During the Passover Seder, the Hillel sandwich is one of the last rituals before dinner begins. Even when I was very young, when my family celebrated Passover at my grandparents or at home, this was always the good part. This was when you got to eat the haroset for the first time. In our family, it is our tradition to make the Hillel sandwich out of haroset and matzah. But as I began to really explore the Haggadah, I found something out – its not matzah and haroset, but matzah and maror, which my family did as the step before when we eat the maror open-faced. The maror you were supposed to dip into the haroset, which really bothered me: how do you dip ground horseradish into the ground haroset? During the Passover seder, the second son asks, “what is this service to you?” In modernity, it often could be reworded “why are you doing these antiquated customs?” As the story of the Hillel sandwich will show they aren’t static or antiquated, but show how dynamic Judaism really is.
In the early part of the first century CE, there lived a great Rabbi named Hillel. His most famous story is about the jokester who went to both Hillel and his rival Shammai and asked to be taught all Torah while standing on one foot. Shammai beat him with a T-square, and Hillel taught him the golden rule. The judgements, discussions, and stories of these two, their contemporaries and their students, were eventually written down and became the Mishnah, the foundation of the Talmud. But not all of what they did was written down in the Mishnah either. some was orally transmitted for hundreds of years from student to teacher in what is known as a baraita.
One finds a baraita in the second part of the Talmud, the Gemara. The Gemara is again the discussions, judgements and stories of the later generations of rabbis, based on what was said in the Mishnah. These Rabbis lived after the destruction of the second temple. On page115a of the Talmud tractate Pesachim, the Hillel sandwich gets discussed, opening in a suprising way: “Said Hillel in the name of a tradition: A person should not wrap matzah and maror and eat.” Hillel is saying not to eat a Hillel sandwich? What is going on? It turns out we have two different Hillels here, the Hillel speaking is Hillel II, a fourth century CE rabbi. His reasoning for no Hillel sandwich is that by his time, there’s a missing ingredient. The Torah states in Exodus 12:8 “and they shall eat meat in that night, roast with fire, and Matza; and with maror they shall eat it.” In Numbers 9:11, we read “they shall keep it, and eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.” with the destruction of the temple, there are no more sacrifices, and thus no usable meat. This creates a second dilemma. Outside of this sacrificial use, which we cannot do, maror becomes a rabbinical precept, not one from the Torah. All we read about maror and bitterness in our Haggadah is actually written in the Mishnah. And if a rabbininc precept and Torah precept are together, Hillel II maintains the Rabbinical nullifies the Torah’s precept. So by eating them together, you kill the Torah based mitzvot of eating matzah, which is obviously a bad thing. Hillel II points Hillel the elder did put them together substantiated by Numbers 9:11. Hillel believed “it” is in the singular, so therefore the foods must be put together in one package. But, Hillel’s companions disagree; it must be eaten with the Passover sacrifice separately, once with Matza and once with maror.
Another Rabbi, Hillel II contemporary R. Ashi objected, that the real issues, isn’t annulment of one mitzvah or another, but eating one sandwich may not fulfill all obligations for matzah and maror, nor may eating them separately, given the sacrifice situation. So he comes up with a compromise by changing from sacrifice to blessing. Now the obligation comes from the blessings and not the Passover sacrifice. The way to set up this procedure is to first bless the matza and eat that, then bless the maror, and eat that. Each then has separate obligation. Finally take lettuce, wrap the matza in it and without a blessing eat that, to remember Hillel, the temple and our missing third ingredient. This is why on many seder plates there are a space for both maror and lettuce.
So it would seem that R. Ashi has solved the problem. Today’s Haggadah does use R. Ashi’s procedure. First we eat matzah, then maror with haroset together, and finally matza and maror. But this brings me back to my original question: why does my family use a different sequence: Matzah, Maror on matzah, and Haroset on matzah. I think a lot of it has to do with what we use for maror. Maror today can be one of three things: Lettuce, endive, or horseradish. We always use grated horseradish, as do many people. But the other two type of maror, lettuce and endive, are not eaten that way, but as whole leaves. In the agriculturally rich areas of the Mediterranean, it was probably rather easy to get these by spring. If that were so, then dipping endive into haroset or wrapping a piece of lettuce around a piece of matzah makes sense.
I’m guessing here, but in the Ukraine and Russia, fresh endive or lettuce in late March to early April were probably near impossible to get, or very expensive. The only viable alternative for the poor Jewish household was horseradish, and that was grated so a small piece went a long way. So traditions in eastern Europe arose once again on a people’s best way to handle the current situation. When my great-grandfather came to this country, he probably had one tradition from the old country*, grated horseradish, which could only be dispensed easily on matzah. Similarly, to make sure the haroset was eaten, Hillel sandwiches were made with haroset and matzah. These traditions were passed down to my grandfather and my father. Of course, even if the books say otherwise, my Hillel sandwiches will be made with haroset too.
What excites me about this journey, is that we have a desire to perform a mitzvah, and when we cannot, we find a way regardless, even if we have to tweak a rule. We no longer have a Temple, so sacrifices are difficult to come by, but we change the rules so a matter of Torah, eating matzah and maror, can be performed. When living in a place where those rules cannot be followed, because no one can afford the maror necessary to do the mitzvah, those rules once again change.
At Passover we celebrate freedom, that there is no Pharaoh over us, no theocracy, no king. There is only God. Our tradition tells us that God gave us every rule at Sinai, and while the framework was written down as Torah, much of it then, and still today, we are unable to understand until the need is there- and its up to us to find it once the need arises. Even though the words never change, the Torah is not a Pharaoh, and ideas can change and adapt as we need to. We are not stuck doing exactly what they did in Egypt that first Passover, or at Sinai, or in the time of Solomon, because it’s impossible for us to do so. Judaism is never antiquated as long as we are willing to take the time to adapt past Halakah to new situations. As I eat my Haroset and matzah this Passover, while remembering the temple in the name of Hillel, I will remember our beautiful dynamism as well.
(*) There is also a possible theory that the grated horseradish tradition actually creeped into my family in this country, via the Gold’s horseradish company and bottled grated horseradish. If that is so, it probably started in my grandfathers generation, since my great aunt worked for Gold’s. However, how the traditions adapted still hold.