From Rabbi Maurice Lamm’s book – The Jewish Way of Death and Mourning
Friends and relatives outside the immediate family play an important role in assisting the mourners. One of their most important tasks is to provide the se’udat havra’ah (“meal of consolation”) [see below]. It is not intended that the mourning family serve as hosts to visitors. Quite the contrary – it is the visitors whose concern it is to console the mourners by helping them talk about the deceased, keeping the visits reasonably brief, and taking their cues from the feelings of the mourners.
The se’udat havra’ah (“meal of consolation”) is the meal eaten upon returning from the cemetery following the funeral. Certain foods are considered traditional for this meal, such as eggs and lentils, whose round shape suggests the ongoing continuity of life. This meal is usually provided for the mourners by the community members. Mourners are not expected to cook, let alone host the community as they go through the difficult time of mourning.
The meal of condolence, the first full meal that the mourners eat upon returning from the interment, is traditionally provided by the neighbors of the bereaved. So important was this basic courtesy considered that some religious thinkers maintain that it was biblically ordained. Indeed, the sages of the Jerusalem Talmud admonished neighbors who caused the bereaved to eat of his own prepared meal. They even pronounced a curse upon them for displaying such callousness and indifference to the plight of their fellow men.
This beautiful custom, which may appear strange to some American Jews, possesses profound psychological insights. One astute medieval rabbi, obviously of the pre-Freudian era, observed that the mourner harbors a strong death wish at the moment he returns home to the familiar surroundings now bereft of warmth and life. His wish is to join his beloved. In this frame of mind he would tend to deprive himself of food in order to achieve a symbolic death. Indeed, a comment frequently heard is, “Who can eat when my husband lies dead in the cold, friendless earth?”
Another aspect of the meal of condolence is that it is the second formal expression of consolation. The first, as mentioned above, is the parallel rows of friends through which the bereaved walk as they depart from the gravesite. That is a silent tribute, with only a Hebrew formula of condolence, but it is eloquent testimony that we share the pangs of our neighbor’s anguish. This second stage of condolence takes us one step closer to the mourner in his state of misery; we move from the role of spectator to participant, from sentiment to service. We bring the mourner the sustenance of life, figuratively and literally, the “bread” of his existence. That is why this meal of condolence is mandatory upon the neighbors, and not the mourners.
This expression of consolation should be, as is the first one, a silent one. The meal should not be an occasion for socializing or for idle chatter. This is discouraged during the period of mourning and, in any case, is in very poor taste.
The third formal occasion of consolation, the shiva visitation, is the time that is ripe for the beginning of the mourner’s verbalization of his feeling of loss. Here, too, the rabbis urge the visitors to sit in silence until the bereaved himself desires to speak. Even then, the rabbis advise visitors to speak only on the subject of the death in the family. This theme will be treated below.
The Menu of the Meal of Condolence
Minimally, it should include bread or rolls–the staff of life. It should also include hardboiled eggs, symbolic of the cyclical or continuous nature of life. Some explain that the egg is the only food that hardens the longer it is cooked, and man must learn to steel himself when death occurs. The meal of condolence may also include cooked vegetables or lentils, and a beverage such as coffee or tea. Some custom has it that wine should also be served. It is obvious that this occasion of drinking should not induce lightheartedness or a surfeit of conviviality.
The meal of condolence must be the very first meal eaten on the day of interment. This commandment refers only to the first meal and not to the second meal of the day nor, if the mourners choose to fast, to the meal taken after dark or the next day. Of course, if neighbors were unwittingly delayed, or ignorant of the custom, the meal should be accepted most graciously.
If interment took place at night, the time for the first meal is considered to be all night or any time during the next day.
Who must prepare the meal?
Ideally, as was noted, the neighbors should do so. If they do not, the relatives or the son or daughter of the mourner may perform this mitzvah. If that is not possible, the mourners may prepare it for one another.
If no one is available to perform this commandment, the mourner should prepare his own meal. No mourner is expected to fast.
If the meal of condolence is not ready when the mourners have returned from the funeral, they may partake of light refreshments of their own, such as coffee and cake, providing they do not eat bread or cooked food or sit down to a table as at a formal meal.
When is the meal of condolence not served?
The meal of condolence is not served at a time when there is no formal, public observance of mourning, such as on Sabbath or the major festivals (Passover, Shavuot and Succot), or on the late afternoons preceding these days. However, the meal should be served on days of Rosh Chodesh, Hanukkah, Purim, and chol ha’moed.
The meal is also not served for those mourning the loss of infants who have not survived thirty days, and after the death of intentional suicides. Also, if news of the death of a close relative came more than thirty days later the meal is not served.
