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Leaderip in e illelian Mo
The Symbolism Behind the First Jewish Wrap
By Yosef Y. Jacobson

There are three types of people: a schlemiel, a shlimazel and a nudnik.
The difference? The schlemiel pours the soup on the shlimazel. The nudnik wants to know what type of soup it was.

Analyzing a sandwich

One of the lovely rituals of the seder (Passover meal) is the consumption of a unique sandwich comprised of two pieces of matzah (unleavened bread) with maror (bitter herbs, like horseradish, or romaine lettuce) inside.

This tradition seems strange. At this point in the seder, we have already eaten a large piece of matzah, followed by a significant amount of maror. Why the need to combine the two in a single sandwich? 

To explain this enigma, we traditonally say these words before consuming the sandwich, explaining the significance of the ritual (1):

"This is what Hillel did, at the time that the Temple stood. He wrapped up some of the Passover lamb offering, some matzah (unleavened bread) and some maror (bitter herbs) and ate them together…"

What was the reason for this Hillelian menu? Hillel was a second-Temple-era sage who was born in Babylonia (known today as Iraq) and in 31 BCE, 40 years before the Roman destruction of the Temple, became the leader of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish Supreme Court located in Jerusalem (2). Why did he from all people invent this wrap?

The process of Jewish tradition

The Hebrew Bible was initially written in a way that lent itself to various, often contrasting, interpretations, all of them legitimate, as long as they adhered to the methodology and formulas of biblical study and interpretation passed down from Moses in a generational link (3).

This played itself out concerning the Bible's discussion of the Passover meal as well. The sages of the second-Temple era argued about the meaning of the following biblical verse regarding the seder menu: "They shall eat the meat [of the lamb offering] roasted over the fire, and matzos; on bitter herbs shall they eat it (4)."

Hillel, the president of the Sanhedrin, took these words literally: They shall simultaneously, in the same bite, eat the Passover lamb, the matzah and the maror (5). Thus, the first Jewish sandwich was invented. It consisted not of bagel and lox, but of matzah, beef and bitter herbs, in which one bite could capture all three food items.

Hillel's rabbinic colleagues disagreed. They believed the Torah meant that these three food items should be eaten at the same Passover meal, not necessarily simultaneously in one sandwich.

The decisions

Usually, during such debates (there were thousands of them, most of them recorded in the Mishnah and Talmud), the differing opinions were presented to the Sanhedrin, the 71 members of the Jewish Supreme Court made up of men of extraordinary scholarship and impeccable integrity (6). As the Bible clearly instructs, the majority opinion of the court is established as the halachah, or Jewish law, sanctioned by the Torah itself (7).

However, in this particular argument — whether or not a Passover wrap was necessary — a legal conclusion was never reached. Thus, we incorporate both perspectives in our annual seder menu (5): First we consume the matzah and the maror independent of one another, following the perspective of Hillel's colleagues. Then we consume them together in a sandwich, following the Hillelian tradition (8). Since today we have no Passover lamb offering, that third food is not part of our sandwich.

This is a brief and incomplete synopsis of the halachic background of the seder sandwich (9).

The spiritual dimension

It is well known that every single Jewish law, tradition and debate contains, in addition to its physical and concrete meaning, a psychological and spiritual layer as well that makes the particular law or debate timelessly relevant to the inner journey of the human soul.

What, then, is the deeper spiritual significance behind Hillel's insistence that the biblical mitzvos of eating the Passover lamb, the matzah and the maror could only be fulfilled if they were sandwiched together? Does G-d really care if you separate the beef from the bread?

One more question ought to be asked. During the seder, as we engage in various rituals, we don't recite before each one the reason behind its performance. Why is the sandwich ritual different than all other rituals? Why do we, prior to the consumption of the sandwich, explicitly recite the rationale for this particular custom?

The Mysteries of King Solomon

The answer to these questions lies in a fascinating Midrashic tradition discussing an enigmatic declaration by King Solomon (10): "Three things are wondrous to me, and four I do not know."

Which three things was Solomon referring to? The Midrash explains (11) that he was mystified by the three staple foods of the Passover seder: the lamb, the matzah and the maror. "Four I do not know," the Midrash explains, refers to the four kinds of vegetation, the citron, palm branch, myrtle twig and willow, taken by Jews during on the festival of Sukkos.

