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
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.
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.
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, the malei rachamim memorial prayer is recited after the Torah reading at minchah. If possible, the mourner should chant the maftir portion and should 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, be allowed to 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
If death occurred at dusk, it is best to consider the following day as yahrzeit.
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.
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.
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.
Memorial by Proxy
The annual display of respect manifested by the holiday season--visitations to the cemeteries is very impressive. However, it is frankly appalling to see the impudent public display of Jewish ignorance that accompanies these visitations. As the masses swarm over the graves and are greeted by the omnipresent "rabbis" who hawk the malei, the beautiful Hebrew memorial prayer to the compassionate God, the scene smacks of religious decadence, of a bankruptcy of mind and soul, of a topsy-turvy view of Judaism, and an unimaginably absurd concept of what constitutes respect for the dead. This charge does not refer solely to the ubiquitous malei-makers. Many of them are observant, learned, and dignified Jews, certainly qualified to receive compensation for the service they perform. But some, it must be admitted, are crude and uncomely hucksters. This charge does not refer, also, to many of those mourners who request the service of the maiei-makers because they sincerely desire to pay additional religious tribute to their beloved by recitation of a prayer in the language of the Siddur.
What is of concern to the thinking Jew is the reason for the nightmarish situation which is unquestionably a blight on American-Jewish living. The cause is not difficult to find, although it is enmeshed in a sack of unsavory symptoms--the superstitious, "not-taking-any-chances" payoff to dear father; the preposterous notion that two dollars to a bearded Jew will somehow placate a God he hasn’t ever cared to know; the impersonal "respect-paying"; the sad, momentary flick-of-the-memory that in a fleeting moment is expected to cover a multitude of travesties inflicted during life. What is the most evident cause in this whole unappetizing syndrome is the ignorance of the dynamic, brilliant faith that was our ancestors'; the unconcern for the meaning of our parents' Jewishness; the indifference even to the prayer that is recited, so long as it is couched in holy-sounding phrases. It is this festering on the open sores of the Jewish cranium that is so appalling.
If it were not so tragically serious, the cemetery scene, and the grotesque chant and talk that fills it, would provide scenario, score and script for a side-splitting comedy. Only with universal and intensive Jewish learning will we be able to avoid the debacle of the holiday cemetery scene. Only with the attitude that will derive from the study of the sources and wellsprings of Jewish life will we be able to look forward to a true holy day spirit, not only in the public places, but in the homes of Jews throughout the land.