Prior to departure for the funeral service, arrangements should be made for three observances that are obligatory upon returning home: 1. Washing of hands before entering the apartment; 2. Meal of condolence; 3. Proper arrangements in the house for the shiva observance.

The Washing of Hands

It is an ancient custom of the Jewish people to cleanse themselves after being in close proximity to the deceased. This is done, symbolically, by washing the hands before entering the apartment. A container of water should be prepared for this purpose at the entrance.

The custom of hand washing is traced to many different origins. One is that it is a symbolic cleansing from the impurity associated with death. This impurity which is in the spiritual-legal category, and has no relation to physical or hygienic cleanliness, underscores Judaism's constant emphasis on life and the value of living. Another reason often given is that it stems from the practice ordained by the Bible when a person was found dead and the cause of his death was unknown. The elders of the city washed their hands and proclaimed, in behalf of the residents of the city, that none of the citizens have directly or indirectly caused this person's death. A third reason some commentaries offer is that the washing is testimony that these individuals participated in the interment service and did not shrink from performing the burial honors due the dead.

Whatever its origin, the custom of washing the hands is universally observed among Jews. The cup of water is not transferred directly from one person to another. This is a symbolic expression of hope that the tragedy should not continue from person to person, but should end where it, unfortunately, began.

Seudat Havraah - The Condolence Meal

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

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. If a second death occurs during Shiva, another meal of condolence must be served.