What is the meaning behind this strange Midrash? What was so uniquely mysterious about these items?

Three models

The Passover lamb, the matzah and the maror are not only three physical food items eaten at the seder. As with every other tradition in Judaism, they symbolize three human profiles: the inspired Jew, the "regular" Jew and the bitter Jew. The delicious taste and powerful aroma of the Passover roasted beef symbolizes the inspired, passionate and invigorated human being, whose heart is on fire toward G-dliness. The bland and simple taste of the matzah represents the blandness of the average Jew who is neither turned off but not necessary very turned on; while the bitter maror reflects the person who is bitter and resentful toward his or her history, tradition and religion, and towrd life in general.

On a more subtle level, the three food items represent the wholesome person, the struggling individual and the weak human being.

The Passover lamb was a sacred offering, offered in the Jerusalem Holy Temple, with a delicious taste and a wondrous aroma. This is symbolic of the tzaddik, the sacred, "delicious" and wondrous individual, whose entire life is saturated with holiness and spiritual delight. Through tremendous toil, the tzaddik's conscious identity has become pervaded with the light and majesty of his or her divine soul. As a result, the tzaddik's life is a gourmet cuisine, a piece of beauty, a deliscious fragrance.

The matzah, the bland unleavened bread, often tasteless and never perfectly delicious, represents the benoni, the intermediate "good person" who lives a moral life, yet he or she must confront many bland and often tasteless moments. While the tzaddik is always inspired and passionate about G-d and truth, the benoni must struggle with many moments of boredom, numbeness, and apathy.

The maror (the bitter herbs) reflects the weak human being who fails to live up to his or her true human and spiritual identity. In the many vicissitudes and pressures of life, and in the presence of powerful temptations and challenges, he or she falls prey to immorality, promiscuity, sin and addiction. A sour and tartly taste pervades this person's days and nights.

Three divergent paths

Each of these three models, which can be further subdivided into myriads of categories, is included in the Passover experience. Each of them, in its own way, must aspire to liberation; each of them is given on this night the special opportunity to free itself and its environment from the shackles that hold it back from reaching its maximum potential and bringing its world one step closer to redemption.

Each of the three types of people — the lamb, the matzah and the maror — has its moment and its place on the seder table. Yet, the three categories remain distinct. Three paths diverge in the desert of life, seeking freedom. The search for deeper freedom in the life of the tzaddik can't be compared with the struggles and aspirations of the matzah-like or the maror-like personality. They are worlds apart; each views reality and interprets the meaning of life in very different ways.

Yet Hillel chose the path less traveled. Hillel insisted that if the lamb, matzah and maror weren't consumed as one food item, the seder was invalidated. What he was saying was that if the three types of people mentioned above did not learn to experience Passover as one integrated and holistic entity — as one "sandwich" — none of them could internalize the vision of Passover freedom. To experience liberation in all its majesty, dignity and depth, Hillel suggested, we must learn to unite the beef, the matzah and the maror into a single sandwich.

The wonder of unity

But how could the impossible occur? How could the beef-like Jew truly unite with the maror-like Jew without compromising his ideals? How can the inspired and the bitter Jew get long? How can people from such divergent backgrounds and ideologies come together? This was a mystery. Even King Solomon, the master of logic and rational wisdom, declared "Three things are wondrous to me!" Solomon was referring to the wrapping together of the Passover lamb, the matzah and the maror. How can these three human profiles unite?

This is also the meaning of King Solomon's words, "Four I do not know." The four types of vegetation taken on Sukkos — the citron, palm branch, myrtle and willow —  represent four types of people (13). There are the people who, like the citron, have a delectable taste and a lovely aroma; there are those who, like the palm tree, possess a great taste, but no fragrance; those like the myrtle, who have a delightful smell but are tasteless, and those, who like the willow, lack both taste and fragrance. How, wondered the rational King Solomon, can these four categories unite (14)?

Yet, notwithstanding the mystery and the challenge, Hillel demanded just this. Why? Because his unique personality and life story embodied the method through which this seemingly impossible feat can be achieved.

A tale of a nudnik and a sage

The Talmud declares (15), "One should always strive to be humble like Hillel, and not be stern like Shammai. (Shammai was a close friend and colleague of Hillel, who argued with him about many ideas and laws in Torah. Shammai was more strict in his approach.)

