For American Jews, bagel platters may be the most common food served after a funeral or during the shivah (the seven-day mourning period). In Israel, the bagels are replaced by bourekas (a Turkish savory pastry) and rugelach. But there’s much more to explore when it comes to death and food in the Jewish world, as symbolic foods served to mourners go back thousands of years to biblical times.
The most symbolic Jewish mourning foods are dictated by shape, not taste: Round dishes that remind us of the cycle of life – like eggs, lentils and round pastries such as bagels – are all served during the mourning period in most Jewish communities, whether it is mourning the death of a family member or for Tisha B’Av (the fast day that marks the destruction of both temples in Jerusalem, and starting at sundown this coming Saturday).
“The rite observed by the pious of the earlier generations was as follows: A person would sit alone between the oven and the cooking range. Others would bring him dried bread and salt. He would dip it in water and drink a pitcher of water while worried, forlorn, and in tears, as one whose dead was lying before him.”
This moving description of grief, as described by the great medieval philosopher Maimonides (aka the Rambam), lays out the rules for observing Tisha B’Av and mourning close family deaths.
Round-shaped breads are served during Seudat Havra’ah (the “Meal of Condolence/Consolation” in Hebrew), the first meal after the burial of a family member. For American Jews, of course, this means a variety of bagels and a nice spread of schmears. Ashkenazi Jews in Israel serve a similar but crustier bagel, sometimes called a beigaleh. Jews of Middle Eastern origin will usually go for a pita bread or ka’ak, a bagel-shaped bread spiced with a mix called hawayej (aka hawaij) or sprinkled with sesame seeds.
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Eggs are another traditional food served to mourners. Not only are they round but, as home to baby chicks, also mark new life and hope.
The Ashkenazi custom is to serve a hard-boiled egg, sometimes dipped in ash – symbolizing the destruction of the Temple – at the Seudah Mafseket (the last meal before the Tisha B’Av fast).
During Seudat Havra’ah – a meal that friends and neighbors prepare for mourners, as they cannot care for themselves at a time of deep sorrow – the hard-boiled egg is served already peeled so that mourners do not have to peel it themselves and seem too eager to eat. It is customary for the mourner not to finish the egg, demonstrating that he is too sad to eat.
Sephardi Jews serve huevos haminados, hard-boiled eggs cooked overnight. For Persian Jews, meanwhile, it is kuku sabzi, herb frittata, where the greens symbolize renewal.
For those mourning a death in the family, it is customary for the community to take care of their needs. However, traditions vary from one community to another.
Ashkenazi families eat their Seudat Havra’ah privately, away from the visitors who come to console them – fulfilling the custom of not eating in a large group, which would seem too festive.
Most Sephardi Jews, on the other hand, offer food and sit with their guests. In Iraqi families, the whole group will eat together and recite a blessing over fruit and vegetables, but not do a blessing over the bread. Yemenite families serve a bowl of soup for each guest, while Bukhara Jews offer a full meal including sweets.
Lentils also have a special place as a traditional mourner’s food. According to a midrash by Rashi, the first lentil stew for a mourning family was the one Jacob made after his grandfather, Abraham, died. It’s the same lentil stew he ended up selling to Esau for his birthright. Unlike legumes, lentils are a perfect sphere and have no dent: Tradition refers to this as having no mouth, just like the mourner who cannot speak due to deep sorrow.
Both Maimonides and Shulchan Aruch talk about serving only one stew, made of one ingredient, on the eve of Tisha B’Av. But in most Middle Eastern communities, dishes of lentils and rice or bulgur became associated with mourning. Indian Jews make birde (or bidde in Israel) out of field beans called vaal, which they sprout in water overnight.
The association of eggs, lentils and bread with mourning and death has naturally led to many superstitious customs. In Marrakesh, for example, it is considered wrong to peel an egg for someone else, says Rabbi Haim Ovadia of Magen David Sephardic Congregation in Rockville, MD. The reason? Serving a peeled egg is how it is done in Seudat Havra’ah. This is also why no one would ever eat only half an egg, which is what mourners do.
“Death is the scariest thing for us,” Ovadia says. “No wonder there are so many superstitions associated with it.” In his own Jewish-Iraqi family, for example, lentils were never served for Shabbat dinner, in order not to associate the celebratory meal with mourning dishes. And in Sephardi communities, challah is never sliced and served by one person to another, but instead is either passed around the Shabbat dinner table for everyone to pull off a piece, or tossed across the table to the guests. Again, the reason for this custom is the bread that is served to mourners by others during the first meal after the burial.
Another tradition is to avoid eating meat or drinking wine while mourning the destroyed temples – not only on the eve of the fast, but during the nine days leading up to Tisha B’Av. Some even avoid wine and meat for the three weeks between the fast of the 17th of Tamuz – the day the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Romans – and the Tisha B’Av fast.
This means at least nine days of meat-free, wine-less meals. But just like any other Jewish tradition, there are work-arounds. One that is growing in popularity, according to health writer Fran Kritz, is the siyum loophole. According to tradition, the exception to the rule of not eating meat is when celebrating the completion (siyum in Hebrew) of scripture reading. So, in recent years, many in the Orthodox community began timing their readings so the siyum falls during the nine days, therefore permitting a celebration. And yes, it is a mitzvah to join in and share the food during the meat-heavy siyum party.