Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the open famished. – Genesis 26:29

The meal of condolence (se’udat havra’ah) is the first meal that a mourner eats after returning from the burial. Providing and serving it is a mitzvah done by others, usually neighbors. Traditional sources offer various explanations for this practice. All stem from compassionate concern for the mourner’s well-being. Some say that providing the first meal and seeing that it gets eaten ensures that a person who is so consumed by grief as to have no appetite will not succumb from hunger. Others hold that the mourner’s grief might lead to eating and drinking in excess if a simple meal was not provided and served by caring others.

In rabbinic tradition, Jacob prepares the first meal eaten by his father after Isaac and his uncle, Ishmael, bury his grandfather, Abraham. The seudat havra’ah that he provides is a red lentil stew. Jews have associated lentils with mourning since ancient times. Rabbah b. Mari said: He used lentils because a lentil has no mouth and a mourner has no mouth. That is, the mourner, like Isaac, who just returned from a burial has no words to express grief and so suffers silently. The round shape also serves as a symbol of the wheel of existence that brings all human beings to the same end (galgal ha-bozer ba-olam).

Foods commonly found in meals of condolence vary among Jews, but typically include eggs and round breads, such as bagels. Some Sephardim include olives. Ashkenazim from parts of Eastern Europe use lentils and chickpeas. Mourners eat the simple meal as part of the process of consolation knowing that they are not alone, but remain part of the community as they grieve.

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