To explain this statement, the Talmud offers a lovely and humorous story about a man who made a 400 zuz (a fairly large amount of money) bet that he could make Hillel lose his temper and fall into rage. One Friday afternoon, when Hillel, the preseident of the Supreme Court the most important body of Judaism, was busy washing up for the Sabbath, the man walked in front of his home, calling out, "Is there a Hillel here? Is there a Hillel here?" Hillel put on a cloak, went out to greet the person and asked, "What do you need my son?"

"I have a question to ask," the man replied. "Why are the heads of the Babylonians round?"

Hillel responded by acknowledging that this was a profound question and went on to explain that the Babylonian midwifes were not skilled at their job.

The man left for a bit and then returned, pestering Hillel with more irrelevant questions: "Why are the feet of the Africans wide?" "Why are the eyes of the Tarmodians round?"

Each time the man returned, Hillel would stop his preparations for the Sabbath, don his cloak and come out and answer the man with great respect, always acknowledging that it was a profound question. The man was what's called in Yiddish a classic nudnik, but Hillel's tolerance of him was brilliant. At one point Hillel tells him, "Feel free to ask every question that you have to ask."

Finally, when the man realized that there was no way Hillel would lose his temper, the man declared, "May there not be many like you amongst Israel."

"Why?" Hillel asked.

"Because of you I lost 400 zuz!" the man replied. Hillel said: "It is far better that you lose 400 zuz, and 400 zuz more, than Hillel losing his temper."

Three converts

The Talmud continues to relate three different stories of how Shammai refused to teach potential converts who made absurd requests ("Make me a convert on condition that you only teach me the written Torah;" "Make me a convert on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot;" "Make me a convert on condition that you will appoint me High Priest"). Shammai felt these gentiles were consumed with their own demands, and were not ready to embrace Judaism for what it really is, rather than what they would like it to be. They subsequently went to Hillel who accepted them, and in a gradual and skillful fashion, showed them where they went wrong in their approach to Judaism. They converted the proper way.

One day, the Talmud relates, the three met and said: "The sternness of Shammai sought to drive us from this world; Hillel's humility and gentleness brought us under the wings of the Divine Presence."

What was the secret behind Hillel's patience and tolerance? Was Hillel lying when he told the "nudnik" that his questions were profound? Why would Hillel be ready to deal with converts who were seemingly mocking his religion? Was Hillel the paradigm of political correctness?

Hillel was not naive, nor was he a mushy and spineless rabbi fearful of confrontation. He was one of the great leaders and scholars of the day, and far from a pushover. Hillel understood something about the human condition that many of us fail to grasp.

In respect of diversity

Some people experience great difficulty dealing with views and attitudes that differ from their own. When they are confronted with a perspective drastically opposed to their own, they may disintegrate emotionally. They succumb to rage and feel compelled to de-legitimize their opponent completely.

Others, however, are far better at dealing with ideas, strategies and paths that are very different, or even opposite, of their own. This is not because they are moral relativists and believe that there are no absolute truths worth searching and fighting for. No! They may profess profound convictions and ideals to which they are deeply committed. Yet, notwithstanding that, they can listen and reflect on ideas opposite their own without succumbing to anger or resentment.

What is the reason for these contrasting responses to opposition? Rabbi Schnuer Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the Chabad school of psychology and mysticism (1745-1812), suggests it is an issue of spacing (16). Some brains simply lack the "space" to allow for differing perspectives to reside together therein. When an opposing view makes its way to their brain, they fear it will substitute and override their own identity. Their brain can't contain two contrasting notions simultaneously. For them to truly listen to and reflect upon a contrasting view would be a form of mental death. Consequently, they must instinctively de-legitimize the entire gestalt of their ideological opponent in order to maintain their own. If he has something to contribute, it means they don't.

Other brains, says Rabbi Schnuer Zalman, own more space within them and can thus contain within their zone contrasting ideas, perspectives and paradigms. This person may be strongly and justifiably convinced that his position is true, while his opponent's position is wrong and perhaps even destructive, yet he can still "see" and understand where the other person is coming from. He may argue his point ferociously, but he has no problem listening, reviewing, examining and tuning in to a view very different than his own without assassinating the character of his adversary. He appreciates the fact that diversity of opinion and perspective is indispensable to the human condition; that one undefined G-d created endless possibilities of thought and experience, and each one ought to be listened to. He never gets stuck in the notion that the way he sees things is the only reality.

