- Religion and Philosophy
Food for a Jewish Funeral
Every religion and culture has its own method of dealing with the death of a loved one: some delight in flowers; some drink; some celebrate with music. Jews do what we always do—we eat. In Judaism, many occasions are celebrated or commemorated with a seudat mitzvah, Hebrew for a "commanded meal." Often these are festive, such as the meal after a brit milah or a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony, but the seudat havra'ah, or meal of consolation, is intended to make life easier for a mourner returning home from a funeral. After that, the mourner sits shiva for seven days, during which time visitors bring food gifts so that the mourners do not have to trouble themselves to cook.
The Seudat Havra'ah or "Meal of Consolation"
Following the burial, mourners and close family of the deceased return home for the symbolic meal of consolation or comfort. This meal should be prepared by family or friends to show caring for the mourners in their time of need. The traditional foods at this meal are round, symbolizing the circle of life. Whole hard-boiled eggs are near universal at this meal, and bagels are also very common. In some communities, boiled lentils are also served. Once mourners have partaken of these symbolic foods, they may also eat other food if they are hungry. Common choices are appetizing (smoked fish, cheeses) and spreads.
Food Gifts for Shiva
If you are not among the mourners' close family, you will likely pay a shiva call later in the day or sometime during the week after the funeral. It is customary to bring gifts of food. (Do not bring flowers to a Jewish funeral or house of mourning; cutting flowers kills them, and it is not considered fitting to kill one living thing to commemorate another.)
It is generally appropriate to bring a small gift of kosher baked goods. (Many popular brands and some supermarket bakeries are kosher; check for a circled U or K or a K inside a star on the package.) Unless you are 100% sure that the mourners do not keep a kosher home, do not bring non-kosher food, especially any meal containing meat.
Another safe gift is a fruit salad or fruit platter that is ready to be eaten. (The goal is to make the mourners' life easier, not to make them search for a cutting board.)
If you would like to help provide meals for the mourners, talk to whomever seems to be in charge in the kitchen at the shiva house. The family may have requests or special dietary needs, such as allergies, that you should know about before cooking for them. Meals should be in disposable containers and able to be frozen if the family has more than they need. Some suggestions are:
- platter of kosher deli sandwiches
- casseroles (remember not to mix meat and dairy ingredients)
- baked ziti
- bagels, lox, and cream cheese
Note: At some shiva houses, an elaborate spread of food is offered to all visitors. At other homes, just cake and coffee are served. Take your cue from the mourners, who are likely to offer you something to eat after you have given them your condolences. If they don't, hold back; the food on the table may be the mourners' dinner.
How to Give a Food Gift at a Shiva House
When you arrive at a shiva home bearing a gift of food, bring it straight to the kitchen. Do not give your gift directly to the mourners; you do not want to make them feel obligated to put the gift away and thank you at that moment. Give it to whomever is coordinating the shiva that night, usually one of the family who is not a mourner or a member of the deceased's synagogue. She will decide whether to put your gift out, save it for another night, or set it aside for the family's personal use. Mark whether your gift is meat or dairy so it doesn't get served at the wrong time by accident. You can tape a condolence card to your gift so the mourners can thank you later. After you have taken care of the food, you can proceed to visit with the mourners.