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Why is Yizkor recited on certain festivals?

by Rabbi Zalman Abraham

  

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In Yizkor, the souls of the departed are remembered in prayer to G-d and in monetary pledges to charity. It is founded upon the principle that a Mitzvah of the living affects the souls of the deceased when performed in their memory.

On Yom Kippur, Yizkor is recited to ask for atonement and give charity on behalf of the deceased since even the deceased require atonement.1 For this reason, Yom Kippur is commonly referred to in the plural: Yom Hakippurim (The day of Atonements), to include atonement for the living as well as the deceased.2

Yizkor is also recited on Shmini Atzeret, on the last days of Pesach, and on Shavuot. On these days, the Torah reading stresses the importance of charity “Every man according to what his hand can give”.3 The Midrash4 states that even departed souls require redemption. Redemption is brought about by means of charity as in the verse5 “Zion shall be redeemed with judgment, and those who return to her with Tzedakah [Charity]”.

Another reason for reciting Yizkor: In Temple times, there was a pilgrimage to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem for these three festivals. Realistically speaking, there wasn’t enough room for all the Jews in the Temple. Although they were compact when standing, miraculously they all had plenty room to prostrate themselves.6 One of the reasons for this miracle is that the souls of the righteous that were gathered in the spiritual Temple in heaven (which is not bound by material confines) would descend to the earthly Temple, blessing it with infinite properties. Nowadays, when we no longer have a physical Temple to visit, we remember souls of the departed so that their merit should bless us too and stand us in good stead.7

Footnotes

  • 1. Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) and Ramah 621;6.
  • 2. Mishnah Brurah 621;18.
  • 3. Deuteronomy 16:17.
  • 4. Sifri: Shoftim.
  • 5. Isaiah 1;27.
  • 6. Ethics of our Fathers 5:5.
  • 7. Ta'amei Haminhagim pg. 245.

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Mitzvah
(pl. Mitzvot). A commandment from G-d. Mitzvah also means a connection, for a Jew connects with G–d through fulfilling His commandments.
Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Tzedakah
"Tzedakah," commonly translated as charity, literally means righteousness, or the right thing to do. Giving to those in need is one of the most important of G-d's commandments.
Yom Kippur
Day of Atonement. This late-autumn high-holiday is the holiest day of the year. We devote this day to repentance and all healthy adults are required to fast.
Shavuot
Early summer festival marking the day when the Jews received the Torah at Mount Sinai in the year 2448 (1312 BCE).
Shmini Atzeret
A joyous one-day autumn festival immediately following the holiday of Sukkot. Outside Israel this holiday is celebrated for two days, the second day is known as Simchat Torah.
Midrash
(Pl. Midrashim). Non-legal material of anecdotal or allegorical nature, designed either to clarify historical material, or to teach a moral point. The Midrashim were compiled by the sages who authored the Mishna and Talmud (200 BCE-500 CE).
Jerusalem
Established by King David to be the eternal capital of Israel. Both Temples were built there, and the third Temple will be situated there when the Messiah comes.
Pesach
Passover. A Biblically mandated early-spring festival celebrating the Jewish exodus from Egypt in the year 1312 BCE.
Temple
1. Usually a reference to the Holy Temple which was/will be situated in Jerusalem. 1st Temple was built in 825 BCE and was destroyed in 423 BCE. The 2nd Temple was built in 350 BCE and was destroyed in 70 CE. The 3rd Temple will be built by the Messiah. 2. A synagogue.
Yizkor
Prayers for the souls of departed relatives, recited during the holiday prayer services.
G-d
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.