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Yahrzeit: Memorial Anniversary

Yahrzeit: Memorial Anniversary


Despite the Germanic origin of the word yahrzeit, the designation of a special day and special observances to commemorate the anniversary of the death of parents was already discussed in the Talmud. This religious commemoration is recorded not as a fiat, but as a description of an instinctive sentiment of sadness, an annual rehearsing of tragedy, which impels one to avoid eating meat and drinking wine--symbols of festivity and joy, the very stuff of life.

Tradition regards this day as commemorative of both the enormous tragedy of death and the abiding glory of the parental heritage. It was a day set aside to contemplate the quality and life-style of the deceased, and to dwell earnestly upon its lessons. It is a day when one relives the moment of doom, perhaps even fasts to symbolize the unforgetable despair. It is a day conditioned by the need to honor one's parent in death as in life, through study and charity and other deeds of kindness. It is also conditioned by the non-rational, but all-too-human feelings that it is the day itself which is tragic, one which might bring misfortune with every annual cycle, and for which reason one slows one's activities and spends a good part of the day safely in the synagogue.

Yahrzeit may be observed for any relative or friend, but it is meant primarily for parents. Its observance takes place in three locations: the home, the synagogue and the cemetery.

Yahrzeit Home Observances

  1. Fasting. It was customary for some mourners to fast on the yahrzeit of parents. The fast begins at dawn and ends with nightfall. If one has committed himself to this custom of fasting on every yahrzeit, it becomes a sacred obligation to continue the practice at every yahrzeit in the future. If one cannot fast, either because of weakness, or for any other cogent reason, he should at least try to avoid eating meat and wine and participating in festivities. If yahrzeit occurs on a holiday, or on other days of public joy on which the tachanun prayers are not recited, one should not fast, as it conflicts with the joyous spirit of the day.

  2. Yahrzeit Candles. The kindling of the yahrzeit candle is a custom dating back to very early times, and is observed by almost all Jews. The kindling takes place at dark on the evening before the anniversary, and on Sabbaths and holy days before the regular candle-lighting. It is customary to allow the lights to extinguish themselves, rather than to put them out after dark at the end of yahrzeit. If there is any real danger of fire, one should extinguish them directly. If one forgets to light candles on the evening before, he should do so in the morning. On the Sabbath this may, of course, not be done, as it is biblically ordained that one may not make fire (put on the lights) on the Sabbath.

    If the holiday had begun when he recalled that he had yahrzeit he may kindle it by taking the light from another flame. If one forgot to light candles and yahrzeit had passed, it would be advisable to make some contribution to charity.

    The lights should be candles of wick and paraffin. If these are not available at all, gas or electric lights are permitted. As the flame and wick symbolize soul and body, it does appear significant to use the candle, rather than a bulb, if at all possible.

    If all the children are in one house during yahrzeit, one candle suffices. It is preferable, however, in terms of respect for the deceased parent, for each child to light his own candle. If they are in different homes, separate candles are, of course, required. In commemorating the yahrzeit of several people at once, there should be a candle for each deceased. The candle is not a fetish, but a symbol, and overindulgence, by lighting numerous candles for every deceased one remembers, is not desirable.

  3. Torah Study and Charity. One should make donations to religious schools or synagogues, to medical institutions or to the poor, on behalf of the deceased on yahrzeit. One should also make every effort to study some aspect of religious life on this day. It may be mishnah, which is the traditional yahrzeit study, or if one is not able to do so, a chapter of the Bible, in English or Hebrew.

Synagogue Yahrzeit Observances

On the Sabbath prior to yahrzeit, some have the custom to have the malei rachamim memorial prayer recited after the Torah reading at minchah. If possible, the mourner should chant the maftir portion (and in some communities lead the Saturday night ma'ariv service). He should, in any case, receive an aliyah, a Torah honor. This aliyah is considered a "required" honor. The synagogue usher should be made aware of the yahrzeit.

On the day of yahrzeit one should lead, if at all possible, all synagogue services. Those who cannot, would do well to learn at least the minchah service, which is brief and simple. The rabbi will be delighted to teach the mourner, or direct him to the cantor or sexton or lay teacher. He should recite the Kaddish at every service. In addition, there is usually a Psalm added to the morning service so that the yahrzeit observer may recite at least one Kaddish without the accompaniment of other mourners.

It is customary, though by no means mandatory, to bring some slight refreshments--liquor and cake--to the synagogue for all to partake of after early morning services, to toast l'chayim, "to life." This slight repast should not, of course, develop into a full-fledged party.

