With the help of Eve Spence, our office administrator, I send out hundreds of letters each year – the same exact letter each time, in fact. What am I mailing? Your annual reminder that a Yahrzeit is approaching, the Hebrew anniversary date of a relative’s death. At minimum, Jews are required to commemorate the death of parents, siblings, spouses and children and many of us commemorate the deaths of others (friends and family) as well, particularly when no one else is available to commemorate the death.
What, exactly, is “Yahrzeit?” Yahrzeit is a Yiddish word meaning “time of one year;” Sephardi Jews refer to the anniversary/commemoration as “Nachala,” meaning legacy or inheritance. On the Shabbat on or before the Yahrzeit of a loved one, their name is read aloud in the synagogue – typically by me – and the Mourner’s Kaddish is recited. The recitation of the Kaddish, it should be noted, most-traditionally occurs on the actual day of the Yahrzeit – rather than the Shabbat before, if possible.
There are a number of other traditions related to Yahrzeit, including the lighting of a 24-hour candle. Some describe this candle lighting as a way for the “spirit of the deceased to fill the room again for 24 hours.” There is an ages-old custom of visiting the grave on the Yahrzeit as well. Appropriate prayers are said at that time and a small stone is left to bear continuing witness to the visit. I am always happy to assist you with those traditional prayers. I suggest bringing a stone from home or some other special family location (a treasured vacation spot, perhaps?) to leave behind on the grave. According to Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, one should not go to a celebration or party on the day of Yahrzeit, and some people even adapt the Jewish custom of fasting on solemn days but not eating on this day as well. “Yahrzeit plaques” are located in our JCCH Lee Javitch Sanctuary and a special light is illuminated beside the plaque to mark the Yahrzeit.
I find these customs to not only be interesting but quite psychologically appropriate. I am so impressed by our ancient rabbis’ understanding of the human psyche, particularly with regard to our customs surrounding death and mourning. Shiva, in particular, seems to meet the exact needs of the mourner – providing a mandatory framework for the community to comfort the mourner and then ending that very same framework at a prescribed time such that the mourner is forced to leave their home. So, too, with Yahrzeit. The mourner is required to grieve for the dead – but only in a limited fashion. In fact, argues the Shulhan Arukh, the 16th-century code of Jewish law, “One should not grieve too much for the dead, and whoever grieves excessively is really grieving for someone else.” Yahrzeit is required – but limited in duration. A random fact about Yahrzeit: CSI NY once had an episode entitled “Yahrzeit” in which a jewelry auction takes a deadly turn after one of the jewelry appraisers is shot. The case requires the CSI team to try to understand the Holocaust. Mac learns how one member of his family experienced it. Ed Asner guest stars, and earned a 2009 Emmy nomination for his performance. And, they called the episode “Yahrzeit!”
If you have family members or friends whose Yahrzeit dates you would like to commemorate each year, please send that information to me and we will send the annual reminder. When you get my letter each month, I hope that you will not only act upon it according to the customs outlined above but, just as importantly, use the occasion of the Yahrzeit of a loved one to remind yourself of the values we wish to emulate of those who come before us. May we be fortunate enough to carry out those values and maintain the memories of our loved ones long into the future through gift of the annual Yahrzeit commemoration.