the work the slaves did building palaces under the pharaohs’ rule.
As a whole, Rosenbaum says eating the sandwich is important because it helps people remember the hardship and the notion that even in hard times there’s hope.
“And even in hopeful times it’s important to remember the hard times. Not because we want to be depressed, but because those hard times can make us more sensitive to other people who are still going through hard times,” Rosenbaum says.
The Ziedmans usually invite friends who are not Jewish to their annual Seder dinners.
“And for some reason they all like to come back,” Hull says with a laugh.
Possibly because the story of the Seder is one that all people — Jewish or not — can relate to and find meaning in. For those who are going through hardship, it’s a story of hope.
“For those who are very fortunate and are comfortable, we need to remind ourselves what it feels like to go through hardship. And that can help us empathize with people who are going through that hardship now, and not just empathize, but help do something about it,” Rosenbaum says.
That message rings particularly true today, as many people are struggling due to the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.
With social distancing in place, this year’s Seder dinners are likely to look very different for many, but Rosenbaum says everyone should still take a moment and make a Hillel sandwich.
“If not literally, then metaphorically. Find your equivalent of a Hillel sandwich and make it work for you in your life,” he says.