G-d, this person understands, transcends not only the physical properties of man, but also the mental and intellectual mindset of any individual. Sometimes this means that I must be ready to discover that there may be two answers to the same question, both legitimate and valid. Sometimes, when the differing view undermines the moral truths conveyed in G-d's document, the Torah, I must not embrace the other view as legitmate, but appreciate and understand the journey of the other person, and remember not to demonize him just because of his differing position. I must seek to understand where the other person is coming from and what brought him to these conclusions.

Hillel's broadness

Rabbi Schnuer Zalman's grandson, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, the Tzemach Tzedek (1789-1866), in a commentary on his grandfather's above remarks, suggests (17) that Hillel embodied this profile par excellence. Hillel did not torture himself to "put up a good show" and demonstrate a gentle demeanor when a nudnik came bugging him on Friday afternoon. Hillel was not being politically correct when he told the man that his questions were profound. Hille, due to the largeness of his scope and the broadness of his consciousness, genuinely created room in his soul for authentic diversity. Hillel possessed the ability to "see" things from that person's perspective.

Similarly, when potential converts approached him with ridiculous requests, Hillel did not compromise his own ideals and surrender to their demands. Rather, he attempted to get a feel for what was underlying their requests, where they were coming from, and what made them ask these strange questions. Thus, there was no need to reject them. He could, instead, gradually demonstrate to them where they might have erred, and how they must learn to mature in their spiritual quest.

Identifying with the other

This pattern in Hillel's thought process can be observed in many different positions he took in regard to Jewish law (18). One of Hillel's most famous sayings is (19): "Be among the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people and drawing them close to Torah" (Aaron, brother of Moses, was known as a peacemaker). This, in a line, captures Hillel's philosophy. If you wish to draw people close to Torah, you must first love them, relate to them and identify with their individual journey.

And of course, who can forget Hillel's description of the entire Torah as being a commentary on this principle: "What you dislike to be done to you, do not do to your fellow man (15)."

Hillell's life was a commentary on this instruction. It was therefore Hillel who wrapped up the Passover lamb offering, the matzah and the maror and ate them together. Hillel believed that the three profiles symbolized by these three food items can and ought to be brought together. Hillel once said (20), "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I care only for myself, what am I?" The beef-Jew must always remember that his or her freedom can only be achieved if he or she can join hearts with the matzah-Jew and the maror-Jew to embark on the path toward liberation.

Emulating Hillel

In each of our seders we attempt to emulate Hillel's example. That is why, before consuming the sandwich, we must declare, "This is what Hillel did, at the time that the Temple stood. He wrapped up some of the Passover lamb offering, some matzah (unleavened bread) and some maror (bitter herbs) and ate them together…"

If we were not to make that declaration, one might ask, "How can I come together with this Jew who is so remote from my beliefs and from my lifestyle? How can I truly love and embrace this person without forfeiting the identity — my identity — I hold so dear?

This is a good question. And the answer is: "This is what Hillel did, at the time that the Temple stood!" Even in Temple times, when there were many beef-like Jews, many tzaddikim and truly wholesome individuals, Hillel demonstrated the possibility for mutual love and dignity. Certainly, you and I, living in non-Temple times, when all we have left are matzah and maror Jews, can become one sandwich, and remember that all of us are indispensable to the Divine plan and to the work of liberating the world.

A modern-day Hillel

Four days before Passover, the 11th of Nissan, marks the birthday of one of the great Jewish leaders and thinkers of our times, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson (1902-1994).

It would be fair to say that the Lubavitcher Rebbe was a modern-day Hillel. He taught hundreds of thousands of his disciples, students and admirers how to make the Hillelian wrap, how to bring together Jews and human beings from very distinct backgrounds, affiliations, denominations and walks of life. He taught his students how to truly respect and embrace people very different from them without forfeiting their own identity and belief system. Most importantly, the Rebbe never stopped preaching that the beef-like Jew could never enjoy full liberation as long as his maror-like counterpart was left behind and showed how even the most bitter maror-like Jew was innately and inherently connected to G-d and to Torah. The bitterness was ultimitely a husk, eclipsing the genuine divine essence of this Jew.

