Recalling the deceased during a synagogue service is not merely a convenient form of emotional release, but an act of solemn piety and an expression of profound respect. The yizkor memorial service was instituted so that the Jew may pay homage to his forbears and recall the good life and traditional goals.
This memorial service is founded on a vital principle of Jewish life, one that motivates and animates the Kaddish recitation. It is based on the firm belief that the living, by acts of piety and goodness, can redeem the dead. The son can bring honor to the father. The "merit of the children" can reflect the value of the parents. This merit is achieved, primarily, by living on a high ethical and moral plane, by being responsive to the demands of God and sensitive to the needs of fellowman. The formal expression of this merit is accomplished by prayer to God and by contributions to charity.
It is understandable, therefore, that when the yizkor was first introduced into the service, probably during the massacres of the Crusaders and the early medieval pogroms, it was natural to be recited during the Day of Atonement. On that holiest day of the year, when Jews seek redemption from their sins, they seek atonement as well for members of the family who have passed on. "Forgive Thy people, whom Thou hast redeemed," says the Bible in Judges, chapter 21. Say the sages: "Forgive Thy people," refers to the living; "Whom Thou hast redeemed," refers to the dead. The living can redeem the dead. Atonement must be sought for both. One scholar even suggests that the term Yom Ha'Kippurim, the technical name for the Day of Atonement, is written in the plural, "atonements," because on that day the Jew must seek atonement for both those who are present and those who sleep in the dust.
But even prayer is not sufficient for a dignified and meaningful memorial. It must be accompanied by charity, as the personal, material demonstration of kindness. Thus, yizkor came to be recited on major holidays when Deuteronomy 15-16 is read, and which contains the phrase, "Each man shall give according to his ability." Those chapters command man to be charitable, to support the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the Levites who depend on his graciousness. They emphasize that on the three pilgrim festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Succot no man may appear at the Temple empty-handed. Each man must be generous according to his ability. Accordingly, the proper memorial service contains a phrase denoting a sum of charity that is being pledged. This statement should not be taken lightly; it is not a mere liturgical formula. If no charity will be given it should not be included. It is preferable not to promise than to renege on a vow. Thus, the yizkor service recited on Yom Kippur, Passover, Shavuot and Succot, includes both prayer and charity.
The Rubric of the Memorial Service
There are two distinct prayers that are traditionally referred to as hazkarat neshamot, recalling of the dead. First is the malei rachamim, recited by the rabbi or cantor publicly at funeral and unveiling services, at holiday yizkor services, and after the Torah readings on Monday and Thursday mornings, and on Saturday afternoons for yahrzeit. The second hazkarat neshamot prayer refers to the synagogue yizkor service. This is designed to be read by the individual congregant, silently, on Yom Kippur and the three pilgrim festivals, mentioned above.
Yizkor Prayer for a Male Deceased:
Merciful God in Heaven, grant perfect repose to the soul of _________________ who has passed to his eternal habitation; and in whose memory, the members of his family pledge charity. May he be under Thy divine wings among the holy and pure who shine bright as the sky; may his place of rest be in paradise. Merciful One, 0 keep his soul forever alive under Thy protective wings. The Lord being his heritage may he rest in peace; and let us say, Amen.
Yizkor Prayer for a Woman Deceased:
Merciful God in Heaven, grant perfect repose to the soul of _________________ who has passed to her eternal habitation; and in whose memory, the members of her family pledge charity. May she be under Thy divine wings among the holy and pure who shine bright as the sky; may her place of rest be in paradise. Merciful One, 0 keep her soul forever alive under Thy protective wings. The Lord being her heritage, may she rest in peace; and let us say, Amen.
One general yizkor prayer may be recited for all one's deceased, citing the individual names in the spaces indicated. Or, one prayer may be recited for each deceased, if so desired, or separate paragraphs for males and females. One must be sure that the Hebrew text is worded in the plural or singular, male or female. Prayerbooks usually indicate whom the yizkor paragraph is intended for. The yizkor may be read in translation.
The name should be recited in Hebrew, giving both the name of the deceased and the name of the deceased's father. The Sephardic tradition uses the mother's name instead of the father's, as, for example, Shmu'el ben Channah. The bereaved should learn and remember these names. If they are absolutely not ascertainable, the English names may be used.
For Whom Yizkor Is Recited
Yizkor may be said for all Jewish dead: parents, grandparents, mates, children, family and friends. It may be recited for suicides and for sinners. A question of propriety usually arises regarding yizkor for a deceased first mate after remarriage. The only reason it would not be said is the hurt it might cause the present mate. Being that the yizkor is recited silently, there can be no such fear and the prayer may be recited.
When Is Yizkor Recited?
Yizkor is recited after the morning Torah reading on Yom Kippur, on the last day of Passover and Shavuot, and on the seventh day of Succot, called Shemini Atzeret. It is recited on these days even if they fall on the Sabbath at which time memorials are, otherwise, inappropriate to the festive nature of the holiday. In most synagogues it is recited after the rabbi's sermon.
The Requirement of a Minyan
Yizkor should be recited at synagogue services. If one cannot possibly attend these services because of illness, or because there is no minyan available, one may recite yizkor privately at home, although it is distinctly and unquestionably preferable to recite it at a public synagogue service. In this respect, it is unlike the Kaddish which may not be recited privately, under any circumstances.
Candle Lighting for Yizkor
It is an ancient custom, on the four holidays when yizkor is recited, to kindle yahrzeit candles for the departed. It is best that the lights be flaming wicks, as the flame and candle symbolize the relation of body and soul. However, if this is not available, electric bulbs or gas light may be used. For yizkor memorial purposes, one light will serve adequately to recall all the departed.