As any Jewish mother could tell you, Jewish observance often involves food: Shabbat, holidays, celebrations—and even during shivah, the week of mourning. Mourners partake of a special meal, visitors bring a steady stream of food throughout the week, and some have the custom not to remove food from the shivah home. Let’s examine the various customs surrounding food and mourning.

Seudat Havara'ah: The First Meal

After returning from the funeral, it is customary for the mourners to have a private meal just for them. This meal is called a seudat havara'ah, “meal of recovery.”

There are a number of unique rules regarding this meal:

a) Instead of using their own food, the meal is provided by others, such as neighbors, close friends or relatives. (If no one provides this meal, the mourners can use their own food.)1

b) In addition to bread (preferably round rolls, like a bagels), it is customary to eat peeled hard-boiled eggs.2 The roundness symbolizes the cycle of life.3 Also round shape has no “mouth” (opening), and in the same way a mourner also has—so to speak—no “mouth” to speak, consumed as he is with his grief.4

After bread and egg, other foods and drinks (including wine in moderation) may be enjoyed.

There are a number of reasons given for this meal:

● Enjoying a meal provided by neighbors or relatives is consoling, reminding the mourners that they aren’t alone in their grief.5

● A grief-stricken mourner may not want to eat. Since these feelings are strongest in the beginning, others bring the mourners food so that they eat.6

● Alternatively, if left alone, the mourners may wish to drown their grief in food and drink, to the point of disrespect. However, if others are there providing the food, the mourner is more likely to eat in a respectful manner.7

Learn more about the Seudat Havara’ah.

Bringing Food to Shivah

Though during the shivah it is permissible for the mourners to prepare their own food after the first meal, in many communities people continue to supply them with food. Since the mourners and their families have other things on their mind, it is appropriate to make sure that their needs are taken care of.

But while mourners are provided with food, there are different customs regarding whether or not food should be provided to visitors. Sephardic communities view it as an honor for others to make a blessing and eat something for the merit of the deceased.

Read: Why Does Sharing Food Help the Soul of the Deceased?

However, most Ashkenazic communities (including Chabad) refrain from putting out food for visitors.

Taking Food From Shivah

The custom to not put out food at the shivah home may be linked to the tradition of not taking anything (that belongs to the mourner or deceased) from the house of mourning for the duration of shivah, since ru’ach ra (“negative energy”) rests in the house of the mourner.8

Some however, say that this only applies to a house or room in which the person actually passed away. If the mourners are gathered in another place, there is no reason to be concerned.(This is not Chabad custom.)9 In other traditions, this is not something to be concerned about either way.10

L’chaim at the End of Shivah

Although throughout the shivah, Ashkenazim generally do not put out food or drink, many (including Chabad) have the custom to toast a l’chaim on the seventh day, right after shivah is concluded.11

Discover: Why Do Jews Say L’Chaim?

May we merit the ultimate redemption, when G‑d will wipe away our tears and we will once again be reunited with our loved ones!