If a second death occurs during Shiva, another meal of condolence must be served.
With the shocking disruption of normal life caused by a death in the family, the standard forms of social intercourse, its niceties and graces and minutiae of etiquette, are without significance. The mourning heart has no patience for these formalities. Tradition, thus, scorns all types of greeting during shiva.
The sages, who consistently demand that one greet all men graciously and courteously, regard greetings as out of place when spoken by, or to, the mourner. It is absurd to say to a man deep in anguish over someone he loved. “Hello. How are you feeling today?” This is not only a question that cannot be answered, it indicates a lack of compassion and understanding. The shalom aleichems and the hellos are hollow and purposeless, even offensive, to the despairing heart. Certainly, as Maimonides, the twelfth-century sage, taught, we must strongly discourage the misplaced small talk and lightheartedness of some mindless visitors. The rejection of greetings at this time, far from betraying a lack of cordiality, issues from a profound insight into man’s nature and a deep compassion for his predicament. This law, as so many other laws of bereavement, originated with Ezekiel. God tells Ezekiel (24:17): “Sigh in silence.” Indeed, how can one mourn more eloquently than by “sighing in silence”?
The sages offer a second reason for avoiding the standard greeting of “shalom.” Shalom is one of the names of God, and greeting in the name of God at a time when God has taken a close relative could conceivably be, in the spirit of the mourner, an intimation of scoffing and an invitation to question God’s justice, at a time when he is required to proclaim God’s justice, as in thetzidduk ha’din prayer.
Traditionally, therefore, Jews do not extend greetings to the mourner. The visitor enters the door, usually left slightly ajar to avoid the first meeting and greeting, and sits down, without fuss and bother, to share the grief of his neighbor.
During shiva, the mourner should not extend greetings to others and others, naturally, should not bid him shalom.
When greetings are extended by visitors out of ignorance, the mourner, during the first three days, may not respond to the greeting. He should indicate, graciously, that he is a mourner and is not permitted to do so. After the three days he may respond to the greeting out of courtesy, but should do so in an undertone, to indicate respect to both the person and the tradition.
After shiva he may initiate the greeting and may respond to it. Customarily, however, the mourner is not greeted with shalom for the full year of mourning in the case of a parent’s death, and for the 30 days after the death of other relatives.
If a large contingent of people visits as a group, such as, for example, representatives of an organization, he may bid them farewell. Special respect must be accorded to a large number of people.
On the Sabbath, the mourner may wish others shabbat shalom, and they may respond. As to whether others may initiate greetings, there is conflicting opinion, and the mourner should follow the practice of his own community.
May visitors greet each other in the house of mourning? It is considered in poor taste even to utilize the word shalom in the house of mourning, especially since one must then differentiate between the greeting spoken to the bereaved and that spoken to the comforters.
Other forms of greeting to the mourner (not using the word shalom), such as “good evening,” etc. should also be avoided. Merely sitting beside the mourner is sufficient. If one desires to approach the mourner directly, the mention of his name alone is indicative of both courtesy and the compassion for his bereavement. Visitors may greet each other without utilizing the word shalom.
The proper way to bid farewell is to use the Hebrew phrase, Ha’makom yenachem (otecha for one male, otach for one female, etchem for many mourners, etchen for more than one female mourner) b’toch she’ar avelai Tziyon vi’yerushalayim. One may use the translation, as well: “May God comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” Indeed, it is, after all, God alone who can provide the only valid, lasting comfort at this moment of anguish. God, in this phrase, is referred to as Ha’makom, which ordinarily means “the Place.” It implies that the omnipresent God, who is everyplace at every time, was present at birth and is now present in the house of mourning–knows the grief that is suffered by the mourners. He is the God who will grant you comfort.
There is no reason why the visitors should not wish the mourner well: that he be blessed with good health and strength, that in the long future he be shielded from great sorrow, and that he be granted long life, or other appropriate blessings. By the same token, the mourner may extend these good wishes, or even mazal tov for some happy occasion, to those who visit. It is psychologically and spiritually valuable for the mourner to demonstrate concern for others-for their sorry plight or their good fortune, although he is himself steeped in the despair of his own difficulties.
To bring gifts of material things to the mourner is not only in poor taste, but in violation of the traditional custom. The avoidance of sending gifts is in the nature of avoiding greetings. It expresses only the superficial joys of friendship at a time of profound personal disorientation. Traditionally, the meal of condolence was the proper gift of consolation. While, obviously, all visitors cannot provide this present, a gift to a charity in honor of the deceased is, instead, correct procedure. Thoughtful visitors will follow this course.