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Why Get an Aliyah (or Maftir) Before a Yahrtzeit?

Why Get an Aliyah (or Maftir) Before a Yahrtzeit?


Before addressing this question, let’s recount a story that underscores the importance of a mourner reciting Kaddish and reading the haftarah throughout the year of mourning. Here is the basic version of the story:1

Rabbi Akiva was strolling through a cemetery when he saw a naked man, black as charcoal, carrying much wood and hurrying like a horse. "Stop!" the rabbi ordered him. And the man stopped.

"What is with you?" demanded Rabbi Akiva, "What is this harsh labor of yours? If you are a slave and your master is so harsh, then I will free you. And if you are poor, let me make you wealthy." The man answered, "Please, rabbi, do not delay me! My supervisors may become very angered if I am late!"

Rabbi Akiva responded, "Who are you and what do you do?"

The man replied, "I am dead. Every day, they send me to chop the wood upon which they burn me every night."

Rabbi Akiva asked, "And when you were in this world, what was your work?"

"I was a tax collector," the man answered. "I would favor the wealthy and persecute the poor."

"So," asked the rabbi, "have you heard anything from your supervisors about any way you could be redeemed from your punishment?"

"Yes," the man replied. "I heard from them, but it is something that could never happen. They said that if I had a son who would stand among the congregation and say Kaddish and the congregation would answer, Amen! Y'hay shmai rabba m'vorach!’ then they could acquit me from my punishment.

“But," he continued, "I don’t even know if I have a son. My wife was pregnant when I died, and I don’t know whether she gave birth to a boy. And if she did, who would teach him Torah? I do not have a single friend in the world!"

On the spot, Rabbi Akiva resolved to search for that child. He asked the man for his name.

"My name is Ukba. My wife was Shoshiva. My town was Lanuka'a."

Immediately, Rabbi Akiva set out for that town. When he arrived there, he asked the townspeople about Ukba.

"May his bones grind in hell!" they replied. He asked about Ukba’s wife Shoshiva and they said, "May her name and her memory be erased!" He asked about her child and they said, "She had a boy and he is uncircumcised."

The people hated her so much, they hadn't even bothered to circumcise her child.

Without further delay, Rabbi Akiva took this child and circumcised him. He sat the child before him to teach him, but the child would not learn.

So Rabbi Akiva fasted for 40 days. After 40 days, a voice came from heaven: "Rabbi Akiva, what are you fasting for?"

He replied, "Master of the Universe! Have I not already made myself a guarantor before You for the lad?"

Immediately, G‑d opened the boy's heart, and the rabbi was able to teach him how to read Torah and how to say the Shema and the Silent Prayer and Grace After Meals. Then he stood him before the congregation and said Barchu, and they answered him. He said Kaddish and they answered him, "Amen! Y'hay shmai rabba m'vorach!"

His father was freed and came straight to Rabbi Akiva in a dream. "Let your heart rest assured that you saved me from the judgment of Gehinnom."

It’s a fascinating story. What is relevant to us, however, is that in the version of the story found in the Zohar Chadash,2 the “sage” (who is not identified) hired a teacher who taught the child Torah until he was able to read it, and “he made him read the haftarah in the synagogue and pray with a minyan.” He continued to learn with him until he attained the title of “rabbi.”

Later, the deceased man appeared to the sage in a dream and informed him, “When my son read the haftarah, my punishment was lightened. When he led the prayers and recited Kaddish, the decree was torn up completely. And when he became wise in Torah, they gave me a portion in the Garden of Eden.”

