The Shulchan Arukh mentions a custom to eat lentils, which are considered a mourner's food; the Rema states that many eat boiled eggs, which are also a mourners’ food (552:5). What is the difference between these customs?
The gemara states that lentils are a suitable food for the traditional “consolation meal” sent to a mourner. (Indeed, it states that the red lentil pottage that Yaakov fed Esav was actually cooked as a consolation meal for their father Yitzchak after the departure of Avraham Avinu.) Why specifically lentils? The gemara gives two reasons:
1. “Just as lentils have no mouth, so the mourner has no mouth”. Lentils have no kind of cavity; this reminds us of the mourner, who is isolated and often mute in his grief. Presumably this helps console the mourner because it doesn’t challenge him to open up; one of the laws of consoling mourners is that the visitor shouldn’t speak first, because the mourner may perhaps prefer to remain silent.
2. “Just as lentils are round, so mourning is a revolving wheel among man- kind.” The circular shape of the lentil reminds us that misfortunes are part of the life cycle. Virtually every person experiences mourning at some time, but by the same token everyone moves beyond mourning too. This is a consolation for the mourner because it reminds him that he is not truly alone in his mourning, since others also have this experience at various times, and because it reminds him that the mourning period will soon pass.
The gemara then asks, What is the practical distinction between these reasons? The answer is, to console with eggs. Rashi explains that eggs are completely sealed, but they are not quite round. They express the silence and solitude of mourning, but not its cyclical nature.
When the Rema states that it is possible and even customary to eat eggs for the pre-Tish'a b'Av mourners’ meal, he is basically telling us that the salient character of Tish'a b'Av mourning is muteness and solitude – not cyclicity. When we recall the destruction of the Temple, we feel alone, because we are deprived of the unique togetherness the Jewish people experienced in the Mikdash as well as the closeness to G^d which was unique to the Sanctuary. And we are struck mute by our awareness of the ineffable magnitude of our loss.
But the destruction of the Temple was not part of any natural cycle in the life of the nation. Unlike human beings for whom death is expected and normal, the destruction of the Temple, and particularly the poisoned human relations that brought it about, are unnatural and aberrant. There is no “law of nature” which leads us to divisiveness, competition and jealousy; there is also no natural cycle that can lift us out of these sinful habits.
By eating specifically eggs before Tish'a b'Av, we emphasize that we have no one to blame for our divisiveness and no one who can save us from it. We remind ourselves of our own responsibility, individual and communal, for creating positive and harmonious human relations among our people.
Rabbi Meir's book Meaning in Mitzvot is now available as an e-book through Amazon, ibooks, Google Play and B&N.