We Remember Them-Yizkor and Yahrzeit
There are two words in the Jewish tradition most commonly associated with remembrance of those who have died; yizkor -- a Hebrew word meaning “may He [God] remember” and yahrzeit -- a Yiddish word meaning anniversary (yahr = year, zeit = time). The first, Yizkor, refers to a communal worship service that takes place four times a year; on Yom Kippur and traditionally on the additional day of each of the three pilgrimage festivals -- Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. In Israel where the addition of a day to account for the ancient communication challenges of the Diaspora is not necessary, (and also at Riverdale Temple) Yizkor is observed on the last day of Passover and Sukkot, and on the first (only) day of Shavuot.
Yizkor is a relatively recent addition to Jewish worship. The first official record of its inclusion in the Yom Kippur prayers seems to be from the 11th century -- probably in reaction to the experiences of the Jewish communities during the crusades. The service derives its name from the first word of the core prayer which begins “Yizkor Elohim et nishmat…” -- may God remember the soul of ….” The traditional formulation of that prayer usually includes a monetary pledge in memory of the loved ones for whom one is reciting the prayer. This bit of information may shed light on the spread of the Yizkor service initially from once a year, on Yom Kippur, to the three festivals as well. There seems to be a universal anthropological drive to create physical tributes to those loved ones who have passed out of earthly existence. Thus, almost every synagogue in the world bears names on plaques, pews, doorways, lecterns, arks and every other inscribable surface. In biblical times, our ancestors brought material offerings from their land to the Temple in Jerusalem three times a year. We no longer have a Temple in Jerusalem, and far fewer Jews farm the land, but the remembrance of our loved ones has become an important motivation for sustaining the institutions that, in turn, sustain our heritage. Yizkor became a cherished way to turn the pain of loss into meaningful, visible support for the living.
One of the most widespread and enduring related customs was the writing of “yizkor books” -- memorial volumes containing names and information about those one wished to remember. Each entry was, of course, accompanied by a contribution to the community publishing the Yizkor book, but the benefits of those volumes have long outlived many of the communities that produced them. They have become a rich source of knowledge about our past, especially in Europe, that might otherwise have become inaccessible forever.
Riverdale Temple continues this tradition of a Book of Remembrance each year. Entries are collected during the summer and the book is made available to the entire congregation during the Yizkor Service on Yom Kippur. We pray that the institutions producing such texts today will never suffer the destruction of the communities wiped out by waves of persecution. Rather, we publish a Book of Remembrance to encourage every member of the Jewish community to participate in the sustenance of a living and vibrant Judaism.
Yahrzeit is a related, but also wholly different observance. It is a personal commemoration of the anniversary of death of one’s immediate relatives; parent, spouse, sibling or child. Traditionally, one lights a memorial candle on the eve of the actual date of death, and joins a daily minyan (quorum needed for public prayer) to recite kaddish on the anniversary. At Riverdale Temple our custom is for members to observe yahrzeit on the Sabbath immediately following the anniversary, when the names of their loved ones are recalled before the recitation of the kaddish at the conclusion of the service. In addition, our custom is first to ask those who are observing a personal yahrzeit to rise (if they wish) as the name of their loved one is recited, and then to invite the entire congregation to rise in memory of all those who have left behind no immediate mourners. Inviting personal mourners to rise first gives the congregation an opportunity to recognize those who may need an added bit of comfort, a word of sympathy, or perhaps an inquiry about their loss. Asking the rest of the congregation to join them before we begin the words of kaddish is our way of observing a well-established tradition of serving as “agents” for those who are unable to fulfill a religious obligation themselves. Too many horrors in our history have left numberless souls with no one left behind to appeal to God for their remembrance. We feel honored to adopt this practice on as a community even though the ritual obligation technically falls only on immediate relatives.
It must be noted that the observance of yahrzeit, too, was not without its material benefits. It is customary in many congregations for those observing a yahrzeit to pledge a contribution and be called for a pulpit honor -- whether a blessing over the Torah, an opening or closing of the ark, etc. -- in memory of the deceased. Here, too, we demonstrate the importance of keeping alive the souls, spirits, memories -- however we understand that which lives on beyond the grave -- by sustaining the communities that support our own spiritual existence.