jewish Funeral Guide

Jewish Mourning - the first Week

The Meal of Condolence

Purpose and symbolism. The first meal of the Shivah / שבעה is called the Seudat Havraah / סעודת הבראה — the meal of condolence, literally “the meal of recuperation”. This meal is traditionally provided by the neighbors. Oftentimes, the mourners in their grief are loath to take care of their own needs, prepare food and eat. When food is provided by others, the mourners agree to eat. The mourners feel that they only yield to the persuasion of friends and neighbors. They also feel that they are not alone in their grief and the meal, therefore, serves as a source of healing and consolation, as its name implies.

The Talmud in Tractate Moed Katan 27b derives this custom from the verse in the Book of Ezekiel 24:17“And the bread of [other] people you shall not eat / ולחם אנשים לא תאכל”. This custom goes back to the time of the Patriarchs. The famous red lentil stew that Jacob prepared was intended as a meal of condolence for his father Isaac (Genesis 25:30, see Rashi / רש"י ad loc., which is based on Talmud, Tractate Baba Batra 16b).

The meal of condolence should not be confused with the non-Jewish custom of a funeral repast — an elaborate feast with lots of fancy food served to the guests. The Jewish custom is that the mourners, and usually only the mourners, partake of this very simple meal, consisting of round bread or bagels and either hardboiled eggs or cooked lentils. This food has symbolic meaning. The bread is passed, from hand to hand to each mourner — a sign of grief, as it is written in the Book of Lamentations 1:17“Zion stretches forth her hands / פּרשה ציון בידיה”. This is never done at regular meals. Eggs are chosen, because the longer they cook, the more they harden. So the mourners must learn to strengthen themselves when death occurs. Additionally, both eggs and lentils, being round, symbolize the cycle of life that never stops and of which suffering and dying form a part. Furthermore, just as the eggs and lentils have no mouth, since they are smoothly rounded without any opening, so the mourners must have no mouth and silently accept their loss, realizing that it was the will of God.

Laws and customs. The mourners should neither eat nor, according to some opinions, drink before the meal of condolence. In absence of neighbors, the mourners’ friends and relatives (but, preferably, not the immediate family) should provide at least the bread for the meal. If no one is available to prepare the meal, the mourners may prepare it themselves — they do not have to fast.

The meal of condolence is mandatory only until the nightfall of the day of burial (or nightfall of the following day, if the burial was at night). Therefore, if the burial was on one of the public fasts or the mourners did not want to eat that day, the meal of condolence is no longer served. The meal of condolence is not served on the late afternoons preceding Sabbath / שבת or the major Jewish Holidays. However, the meal may be served on Chanukah / חנוכה, Purim / פורים and Shushan Purim / שושן פורים, Rosh Chodesh / ראש חודש and Chol HaMoed / חול המועד — intermediate days of the festivals, but without eggs or lentils, which are replaced by cake. The meal of condolence is also served on the day when delayed news of death is received, provided the mourner was notified within 30 days from the burial.

After eating bread with eggs or lentils, the mourners may eat other foods. In general, there are no restrictions on the type of food that mourners may consume during Shivah. Individual mourners sometimes refrain from eating meat or drinking wine — foods that represent happiness and festivity. However, according to the letter of the law, mourners are allowed to eat meat and drink a little bit of wine with their food to help digestion. Mourners are not allowed, however, to have a drink of wine outside their regular meals or attend any festive meals or parties, except for the circumcision of the mourner’s son, the redemption of the firstborn son or the wedding of the mourner’s children, and only upon consultation with a qualified rabbi.