It’s matzah, but not as you know it
“This is what Hillel did in the times of the temple: he would wrap the Pascal offering, matzah and maror and eat them all together” (text of the Hagaddah, quoted from Talmud Pesachim 115a)
The matzah most commonly used by Jews the world over is flat and crisp (of course how crisp depends on the brand, country of origin, and in some cases, the forearm strength of the Eastern European women in the area). However, this style of matzah is a relatively recent development in Jewish history. Until at least the times of the Temple, and probably for some time after that, the maztah was soft, like a pita or a laffa.
In more recent times, it is thought that Rabbis were concerned that the soft matzah was not baked sufficiently so as to prevent the flour-water mixture from becoming leavened, so they started baking them thinner, and for longer, so they became hard and crisp. Indeed, the custom among followers of the school of Brisk is to have their matzah so well baked as to be almost burnt, so as to eliminate any possible risk of chametz.
When you consider that the Pascal offering was a young lamb, cooked on a spit, and it was not permitted to break any of its bones, the whole seder is looking more and more like a family barbeque. Picture the lamb roasting on the spit, with people carefully carving off meat onto a plate. As per Hillel’s custom, they would then place a quantity of the lamb slices into their pita-style matzah, and add some bitter maror (shredded horseradish or perhaps harif), and voila! You have perhaps the first documented shawarma!
While it’s good to see that Wikipedia correctly acknowledges the contribution of Hillel in the development of the sandwich, hundreds of years before the Earl of Sandwich; it assumes (incorrectly in my view) that the lamb and maror were placed between two pieces of matzah. However, as mentioned, if the matzah was soft, it would either be placed inside the pocket (if it had one), or more likely the whole thing wrapped up (like a laffa or an esh tanur). Perhaps Hillel requires more credit for his culinary development than he is given?
For all of you who have broken teeth or been covered in crumbs as your korech sandwich demolished in your hands, soft matzah is now available in Australia! According to the web site, the stuff has been a big hit and has already sold out through some retail channels. Information is also provided on the history of soft matzah, and the kashrut of this product, which doesn’t look like traditional matzah for most of us.
It’s quite ironic that a product that might be seen as an innovation, from a “progressive” yet orthodox kashrut supervision agency, is in fact a throwback to how things were many hundreds of years ago!
Disclaimer: the writer is a relative by marriage to the owner of Kosher veYosher, and was not solicited in any way to write this piece, nor consulted the agency.