Did the Ancient Sage Hillel Really Invent the Sandwich? 

The truth of the tale of Hillel and the “Hillel sandwich.”

A boy in California has difficulty biting through his Hillel sandwich during a practice Passover seder in 1997. Alex Garcia/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images.

A boy in California has difficulty biting through his Hillel sandwich during a practice Passover seder in 1997. Alex Garcia/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images.

April 18 2024
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A tuna-fish sandwich on rye bread is not a Passover specialty, but the sandwich itself—or so we are told by popular histories of it—is a Passover invention. Here, for instance, is PBS’s The History Kitchen:

Though the earl of Sandwich (or perhaps, his cook) deserves credit for helping sandwiches gain a name and popularity, variations of the concept have been around for centuries. . . . The earliest recognizable form of the sandwich may be the korekh or “Hillel sandwich” that is eaten during the Jewish Passover. Hillel the Elder, a Jewish leader and rabbi who lived in Jerusalem during the time of King Herod, first suggested eating bitter herbs inside unleavened matzah bread. . . . [His] simple recommendation of sandwiching the two foods together may indicate that this was already a popular way of serving food in the Middle East.

The History Kitchen, needless to say, has confused the holiday of Passover with its initial seder night, on which the Haggadah instructs us how to eat the maror or bitter herbs set out on the seder plate while reciting, “[We do this] in commemoration of the Temple according to the custom of Hillel. Thus was Hillel accustomed to do when the Temple was still in existence. He would put together [hayah korekh] unleavened bread and bitter herbs and eat them combined in order to fulfill the verse [Exodus 12:8], ‘Upon unleavened bread and bitter herbs shall they eat it.’”

We then break off two pieces of matzah, spread the bitter herb (most commonly, grated horseradish) on one piece, cover it with the other, and eat what is indeed a kind of primitive sandwich. But is this what Hillel did?

It’s highly doubtful. In the first place, the Hebrew verb karakh, of which korekh is the present singular, did not in Hillel’s day denote sandwiching something between two layers of something else. Though in a later historical period it came to refer, among other things, to the binding of a book between its covers, this was not the case in early rabbinic times, when books were written in the form of scrolls. Back then it simply meant “to join together.”

Moreover, the matzah eaten by Hillel was not the crisp, stiff, rectangular sheet of flatbread produced since the early 20th century by commercial baking and packaging. The traditional matzah was round, as the Ashkenazi “shmurah matzah” still is, and in its Middle Eastern version, which is sometimes marketed today as “soft matzah,” it resembled the Arab and Israeli pita, with the difference that, being unleavened, it was thinner and lacked a pocket. Indeed, such thin, round, floppy, yeastless bread is still eaten throughout the Arab world, where it is known by various names, such as markuk, khubz rukak, and mashruh. (The first two of these are cognates of Hebrew rakik, “thin,” which occurs in the Bible in the phrase r’kikey matsot, “thinly baked matzahs”). It is made by slapping the rolled-out dough on a heated griddle, sheet of metal, or side of a stove, and among desert Bedouin, who call it saj, by making a small fire of twigs, letting it burn down, placing the dough on the coals, and briefly covering it with sand while it bakes.

The matzah eaten by the Israelites hurrying to leave Egypt was presumably of this kind, as was that known to Hillel. And here’s the point: if you wanted to consume such a round, thin bread, whether it was an Arab markuk or a Mexican tortilla, with a filling, you wouldn’t cover this with a second bread; you would simply roll the first bread around it. This is what is done with the Iraqi laffa, which is popular in Israel today, and with the various wraps that are part of the American food scene.

Did Hillel make himself a maror wrap? Possibly, though he may just have torn off a piece of his floppy matzah and daubed some maror on it. But although he almost certainly didn’t eat the maror in sandwich form, modern Hebrew, in seeking to coin its own word for “sandwich,” ultimately settled on karikh, a noun formed from karakh. Introduced into the language circa 1930, karikh had to fight a war on two fronts: one in which it competed with other suggestions, such as krukhiyah and hillelit, and one in which it vied with “sandwich” itself, which it still has not entirely replaced in the speech of Israelis. Gradually, though, it has gained the upper hand and its use in menus and cookbooks is now unchallenged.

Hillelit was patterned on the sandwich’s being named, as The History Kitchen points out, for the English aristocrat John Montagu (1718–1792), the 4th earl of Sandwich, who was said to have designed it as a fast food that he could eat without taking a break from the card table, for which he had a passion. It was thus fortunate, wrote the Hebrew lexicographer Yitzhak Avineri, that hillelit was not adopted, since “Hillel is worthy of better memorials than such a one as was given a compulsive gambler with no time to eat a proper meal.”

Avineri is not the only one to have given Montagu short shrift. Despite being a gambler and womanizer, however, the earl of Sandwich was in fact a distinguished public servant with a long career that included positions as postmaster general and first lord of the admiralty. (In the latter capacity he also gave his name to the Sandwich Islands and contributed to the success of the American Revolution by refusing to move the bulk of the British fleet to North American waters in order to combat the French navy aiding George Washington.) Still, Avineri had a point. The thought of ordering a tuna-fish hillelit is enough to make one cringe at any time of the year, let alone on Passover, when it would truly be difficult to stomach.

More about: Passover, Religion & Holidays, Seder