Persian Jewish Lentil Soup: Culture, Religion and Identity
Updated: Dec 14, 2021
My father was visiting when he heard about his mother being on her deathbed in Iran.
Around a table set for Shabbat, my sister, brothers and our families sat quietly, not knowing how to comfort our father. Baba held his head in his hands, crying without tears. “I should have been there by her side,” he kept saying.
Baba didn’t participate in the joyful singing of prayers; he was lost. Then dinner was served, starting with lentil soup. A look of horror crossed his face. His mother wasn’t dead yet, but we were offering him a meal often associated with the days of mourning and sitting shiva.
To us, her children, who have become too American, lentil soup is simply a delicious addition to a festive meal. It took me a few minutes to realize what that simple bowl of soup meant to him.
My father, Esghel Dayanim was a deeply religious and traditional man. Born to a family of Dayans, religious leaders of the Jewish community of Shiraz, he followed the traditions our ancestors had created for us. He was involved in the housework, usually the women's realm, whenever he felt the masculine intervention was necessary.
I remember him borrowing the community cauldron to cleanse the metal dishes, pots and pants and goblets for Passover. As a large fire burned in a pit in the middle of the kitchen, Baba directed women to drop the utensils in the water, and when he felt that the water was not boiling hot enough, he took a stone from the fire pit and dropped it in the water.
Photograph: Baba reading from the Passover Haggadah. He had to read every single word even as the rest of us got bored and started to chat. This is the last holiday I spent with him.
Baba hired young men to take our Persian carpets to a stream outside the city and wash them with soap and water, beating them with brooms and sticks until they were Passover-ready. The carpets would dry on hillsides in the intense heat of the desert that day and would arrive with much fanfare to be spread over freshly swept and washed floors. We would then be allowed to enter those rooms without our shoes and socks, but no food was allowed in order to keep the rooms pure for the upcoming Passover holiday.
Photograph: My father grew his beard during the shiva period for Mola Meir Moshe, his father's death. This is the earliest picture I have of Baba.
It isn't surprising that he would adhere to such traditions as of not eating the forbidden lentils on Shabbat.
Since lentil soup is one of my favorite meals, I had to run a search to see why something so delicious could carry such a terrible omen.
There are various explanations about the connection of lentils to sad events.
According to Vered Guttman, in the Jewish tradition, “the small round lentil symbolizes the circle of life and is therefore eaten in many Jewish communities as part of the consolation meal of mourners or during the days before Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. The Gemara also sees symbolism in the fact that lentils, as opposed to other legumes, has no opening, no 'mouth', just like the mourner who has no words to express his grief.”
Rabbi Louis Ginzberg believes that according to Jewish legend, lentils are mourners’ food because they resemble death: “As the lentil rolls, so death, sorrow and mourning constantly roll about among men, from one to the other.”
In his article, THE IDEAL FOODS TO SERVE THE MOURNER FOR THEIR CONSOLATION MEAL, Isaac Pollak wrote that the first indication of a specific food to be served to a mourner is found in Genesis 25:30 where Jacob is found to be boiling lentils on the day his grandfather Abraham died. Why are mourners served lentils?
Explains the TB BB 16:B (YD 378:9; Gen R.63:14 ) because they are round like a wheel, and mourning/sorrow is like a wheel – it touches everyone sooner or later.
In addition, just as lentils have no “mouth” or opening but are smoothly round, so, too, the mourners have no “mouth” to speak; they are struck with their inability to speak due to their shock and sorrow at having their loved ones die. The feeling of losing a loved one is often the lowest – the most lonely a person will ever be.
I was surprised to find the plethora of articles connecting lentils to the house of mourning. I had always thought that it was simply an esoteric custom among Jews of Iranian heritage who observe the tradition in Israel and the U.S. as well.
Out of curiosity, I ran a search for lentils in Zoroastrianism. Many Jewish customs, especially of mourning, are similar to Zoroastrian customs. When Jews were freed from their Babylonian exile by the Persian king, Cyrus, the main religion in Iran or Persia at the time, was Zoroastrianism. Finding refuge in Persia, these exiled Jews must have adopted some of the religious beliefs of their benefactors.
According to Zoroastrians, perhaps the best known Parsi [Persian Zoroastrians who moved to India} cuisine is … lentil stew called dhansak. It is never served at weddings because it is customarily served four days after a death and has associations that are not to be invited during a wedding.
But my best sources have been family members, cousins and siblings. And these are the rules:
Lentils must not be served as a vegetarian dish during happy occasions and holidays. I often serve my grandmother’s recipe for lentil ash, or adasi, as she called it, using chicken broth. But even so, I never serve lentils on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. I have done that instinctively, before knowing the ideology behind it.
My family told me that if lentils are cooked with meat, it would be okay to serve on Shabbat and holidays. For example, the Iranian cholent, called Khaleh Bibi has lentils plus other beans and meat. Adas Polo, rice and lentils, has to have yellow raisins as well to be served on Shabbat.
Here is the recipe for the most delicious lentil soup or ash (if thick). It is absolutely delicious in its vegan form as well if you don’t believe in the dark omen associated with it.
* One bag of brown lentils, about 1 Ib
* 6 cups chicken stock, vegetable stock or water
* 4 garlic cloves
* 1 large onion, cubed
* 3 zucchini, cut into cubes
* 1 T coarse black pepper
* salt to taste
* 1 t turmeric
* a few springs of cilantro
Clean and wash the lentils well.
Bring the liquid to a boil and add the beans. Let the mixture simmer for about 10 min.
Fry the onions with olive oil and a dash of turmeric until golden brown, set aside.
Sauté the zucchini pieces in 1 T olive oil and a dash of turmeric.
Add the zucchini, pepper, salt and garlic to the pot and simmer for 30 min.
Mash the garlic cloves and some of the beans against the side of the pot and stir.
When the beans taste done, add the onions and simmer for another 10 minutes.
Taste to see if you need to add more salt and pepper.
I prefer this soup with a bite from black pepper.
This soup could be a meal by itself. Serve with toasted Persian bread, like sangag or barbari. Enjoy!