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What is Yizkor?

by Rabbi Ari Shishler

  

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You remain connected to those you were close to, even after they pass on.

Judaism sees a dynamic relationship between family members in this life and beyond. A mourner says kaddish for his loved one, to assist their soul in its journey onward. Torah advises relatives to add Charity, Torah study and Mitzvah observance in memory of their deceased. The living family’s acts propel the departed soul ever higher.

This ongoing relationship is highlighted four times a year with the Yizkor prayer (See When is Yizkor recited? and Why is Yizkor recited on certain festivals?). Yizkor is a time to connect and feel close to a loved one who has departed.

Yizkor was introduced after the Crusades, when thousands of European Jews were murdered.

Yizkor was originally only included in the Yom Kippur service. At that time of the year, we atone not only for ourselves but for departed family members as well.1 Atoning for the soul reminds of its immortality- and our continued relationship with the departed. These souls rely on us to achieve atonement for them.

An important means of elevating the departed soul is through charity. With that in mind, Yizkor was later included in the services of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. On each of these festivals, we read of the importance of charity.2

Yizkor was introduced after the Crusades, when thousands of European Jews were murdered
Yizkor is only recited by someone whose parent(s) passed way. Each individual reads a memorial paragraph for his/her parent(s) and other close relative(s) that he or she has lost. These would traditionally include a spouse, sibling, grandparent, or child. The prayer appeals to G-d to bind the departed soul in the "bond of Life”.3

Certain congregations include a communal Yizkor prayer for victims of the Holocaust, which the cantor sings aloud.

Yizkor is always recited after the day’s Torah reading.

Yizkor should be recited together with the community, at Shul. If one is too ill to get to shul or lives in a place where there is no Minyan , one may say Yizkor privately.4

Some people have the custom of lighting a yahrtzeit candle (from a pre-existing flame) before Yizkor is recited (except on Yom Kippur or when Yom Tov falls on Shabbat when the candle is lit before the onset of Shabbat or the festival). Some have the custom to light the candle in shul, while others light it at home.

People whose parents are still alive leave the shul during Yizkor. They cannot relate to this experience and their presence may detract from the communion. We also don’t want to insinuate that they have reason to be in shul at that time.5

A more intriguing reason for everyone to clear out is to make room for the departed souls, who join the service at that point.

During one’s first year of mourning, there are different customs regarding the recitation of Yizkor. Some say Yizkor, others leave the shul with those who did not suffer a loss, whereas some stay in shul and do not recite Yizkor.6 The reason for this discrepancy is because Yizkor is designed to remember the deceased. In the first year of mourning, little or no reminders are necessary.

Footnotes

  • 1. Our Sages see an allusion to this in the book of Judges (chap. 21): “Forgive Your people (referring to the living) whom You have redeemed (referring to the dead)”.
  • 2. “The Jewish way in death and mourning”, Lamm pg. 196.
  • 3. I.e. to connect that soul with G-d.
  • 4. Gesher HaChaim.
  • 5. This is often called Ayin Harah- the “Evil eye”. We avoid doing things with a negative connotation; so that they don’t become the reality (see Talmud Ketubot 8b).
  • 6. This is the Chabad custom (Sefer Haminhagim), which is a middle-path between the other prevalent customs to either say Yizkor or leave the shul.

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RELATED CATEGORIES

Life Cycle » Death » Mourning
Holidays » Passover » About
Holidays » General Information » Holiday Information
Holidays » Yom Kippur » The Prayers
Holidays » Shavuot » Laws and Customs

Mitzvah
(pl. Mitzvot). A commandment from G-d. Mitzvah also means a connection, for a Jew connects with G–d through fulfilling His commandments.
Shabbat
(pl: Shabbatot). Hebrew word meaning "rest." It is a Biblical commandment to sanctify and rest on Saturday, the seventh day of the week. This commemorates the fact that after creating the world in six days, G-d rested on the seventh.
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.
Sukkot
A seven day autumn festival commemorating the miracle of the Heavenly Clouds which enveloped the Jews while traveling in the desert for forty years. On this holiday we dwell in makeshift booths and shake the Four Species.
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.
Shul
(Yiddish) Synagogue.
Shavuot
Early summer festival marking the day when the Jews received the Torah at Mount Sinai in the year 2448 (1312 BCE).
Yom Tov
Jewish Holiday.
Pesach
Passover. A Biblically mandated early-spring festival celebrating the Jewish exodus from Egypt in the year 1312 BCE.
Yizkor
Prayers for the souls of departed relatives, recited during the holiday prayer services.
Minyan
A quorum consisting of ten adult male Jews. A minyan is necessary to recite the kaddish or to publicly read from the Torah scroll.
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.
yahrtzeit
The (Jewish calendar) anniversary of a person's death.