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The Meal of the Mourners

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Burying one’s loved one is a traumatic experience that not only highlights one’s personal loss but also reminds one of his/her own mortality. Following a Jewish funeral, it is customary for the mourners (immediate family members) to be escorted to the home in which they will begin sitting shiva (the initial seven day mourning period). The emotionally distressed, and often physically exhausted, mourners are then served a small repast known as the Seudat Havra’ah.

While it is customary for friends, relatives and neighbors to provide food for the mourners throughout the week of shiva, the Seudat Havra’ah is a separate and unique meal that is always provided by others. Thus it is dictated in the Talmud: “Said Rav Judah, citing Rav: A mourner is forbidden to eat of his own bread on the first day [of mourning]” (Talmud Moed Katan 27b).

The Seudat Havra’ah, in which only the mourners partake, is eaten in silence. The communal nature of provisioning the mourners is a symbolic way of assuring them that the community will support them in their time of need. By insisting that the mourners eat as soon as they return home from the cemetery, they are given a subtle reminder that life must go on.

In addition to the bread mentioned by Rav Judah, it is customary to serve hard boiled eggs and lentils or chickpeas at the Seudat Havra’ah. These foods are particular to many life cycle events because their round shape represents the cycle of life. Lentils have an additional connection to Jewish mourning customs. The “red pottage” that Esau demanded of Jacob (for which Esau was willing to sell his firstborn birthright) is said to have been red lentils. According to the Midrash, Jacob was preparing these lentils for Isaac, who had just begun mourning the loss of his father, Abraham.

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