Cemetery Yahrzeit Observances

The annual visit to the grave at yahrzeit is a traditional custom. At graveside one may recite the Psalms, selections of which are indicated in the chapter on unveilings, and then the malei rachamim prayer in Hebrew or English. It is far better, as mentioned above, to recite the prayer oneself than to hire a medium or proxy. Mishnah should be studied at the graveside, if at all possible. The Hebrew or English text may be used.

The Date of Yahrzeit

  1. The date of yahrzeit during the first year and on all subsequent years, is one full Hebrew year from the date of death. If it is a Hebrew leap year, which numbers 13 months, it is commemorated thirteen months later. While the Kaddish is recited for 11 months, and other mourning observances are kept for 12 months, yahrzeit is judged not in terms of months, but years. Thus, if a parent died on the fourth day of Elul, 5718, yahrzeit is observed on the fourth day of Elul, 5719. This applies even if the burial took place several days after death, or if the deceased was buried overseas even one week later, or if the remains were missing, and then found and buried many months later. Many authorities maintain that in case of long delay between death and burial, yahrzeit on the first year be commemorated on the anniversary of burial.

  2. The question does arise regarding the yahrzeit date when the death or yahrzeit falls on leap year, or on a Rosh Chodesh of one or two days. In order to clarify this matter it is necessary to understand the following:

    a. The Hebrew lunar calendar, in a regular year, has 12 months. They are: Tishre, Chesvan, Kislev, Tevet, Shevat, Adar, Nissan, Iyar, Sivan, Tammuz, Av, Elul.

    b. On leap years, an extra month is added, termed Adar I, and inserted prior to the regular Adar, which then becomes Adar II.

    c. Each month has either 29 or 30 days. The first day of the month is called Rosh Chodesh, or new moon. In months that have 30 days, two consecutive days of Rosh Chodesh are celebrated-one on the thirtieth day of the previous month, the other on the first day of the next month. The months of Kislev and Tevet sometimes have two and sometimes one day of Rosh Chodesh.

    The principle followed is that the yahrzeit is always observed in the same month and on the same day. Hence, if death occurred in Adar I of leap year, in regular years it is observed in Adar, but in leap years in Adar I. The same is true if it falls in Adar II of leap year-that is when it is observed.

    If death occurred in Adar of a regular year, the yahrzeit in leap years is customarily observed in Adar I. Some insist on both Adar I and II being observed. Certainly, this latter custom should be observed if possible.

    If death occurred in leap year, on the first of the two days of Rosh Chodesh Adar I (the 30th day of Shevat) or of Adar II (30th day of Adar I) the yahrzeit in regular years remains the first day of Rosh Chodesh Adar. If death occurred on Rosh Chodesh Kislev or Tevet, in a year when it is celebrated one day (which is really the first day of the month), if yahrzeit falls in a year when Rosh Chodesh Kislev or Tevet is celebrated two days, it is observed on the second day of Rosh Chodesh (really the first day of the month).

    If death occurred on the first day of a two-day Rosh Chodesh (Kislev or Tevet), and the next year Rosh Chodesh is only one day, yahrzeit is observed on the 29th day of the previous month, the true month in which death occurred. If the next year (if the first yahrzeit) was also a two-day Rosh Chodesh, he should establish every yahrzeit on Rosh Chodesh Kislev or Tevet, whether one or two-day celebration.

  3. When not sure of the day of death, or if it is not possible to determine it accurately, the mourner should choose a date. Out of respect to the deceased, it should not be the same date as the yahrzeit for the other parent. If in doubt between one day and the next, as the fifth or sixth day of Elul, he should choose the earlier date, reasoning that if it is the true date it is fine, and if it is not, then he has merely anticipated, which also indicates a fine degree of respect.

  4. If death occurred a great distance from the location of the mourners, and the time difference establishes different dates of death, we generally observe yahrzeit according to the date of the city where death occurred.

  5. If death occurred at dusk, it is best to consider the following day as yahrzeit.

  6. When yahrzeit falls on Sabbath or holidays candles must be kindled before the onset of evening. The cemetery may be visited either one day before or after the holiday. The yahrzeit fast, if that is observed, should be delayed until the day after the holiday. All other synagogue ceremonies can be observed on the Sabbath or holiday.

  7. One who has forgotten to observe yahrzeit on the proper date should observe it as soon as he remembers. If he cannot find a minyan on that day he may recite Kaddish at the next ma'ariv service.

