Nothing like a little light-hearted shiva talk for my first officially submitted question from a reader! Thanks to everyone who's visited this site so far, and keep the questions coming, funeral and otherwise!
I am hoping your expertise in Jewish ritual and culinary prowess can help me out. Sadly, I find that as we enter these cold winter months, I'm attending a lot of shivas and Emily Post isn't cutting it. So, what does one bring to a family sitting shiva? Savory or sweet? Should it be something that is to be eaten during shiva or something that can be frozen for the family to eat in the coming weeks? Should the item be labeled? Should it include my name? And I've always been told "Jews don't bring flowers." Why?
You're absolutely correct that Jews mourn with food, not flowers. (For the record, I'd argue that we celebrate that way, too. I've had a number of recent conversations with brides who are infinitely more concerned with the quality of the food served at their weddings than the height of the centerpieces. But I digress.)
When going to a shiva house, the mourners' needs are tantamount. According to tradition, visitors aren't supposed to initiate conversation with the mourners; if the mourners want to talk to you, that's up to them. This idea carries over into food as well. Even if you think it would be nice to see your platter available for other guests, think about what will be most useful to the family. There are usually enough sweets, but casseroles, lasagnas, soups and stews are substantial and comforting and can be eaten right away but also frozen for later. That being said, if there's a particular cake that you make that you know the family really likes, don't hesitate to make it for them, or, if all you have time for is to buy something, some non-perishable candies or dried fruit and nuts are also a good option.
I recommend labeling whatever you bring with your name, as well as an ingredient list and directions for reheating. To make things easy on the family, bring your food in a disposable container, so they won't have to hunt you down to return your dish. If you're specifically suggesting they eat it after shiva is over, consider portioning the soup into smaller freezable containers or wrapping individual portions of lasagna in foil. By the way, these guidelines go for when you bring food to a family with a new baby or an illness in the family, too.
When my daughter was a couple weeks old, I froze a casserole, lovingly made by some friends, before cutting it, and then I spent a long, difficult 10 minutes chipping away at the frozen thing with a knife so I wouldn't have to defrost the whole thing. You're bringing food to people who aren't thinking straight, so you can help out by doing the thinking for them.
As for why no flowers, there are, as with so many Jewish questions, many answers. My answer is that flowers became a Christian custom, and so, in turn, became a non-Jewish custom. I knew there were more explanations, though, and when I have such a question, there are typically two places I turn. The first is myjewishlearning.com, a wonderful website and source for information about almost any Jewish topic. They answer this and other questions about funerals here. The second is my dad, a wonderful person and source for information about almost any Jewish topic. He answered this question via email with a variety of answers: "Funerals shouldn't be ostentatious, no distinction should be made between rich people and poor, we shouldn't kill living things to honor the dead, we should make donations to charitable causes rather than buying flowers, and others. No one knows for sure why the custom exists, so we invent reasons, all of which have valuable aspects." He might have also said something about an odor at funerals in ages past, but we'll leave questions about covering up smells for another post.
Finally, going to a shiva house and comforting mourners is an important mitzvah however you choose to do it, so even with all these guidelines, your presence is the most valuable commodity. And if you're still confused about how to proceed, find a friend or non-immediate family member and ask what the mourners need that you can provide.