It is based on this story that Rabbi Moshe Isserlis (“The Rama”) writes in his gloss on the Code of Jewish Law that it is a custom for mourners to read the haftarah, lead the prayers and say Kaddish, for they have the power to redeem their parents from their punishments.3

Aliyah vs. Haftarah

Why is reading the haftarah specifically singled out? After all, getting a regular aliyah during the Torah reading is a much more ancient and important honor, while the haftarah was a later enactment and of lesser importance than the reading of the Torah itself. (Although the one reading the haftarah reads from the Torah as well, that reading is not counted as one of the necessary aliyot. His main purpose is to read from the Prophets and he only reads from the Torah out of respect of the Torah, so that one not think that the Prophets are on par with the Torah.4)

Indeed, many are of the opinion that there is no reason the mourner should prefer the haftarah over a regular aliyah. They explain that the only reason the protagonist in the story was taught to read the haftarah is because this “minor” offer can be given to children who have not yet attained the age of bar mitzvah. But an adult, who can get a regular aliyah, has no reason to specifically read the haftarah.5

Specifically Haftarah

Others, however, are of the opinion that there are indeed reasons why the haftarah is preferred.

Some explain that one who reads the haftarah recites many blessings for the entire congregation, while one who gets an aliyah recites only two, and those two are really just for his reading.6

Others explain that this preference has to do with the actual content of the blessings. Although the one reading the haftarah may be in his year of mourning, it is nevertheless important not to get too depressed and to keep in mind that all comes from G‑d. In the first blessing recited following the reading of the haftarah, the reader describes G‑d as “righteous,” “faithful,” “trustworthy” and “compassionate.”7

Yet others point to the part of the blessing that references the final redemption and the coming of the Moshiach, a time when the dead will be resurrected.8 Indeed, many haftarot are themselves words of consolation, often about the final redemption.

Based on this, it is the custom of many, including Chabad, for a mourner to read the haftarah when possible.

Now that we know why one gets an aliyah or reads the haftarah during the year of mourning, we can turn to the question of doing so on the Shabbat before the yahrtzeit.

Shabbat Before the Yahrtzeit

It is customary to read the haftarah (or at least get an aliyah) the Shabbat before a yahrtzeit.9

On the day of a person’s yahrtzeit, his or her soul ascends to a higher level. While this is especially true on the first yahrtzeit, when the soul finishes its year of judgment, this also occurs every year on the anniversary of the person’s passing.

Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (“The Arizal”) explains that, in truth, every Shabbat throughout the year of mourning, the souls of the departed are elevated to a higher spiritual realm. However, this only lasts for the duration of Shabbat; after Shabbat, the souls descend to their prior spiritual level. But there is one exception: the Shabbat before a yahrtzeit. Since Shabbat is connected to and “blesses” the forthcoming week, a soul whose yahrtzeit will be in the coming week does not return to its original lower spiritual level after Shabbat. Therefore, the Shabbat before the yahrtzeit is a very crucial time for the elevation of the deceased's soul, and we try to read the haftarah (orget an aliyah)to help elevate the soul.10

Although we have discussed one of the customs before the yahrtzeit, it is important to keep in mind that following in the ways of the Torah, doing mitzvahs, being kind and giving charity for the sake of the deceased accomplishes much more than just getting an aliyah (or even saying Kaddish!).11

May we merit the coming of the Moshiach, when we will all be reunited with our loved ones! Amen!

See Ohr Zarua II, end of chapter 50; Responsa of Rivash 115; Menorat Hamaor (Abohav), Ner Aleph 2:1, quoting Kallah Rabbati 11 and Tanchuma Noach; Seder Eliyahu Zuta, end of chapter 17; Zohar Chadash, end of Parshat Acharei. This version is from our site; see Rabbi Akiva and the Orphan.
Zohar Chadash, end of Parshat Acharei.
Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deiah 376: 4.
See Shulchan Aruch Harav, Orach Chaim 282:10.
See Responsa Tzitz Eliezer, 16:38.
Responsa Vayan Avraham, Yoreh Deiah 36.
See Rabbi Nochum Rabinovitz, Machshevet Nochum, p. 204.
See Responsa Tzitz Eliezer, 16:38.
Shaarei Ephraim, see also Eleph Hamagen on Mateh Ephraim 4:3.
Shaar Hamitzvot, Parshat Vayechi, as explained by the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Torat Menachem, vol. 4, p. 286.
Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 26:22 quoting the Zohar; See also Sefer Hasichot 5748, vol. 1, p. 308.
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for's Ask the Rabbi service.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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