May each of us merit to continue the work of the Rebbe and never cease to "wrap" Jews together, to build bridges between Jews the world over.

(This essay is based on a discourse by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (1789-1866), the Tzemach Tzedek (21), and on a Passover commentary by the Chasam Sofer, Rabbi Moshe Schriber (1762-1839 ), chief Rabbi of Pressburg, Hungry (22)).


1) The following is a translation of the Haggadah of Rabbi Schnuer Zalman of Liadi. Different Haggadahs have slight variations in this passage, but the content is identical.
2) Hillel the Elder was one of the most influential Jewish figures in Talmudic times. His descendants for 15 generations served as heads of the Sanhedrin. Hilled headed the Sanhedrin during very turbulent times. Herod I ruled Israel from 37 to 4 BCE and executed many members of the Sanhedrin because he believed that they opposed him. The Talmud records more than 300 hundred disputes regarding Jewish law between the two schools of Hillel and Shammai. Hillel had 80 important disciples, including Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who persuaded the Roman Emperor Vespasian to spare the Sanhedrin (See Talmud Gittin 56b).
3)  For a full discussion on the entire process of the evolution of the halachic tradition, see Rambam's introduction to the Mishnah. This is a must read for anyone who wishes to understand how Jewish law developed over the ages.
The concept of variety and difference within the Torah is beautifully reflected in our sages' account of the very source of our Torah heritage, the communication of the Oral Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. Our sages relate: On each law, [the Holy One, blessed be He,] would teach [Moses] 49 perspectives [leading to the ruling that an object is] impure, and 49 perspectives [leading to the ruling that it is] pure. Moses exclaimed: "Master of the World, when will I be able to reach the clarification of these matters?" The Holy One, blessed be He, told him: "Follow the majority (Exodus 23:2). If the majority rules that it is impure, it is impure. If the majority rules that it is pure, it is pure" (Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 4:2; Midrash Tehillim 12:7).
Cf. Eiruvun 13b: For three years, there was a difference of opinion between the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel. These would say, "The halachah follows our perspective," and these would say, "The halachah follows our perspective." A heavenly voice issued forth: "These and these are the words of the living G-d; but the halachah follows the School of Hillel." Cf. Talmud Chagigah 3b.
4) Exodus 12:8. CF. Numbers 9:11. There is some discussion as to which of these two verses Hillel based his conclusion on (see references in Haggadah of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in the section of Korech, p. 36).
5) See Talmud Pesachim 115a.
6) See Rambam Hilchos Sanhedrin.
7) See Exodus 23:2 and commentaries; Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Sanhedrin 8:1.
The determination of Torah law also involves a respect for precedents. A later court cannot change a ruling adopted by a previous court unless "it is greater than its predecessors in wisdom and in the number of adherents it has" (Rambam Hilchos Mamrim 2:1-2).
8) For the reason why we can't only eat the wrap and fulfill the mitzvah according to all opinions (since Hillel's colleagues believed one could also fulfill the mitzvah by wrapping the lamb, matzah and maror), see Shulchan Aruch Harav Orach Chaim section 475.
9) For the full discussion, see Shlchan Aruch ibid.
10) Proverbs 30:18.
11) Midrash Rabbah, Vayikra 30:14.
12) For a more elaborate treatment of these three personalities, see Tanya chapters 1-17.
13) Midrash Rabah Parshas Emor.
14) For an additional explanation to this Midrash, see Reshimos # 62.
15) Talmud, Shabbos 30b-31a.
16) Maamari Admur Hazakan Ashalach Laznia p. 57; Maamarei Admur Hazakan Einyanin p. 87.
17) Or Hatorah Noach vol. 3 pp. 634-637; p. 669.
18) Likkutei Sichos vol. 16 Parshas Terumah lists many of them.
19) Avos 1:12.
20) Ibid. 1:14.
21) Referenced in footnote #17. It should be noted that the yartzeit of the Tzemach Tzedek is on the 13th of Nissan.
22) Chasam Sofer in his commentary on the Haggadah.
My thanks to Shmuel Levin, a writer and editor in Pittsburgh, for his editorial assistance.


Posted on April 19, 2005
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