When Debbie Zivan, Rebecca Kanner and I met last month to talk about establishing a system for AARC to acknowledge our members families’ yahrzeits, we knew this was so important to us because we want our congregation to support us, and all our members, in practicing the Jewish rituals of mourning and remembrance. Our plan is to collect the yahrzeit dates that each of our members would like to remember and that these dates will be noted each year with a mailed notice to the member and a reading of the upcoming yahrzeits at our monthly Fourth Friday Shabbat services. To begin this for AARC, members can send Rebecca [email@example.com ] the dates of the death of their immediate family members.
I found this concise information about the practice of yahrzeit on the website of Reconstructionist congregation Kehilat HaNahar of New Hope, PA. It is written by their rabbi, Diana Miller.
What is Yahrzeit?
Yahrzeit is a Yiddish word meaning “a year’s time.” The yahrzeit is the annual anniversary of the death of a person, based on the Hebrew calendar (although some individuals observe it on the Gregorian calendar). The yahrzeit is determined from the day of death rather than the day of burial. If three or more days elapse between death and burial, one opinion says the yahrzeit is reckoned from the day of burial only for the first year and from that point forward, on the day of death. If you do not know the exact day of death, you may choose a date to observe as the yahrzeit.
Why observe Yahrzeit?
Commemorating the anniversary of a death year after year allows you to honor the deceased and the legacy he or she has left behind. It also helps you remain in touch with the memory of the deceased, while at the same time continuing to move through the cycle of life. In this way, death becomes part of the cycle of life itself.
The first yahrzeit is especially important psychologically because it helps you acknowledge that you have made it through an entire year without your loved one…all the holidays, the seasons and the occasions you usually would have spent with that person in the physical world.
Spiritually, yahrzeit is a ”soul-guiding” ritual, a process that acknowledges that the living and the dead are in an ongoing process of interconnection. It helps strengthen the spiritual bond between the world of the living and the soul of the departed.
What happens on Yahrzeit?
This day is a solemn day of remembrance. Typically, people attend synagogue or a place where there is a minyan to say Kaddish Yatom, or Mourner’s Kaddish, for their loved one. At Kehilat HaNahar, your loved one’s name will be read on the Friday night Shabbat service before the actual yahrzeit date. Many families attend this service for that reason. It is also common for a family member to have an aliyah, which is the honor of “going up” to the Torah in memory of the deceased loved one. A special prayer known as “El Maley Rachamin” may be recited. Some people also visit the cemetery around this time or give tzedakah (charitable donations) to commemorate the yahrzeit. Another tradition is to fast during yahrzeit for a parent and, if so, to avoid attending weddings because of their celebratory mood.
What if I forget the Yahrzeit?
The synagogue office will send you a written reminder of your loved one’s yahrzeit approximately one month before the date and an email notice about 10 days before. However, if you forget or were unable to observe the Yahrzeit, simply observe it when you remember.
What about the Yarzheit candle?
The custom of lighting a special yahrzeit candle comes from the Book of Proverbs (20:27): Ner Hashem nishmat adam (“The soul of man is a candle of the Lord”). Sometimes it’s called a memorial candle or a ner neshama, a “soul candle.” The candle is typically lit the evening before the yahrzeit date. There is no specific prayer for the candle-lighting.