Jacob’s Biblical Lentil Stew For Memorial Day

— by Ronit Treatman

Memorial Day is observed so differently in the United States from how it is done in Israel. Having lived in Israel for two years while volunteering for the IDF, I find the all-American celebratory long weekend and barbecue incongruous.

When I visit my grandparents’ graves in Rishon LeZion, I always stop at the military section. I pay my respects at the grave of my neighbor who fell in 1973. I check the other tombstones for familiar last names of friends and acquaintances. I only know one person who served in Iraq and Afghanistan with the American Army. While I always go “down the shore” and prepare a grilled dinner, I also add a symbolic Jewish dish of condolence.

Full recipe after the jump.
When a Jewish mourner begins to sit shiva, red lentils are traditionally prepared for the first meal. This custom originated with Jacob, who prepared his famous stew for his father Isaac when he was mourning the death of Abraham (Genesis 25:30). According to the Talmud, (Tractate Baba Batra 16b), this meal was meant to be a meal of condolence. The round shape of the lentils symbolizes the circle of life. We are born, we have children, and eventually we die, but the chain remains unbroken.  

I found a recreation of Jacob’s lentil stew from The History Kitchen. Here is my adaptation.

Jacob’s Lentil Stew

  • 2 cups dry red lentils
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground sumac
  • 1 teaspoon ground hyssop
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 bay leaf
  • salt to taste
  • ground black pepper to taste
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 carrots, chopped
  • 3 stalks celery, chopped
  • 1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 8 cups vegetable stock
  1. Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy pot.
  2. Add the onion, garlic, carrots, and celery.
  3. Saute until the onion becomes translucent.
  4. Stir in the sumac, hyssop, cumin, bay leaf, salt, and pepper.
  5. Add the lentils and vegetable broth.
  6. Bring to boil.
  7. Simmer the stew for 2 hours.
  8. Turn off the heat, and add the chopped cilantro.  
  9. Serve with fresh, crusty bread.

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