Yarhtzeit: Acknowledgement of Ascendency
Normally, a Yarhtzeit is observed on the anniversary (on the Jewish calendar) of the passing of a parent, but it may also be done in honor of a close relative or friend. Yarhtzeit is a day set aside to contemplate the quality and life-style of the deceased, and to dwell earnestly upon its lessons.
It is a day conditioned by the need to honor one's parent in death as in life, through study and charity and other deeds of kindness.
If the deceased was buried two or more days after the death, some have the custom of observing the first Yarhtzeit on the anniversary of the day of the burial as opposed to the anniversary of the passing (though in all subsequent years the Yarhtzeit is observed on the anniversary of the death).
Others disagree and observe the Yarhtzeit on the anniversary of the passing even on the first year—regardless when the burial happened. We offer you two calendar tools. The first, published by Chabad.org, while the second is from the website for the Aish HaTorah. Both follow this accepted custom of observing Yarhtzeit on the anniversary of the passing, rather than the burial.
A Day Marked with Deep Feelings and Introspection
Way back in 1952, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson shared this message with a Yarhtzeit gathering. We open with it here because it is a powerful essay on the importance of recognizing your feelings during this time of remembrance.
He wrote, “A Yarhtzeit is generally associated with two mixed feelings. On the one hand, as we learn from our sacred sources, the soul of the departed enjoys on the day of its Yarhtzeit an elevation, passing from one spiritual world into a higher one, closer to its creator. This is, therefore, a day of rejoicing for the soul, the hence a day of corresponding joy also for the near and dear ones left behind, for long and happy life.
“On the other hand, the Yarhtzeit naturally refreshes in the mind the loss sustained by children in the passing of their parents, giving rise to a feeling of sadness.”
In truth, however, the Yarhtzeit should not call forth any feeling of sadness, but rather a feeling of earnest reflection, introspection and self-examination. With a view to attuning one’s life on this earth to the life-path of the soul Above, which is constantly on the ascent. This is to say, just as the soul On High is continuously rising; year after year, going ‘from strength to strength,’ so must also all those left behind on this earth, who are the associated with the departed soul, steadily go from strength to strength, through advancement in ‘Torah, worship, and the practice of good deeds.’
“In this way, also, children give the greatest possible joy to their dear departed parents.
This also underlines the basic view of our religion, that in reality there is no ‘death’ in matters of G-dliness, Torah and Mitzvoth, experience this transition is one direction only – going strength from strength, higher and higher, first in this world and later in the following world. Olam Haba – always on the ascent.”
Yarhtzeit is a day set aside to contemplate the quality and life-style of the deceased, and to dwell earnestly upon its lessons. It is a day conditioned by the need to honor one's parent in death as in life, through study and charity and other deeds of kindness. It is also conditioned by the non-rational, but all-too-human feelings that it is the day itself which is tragic, one which might bring misfortune with every annual cycle, and for which reason one slows one's activities and spends a good part of the day safely in the synagogue.
Yarhtzeit Home Observances
1. Fasting. It was customary for some mourners to fast on the Yarhtzeit of parents. The fast begins at dawn and ends with nightfall. If one has committed himself to this custom of fasting on every Yarhtzeit, it becomes a sacred obligation to continue the practice at every Yarhtzeit in the future. If one cannot fast, either because of weakness, or for any other cogent reason, he should at least try to avoid eating meat and wine and participating in festivities. If Yarhtzeit occurs on a holiday, or on other days of public joy on which the tachanun prayers are not recited, one should not fast, as it conflicts with the joyous spirit of the day.
2. Yarhtzeit Candles. The kindling of the Yarhtzeit candle is a custom dating back to very early times, and is observed by almost all Jews. The kindling takes place at dark on the evening before the anniversary, and on Sabbaths and holy days before the regular candle-lighting. It is customary to allow the lights to extinguish themselves, rather than to put them out after dark at the end of Yarhtzeit. The lights should be candles of wick and paraffin. If these are not available at all, gas or electric lights are permitted. As the flame and wick symbolize soul and body, it does appear significant to use the candle, rather than a bulb, if at all possible.
3. Torah Study and Charity. One should make donations to religious schools or synagogues, to medical institutions or to the poor, on behalf of the deceased on Yarhtzeit. One should also make every effort to study some aspect of religious life on this day. It may be mishnah, which is the traditional Yarhtzeit study, or if one is not able to do so, a chapter of the Bible, in English or Hebrew.
Synagogue Yarhtzeit Observances
On the Sabbath prior to Yarhtzeit, the malei rachamim memorial prayer is recited after the Torah reading at minchah. If possible, the mourner should chant the maftir portion and should lead the Saturday night ma'ariv service. He should, in any case, receive an aliyah, a Torah honor. This aliyah is considered a "required" honor. The synagogue usher should be made aware of the Yarhtzeit.
On the day of Yarhtzeit one should lead, if at all possible, all synagogue services. Those who cannot would do well to learn at least the minchah service, which is brief and simple. The rabbi will be delighted to teach the mourner, or direct him to the cantor or sexton or lay teacher. He should recite the Kaddish at every service. In addition, there is usually a Psalm added to the morning service so that the Yarhtzeit observer may recite at least one Kaddish without the accompaniment of other mourners.
It is customary, though by no means mandatory, to bring some slight refreshments--liquor and cake--to the synagogue for all to partake of after early morning services, to toast l'chayim, "to life." This slight repast should not, of course, be allowed to develop into a true party.
Cemetery Yarhtzeit Observances
The annual visit to the grave at Yarhtzeit is a traditional custom. At graveside one may recite the Psalms, selections of which are indicated in the chapter on unveilings, and then the malei rachamim prayer in Hebrew or English. It is far better, as mentioned above, to recite the prayer oneself than to hire a medium or proxy. Mishnah should be studied at the graveside, if at all possible. The Hebrew or English text may be used.
Should you have any questions about Yarhtzeit, please speak with Russell Greenblatt, the Manager and Licensed Funeral Director at Zion Memorial Chapel. He welcomes your inquiry, and will do his best to support you in your observance of Yarhtzeit. He can be reached at (914) 381-1809, or by email.