Meal of Consolation

The Ritual Meal After a Jewish Funeral.

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Upon returning from the funeral to the home where shiva will be observed, it is traditional to ritually wash one's hands with water from a pitcher placed outside the door. This custom is based on the biblical concept that contact with a corpse is a major cause of ritual impurity (Num. 19:11). It also stresses that Judaism is concerned with the value and dignity of life, rather than excessive attention to or worship of the dead.

The washing is performed with a cup of water poured alternatively on both hands; as with the shovel at the filling of the grave, the cup is not passed directly from hand to hand.

meal of consolationIt is the obligation of the community to provide a meal of condolence (seudat havra'ah) for the mourners on their return from the cemetery. Indeed, the Jerusalem Talmud criticized neighbors who caused the bereaved to prepare their own meal, cursing them for being so callous to the plight of the mourners.

What types of food should be eaten?

Upon returning from the funeral to the home where shiva will be observed, it is traditional to ritually wash one's hands with water from a pitcher placed outside the door. This custom is based on the biblical concept that contact with a corpse is a major cause of ritual impurity (Num. 19:11). It also stresses that Judaism is concerned with the value and dignity of life, rather than excessive attention to or worship of the dead.

It is customary to serve foods that are round to symbolize the cyclical and continuous nature of life. Among the most common are hardboiled eggs (a symbol of the close connection between life and death), lentils, garbanzo beans, and even bagels.

According to some, the egg is the only food that hardens the longer it is cooked, stressing that human beings must learn to steel themselves when death occurs. Similarly, the egg is completely sealed inside its shell, reminding the mourners to remain silent and refrain from casual talk.

Lentils are especially significant because, unlike most beans, they have no eye--symbolic of the deceased no longer being seen. Also, just as lentils have no mouth, so are mourners forbidden to open their mouths to greet people (Gen. Rabbah 63:14).

The critical importance of the seudat havra'ah to the mourners is that it is served by friends and other family members who care deeply for them. In modern times, guests now share in this meal, but it was once limited to those in mourning.

Ronald L. Eisenberg

Ronald L. Eisenberg, a radiologist and non-practicing attorney, is the author of numerous books, including The Jewish World in Stamps.