  8. If he is sick, or disabled, or is otherwise prevented from observing any of the yahrzeit tradition, he may deputize a friend, or the sexton, to observe it for him. "A man's messenger is as himself." This should be resorted to only in emergency circumstances. What was written above with regard to paying for the Mourner's Kaddish applies equally to the one-day-a-year yahrzeit observance.

The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning by Rabbi Maurice Lamm. To purchase the book click here.
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herbie March 30, 2017

What does it mean that a yahrzeit candle, lit on Yom Kippur, goes out while I am in Shule? Reply

Eliezer Zalmanov for March 30, 2017
in response to herbie:

While there is no actual significance to that, next year you'll want to ensure that it is placed in a safer location to ensure that it doesn't go out early. Reply

Eliezer Zalmanov for February 27, 2017

A yahrtzeit is better spent praying and studying Torah, and doing mitzvahs in memory of the departed. Save the other activities for a different day. Reply

Anonymous Florida February 25, 2017

Can one attend a movie with a Holocaust theme on a yartzeit? Reply Staff September 5, 2016

If someone is at home on the yahrtzeit, ask them to light it on your behalf. Otherwise you can see if there is a shul where you can light it. Reply

harry ny September 4, 2016

if someone will be away on the yartzeit of a loved one, when should the candle be lit Reply

Anonymous N. J. August 28, 2016

What do we say to a person celebrating a yarzeit ? Yiddish expression "should his neshomo be elevated ... Reply Staff August 16, 2016

Yes! You can relight the yahrtzeit candle if it's not Shabbat. Reply

Susan Davidson Brookline August 15, 2016

After about 20 hours, my yartzeit candle burned out on its own, leaving half the wax. Can I relight it? Thank you. Reply

Simcha Bart for June 19, 2016

Since this practice was done by mistake and you didn't actually state this as a vow, from now on you need only you fast from dawn till night. If you would like - your local rabbi can help you do a Hatarat Nedarim - Annulment of Vows, you can hear about this procedure here: (from minute 16:00). Reply

Alan Glick Tampa June 11, 2016

I've been observing a 25-hour fast on Yahrzeit. Your site mentions that the yahrzeit fast need only be from dawn till night. Since I've already established a 25 hour fast as a regular practice am I obliged to continue or can I change to a daylight only fast? Reply

Eliezer Zalmanov for via December 1, 2015

Visiting the cemetery and saying prayers and doing mitzvahs in memory of a parent applies to everyone, not just men. Reply

Anonymous Ct via November 28, 2015

What about a woman? I know to light the candle. I'm a single woman. This all refers to what a man needs to do. Reply Staff September 20, 2015

I am very sorry for your loss! Yes you can light the Yahrtzeit candle. During Yizkor at Synagogue, you can be present but do not recite the prayer during the first year of mourning. Reply

Sheila Dauber New Jersey September 18, 2015

My mother passed away last October. Do I have to light a Yahrtzeit candle for her on Yom Kipper-before the year is up? Reply

Libah Reizel Brooklyn July 9, 2015

My father's yahrtzeit falls on Tu B'Av. How do I reconcile the two, especially as an unmarried woman? Reply

Anonymous Kansas April 23, 2015

In addition to reciting Psalms, Malei Rachamim, and Mishna at graveside, at what point is there a Kaddish? Is a Mincha service ever done in the cemetery? Reply

Rochel Chein for September 5, 2014

Before any holiday when Yizkor, the memorial prayer, is said (Yom Kippur, Shmini Atzeret, the last day of Passover and second day of Shavuot), a Yahrtzeit candle is lit by those whose parent(s) passed away.

Technically, one candle is enough for both parents, but many have the custom of lighting a candle for each deceased parent.

There is a separate concept of a "Candle of Life" lit for the living before Yom Kippur, since each soul is called "the candle of G-d." Customs vary - some light one "Candle of Life" per household, and some light one per person. These lights should be placed in a separate location than a yartzeit candle lit for the deceased. Reply

ester melbourne September 4, 2014

could you please explain how many memorial candles i need to lit for 6 people before yom kipur? for each person sepate 24 hr candle ? or just one for everyone Reply

Rochel Chein for June 10, 2014

Yahrtzeit candles are traditionally lit during the week of Shiva, on the yahrtzeit (anniversary of passing,) and before the holidays when Yizkor, the memorial prayer, is recited. Some have the custom of keeping a yahrtzeit candle burning throughout the first year of mourning. There isn't a specific tradition to light a candle after the unveiling, although you can do so if you wish.

You can find more on the unveiling here Reply

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