Understanding Yizkor and Yartzeit

We begin with a short mitzvah story about yizkor and yarzeit, the Jewish memorial spiritual practices for a loved one that take place annually on the anniversary of the person's death, as well as on specific holidays. This article will then continue with how to enter into yartzeit and yizkor as spiritual practices for both home and synagogue.

     She was standing in the kitchen doorway in her pajamas, holding a lingering yarzeit candle with its liquid wax at a precarious angle. Hearing me enter across the room, she looks up and speaks: "Hello there. Who are you? Look what I found! What's it for? Tzu hace. Tzu hace. Nisht gut. Nisht gut." (Yiddish: Too hot, not good.)
     Emotions and thoughts collide within me as hot tears begin to blur my vision. The next yarzeit candle will be for her, for my mother.
     My son pushes past me, entering the scene while rubbing sleep from his eyes. "Hi everyone. Eek, mom! Why's grandma holding a lit candle?"
     "It's for yizkor, each candle on the table is in memory of a different family member who has died."
     "Grandma, can I please see that candle for a minute?" She lets him take it easily.
     We all sit around the kitchen table as my mom mutters agitatedly at the circle of flames, "nisht gut, nisht gut." I begin to rub her back; she loves that and is quickly distracted into in-the-moment happiness at the pleasurable contact.
     "Will you remember me?" Asks my mother. Her usually random thoughts all too clear in the moment.
      I can't help weeping.
     My son, too, wipes away a tear and then pushes one candle slightly towards her and towards me. "I will remember you both, often and with love. And, in my home, we will light yarzeit candles, too."

Note: Yizkor means "one is to remember. This Hebrew word shares the root letters of the word zakhor, "remember." The term yartzeit is Yiddish, yar meaning "a year" of tzeit, "time," i.e., the anniversary of the soul's ascent from embodied life.

Why a Candle?

In Judaism the flame is the symbol for the soul. While electric yartzeit lamps are available, traditionally a white 24-hour candle is used. White is the color of transformations of the soul in our tradition. This is why wedding and circumcision garments, Torah and table covers for holy days, and the soft gauze kittel garments in which one is traditionally buried are all also white. There is no special blessing to say for the yarzeit candle. On holidays, the yartzeit candle is lit first, then the holy day candles are kindled along with reciting their specific blessings.

1. We light yarzeit candles on major holidays, as well as annually, on the anniversary of the person's death.

2. It is customary to go to synagogue services on the day of a yartzeit and on the major holy days to say the Mourner's Kaddish prayer in community. It is a mitzvah to give each other solidarity, to ensure that you and others are not alone at this time in the cycle of life.

3. It is customary to memorialize the deceased by making charitable donations in their name. When remembering a person causes us to be charitable, it is a great testimonial to how much they meant to us. When we are charitable, this becomes an inspiration to others.

How to observe the yarzeit candle ritual:

When? Candle lighting is done at sundown. Jewish days begin in the evening and roll forward into the morning and afternoon, concluding as sundown commences once again. For as long as we live, we light and the person on his or her yartzeit, as well as on the first night of the holy days Rosh HaShannah, Passover, Sukkot, and Shavuot.

Here is an expansion of the traditional ritual
that may help to amplify the meaning & spirituality for you:

1. Select some photographs of those who have passed on in your family and personal life.

2. Set up a tray of water (for safety) in which you will place white memorial candles for each first degree relative who has died during your life time. (Siblings, parents, spouses - some include aunts, uncles, step-family and best friends) Candles which will burn for a full day are sold in Jewish specialty stores for this purpose, but any 24 hour candle is fine.

3. Set the photos out around the tray.

4. After lighting, pause, watch the flames, and remember their personalities and stories.

5. Pass one of the photos to each of those present who have memories of those being remembered. (I suggest that it be a copy of the original, or placed in a protective plastic sheath or picture frame.) If you are able to, each can share a story about the life of the person at this time, something that really conveys his/her meaning to the individual.Remember to write names and dates on the back of all the pictures with ink that does not smear or run through the paper. Identify yourself, as well. Someday someone may be remembering you.

6. Invite questions, share your feelings and invite those present to express theirs, if they wish. Let them know it is a great thing to remember loved ones, that sad feelings often exist along with happy and difficult memories. That to honor and remember a soul in this way is a precious part of being Jewish.

7. Bring children with you to Yizkor services and to say Kaddish in synagogue on the day of each yartzeit. Attempts to "protect children" from funerals and rituals of burial, grieving and mourning often delay their healing from the trauma of loss. Meaningful ritual is important and effective for all ages.

8. Teach generosity and philanthropy to your children and grandchildren. Remember, it is customary to regularly honor a person's memory by making a charitable donation in their name to good causes and non-profit organizations. Discuss with your family which causes are a good fit for the person being remembered, collect up a share from each to include in the contribution. 

With time, memories become a source of joy and eternal connection, for most of us. Should you find your grief unbearable or never-ending, if a year of mourning has passed and you are unable to productively engage in activities of daily living, or if find yourself troubled by recurrent difficult memories related to someone who has died, please seek out your rabbi or a professional grief counselor. If you have none, the clergy at Reclaiming Judaism are here for you. Contact us for a telephone or Skype-like session of Jewish spiritual guidance.