Judaism should not be a cult of the dead, but our dead should not be forgotten either. It used to be that I was somewhat disturbed that more people came to the synagogue on Yizkor days, the ends of the festivals than on the early days. It seemed that remembering the dead was taken more seriously than observing the commandment to celebrate the festival. Today, I wish more people took seriously the obligation to recite Yizkor prayers. The same can be said of Yahrtzeit, the yearly anniversary of the death of a loved one. Most week nights we read the names of those whose Yahrtzeits were are observing that day. Sadly, ninety percent of the time, there is no one at that service to recite the Kaddish prayer in memory of those named. My fear is that the custom of Yahrtzeit has itself nearly died.
Yahrtzeit is definitively a custom, not a commandment, but that does not make it unimportant. There is no Hebrew word for this observance, which is a sure tip off of its late origins. The word is Yiddish. In Hebrew, the codes simply say “Yom sh’met bo aviv oh emo,” (the day on which his father or mother died), meaning the anniversary date of that death. A Yahrtzeit is observed today for anyone for whom you would have sat Shiva, i.e. a parent, a sibling, a child or a spouse. On the anniversary, at nightfall as we observe all Hebrew dates, a memorial candle is lit. There is no blessing to recite, but a brief meditation is usually said. The Mourners’ Kaddish is to be recited at services that evening and the next day. It is customary to give a gift to charity in memory of the deceased, and it is considered praiseworthy for one observing a Yahrtzeit to lead the service if he or she has that ability. A visit to the grave of the deceased on that day is also most appropriate.
On the Shabbat prior to a Yahrtzeit, it is appropriate for the observer to receive an aliyah to the Torah and have the memorial prayer, the Ayl Moleh Rachamim recited.
It is sad indeed that Yahrtzeit has fallen by the wayside to such a degree in our congregation. On Friday night, we read the list of names of people whose Yahrtzeits will be observed in the coming week, and often that list is very lengthy. Yet, rarely are the survivors at a service on the appropriate day.
At Beth Sholom, our memorial plaques in the Bayer Chapel are illuminated for the week a Yahrtzeit is observed. When a memorial plaque is purchased, the name goes into our notification system and those who should be observing a Yahrtzeit receive a notice a few weeks in advance of the date as a reminder of when that observance falls, since it moves on our secular calendar vis-à-vis the Hebrew religious calendar. Congregants who would like to be notified of Yahrtzeits but do not have a memorial plaque in our chapel can contact the office and ask to be put into the system. We would be happy to do that for you and thereby promote the observance of this significant custom.
Yahrtzeit observance is an important element in the system of mourning rites developed by our people. The wisdom of these rites is undisputed, and often praised for their wisdom by scholars of every background. Rabbi Tzvi Rabinowicz, in A Guide to Life, wrote these words: “…the observance of the Yahrtzeit is one of the honors that a man can pay his departed parents, and it is a duty that his heart, mind, and conscience bid him pay with scrupulous care. AS the strains of the Yahrtzeit Kaddish reverberate through the soul, they awaken with indescribable poignancy the faded memories of past years.”
We are proud at Beth Sholom to have a minyan each weeknight, in addition to our Shabbat services. Very often, Jews affiliated with other synagogues in the area that do not have a daily service, attend here on a Yahrtzeit. Of course, for Kaddish to be recited, a minyan must be present. If everyone in our congregation was diligent about observing Yahrtzeit we would rarely lack for the required number. Be there.