Yizkor, which literally means “Remember,” is the special memorial prayer for the departed that is recited in the synagogue four times a year: on the last day of Passover, on the second day of Shavuot, on Shemini Atzeret and Yom Kippur.

The reason for this prayer is that once a soul has departed from this physical world, it no longer has the ability to do any mitzvahs or acquire more merits. However, those that are still alive in this world, especially their descendants, have the ability through prayer, Torah study and mitzvahs to not only bring merit and elevate the souls of the departed but, if need be, even take them out of Gehinnom (“purgatory”).

Yizkor on Yom Kippur

This is the basic reason why Yizkor is recited on Yom Kippur. In the words of the Midrash:

Similarly, we are accustomed to remember the dead on Yom Kippur and to pledge in their memory a specific amount of tzedakah funds. For we have learned in Sifri, “Atone for your People Israel”1 —these are the living; “whom you have redeemed”—these are the deceased. From here, we learn that the living redeem the dead. Could it be that once they die, tzedakah will not help them? No, because the verse instructs us explicitly, “whom you have redeemed,” from which we learn that when a specific amount of money is pledged in their memory, they are taken out of Gehinnom and raised up as an arrow shot from a bow. Immediately, such a person is rendered as tender and clean as a kid, and he is purified as the hour he is born, and pure water from a ladle is poured over him, and he grows up with great pleasure as a fish who enjoys the water.2

Thus on the day of Yom Kippur, which is a day of atonement for both the dead and the living, we recite Yizkor, in which we ask G‑d that He remember the soul of the departed in the merit of the charity that we pledge on their behalf.3

Some explain that it is for this reason that the day is called “Yom Hakippurim” in the plural. For it is a day of atonement for both the living and those who have passed away.4

Another explanation given for why it is recited on Yom Kippur is that thinking of those who have passed on serves to humble us and remind us of our mortality, causing us to repent.5

An additional component is that by mentioning our ancestors, we invoke the memory of any merits and good deeds that they have, so that their merit may stand on our behalf and that they pray for us as well.6

Yizkor on Passover, Shavuot, and Shemini Atzeret

We’ve thus far only discussed Yizkor on Yom Kippur. But what about other holidays? Although the recital on Yom Kippur is mentioned in very early sources, the earliest mention of reciting Yizkor on Passover, Shavuot and Shemini Atzeret seems to be Rabbi Yaakov ben Moshe Moelin (1365 –1427), known as the Maharil.7

The basic explanation for why it is recited at these times has to do with the Torah portion read in the diaspora on those days. This Torah reading is referred to as Kol haBechor (Deuteronomy 15:19-16:17), which ends with commanding us that when we make our pilgrimage to the Holy Temple for these three holidays, “we are not to appear before G‑d empty-handed,” and “each person is to make a donation according to his ability.”

Since we read about this in the Torah, it is fitting that we not only follow through with actually donating to charity, but also recite Yizkor, which stresses the concept of giving charity and doing so in the memory and merit of the deceased.

Since the custom to recite Yizkor on these days originated in the diaspora, Israel also recites it on the last day of their Yom Tov, even though the holiday is a day shorter and there is a different Torah reading on these days.

Sorrow on a Day of Joy?

The recital of Yizkor on Yom Tov causes sorrow on a day on which we are commanded to rejoice. So how can we recite Yizkor on these days?

Some explain that the verse in Proverbs states, “Even with laughter, the heart aches, and its end is that joy turns to sorrow.”8 We therefore recite Yizkor so that if we are meant to have any bit of sorrow on the festival, it will be over the memories of the departed.9

Others explain that, on the contrary, for those whose parents have passed away, reciting Yizkor provides a certain sense of relief in that they are able to do something for the merit of the departed. So while there may be some sorrow, there is also an element of relief and joy.10

Although Yizkor may at one level elicit feelings of sorrow, at another level, the fact that we are doing positive acts in their merit and following in their footsteps brings tremendous merit and joy to the souls of the departed. This in turn causes a tremendous inner joy for the one reciting Yizkor and pledging to do the mitzvahs and good deeds, which is very appropriate for Yom Tov.11

May we merit the day when G‑d will once and for all wipe away our tears—when we will be reunited with our loved ones with the coming of Moshiach and the Resurrection of the Dead!