Although Yizkor won’t be recited until Yom Kippur, we are just days away from marking Rosh Hashanah, also known as Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembrance. During this period of introspection, our thoughts turn not only to our own actions but also to the memories of the loved ones who have shaped us.
Yizkor, which means “He shall remember,” was originally only recited on “Yom HaKippurim,” literally the “Day of Atonements.” As the Orthodox Union site points out, this phrase is in the plural and refers to the atonement for the living and atonement for the deceased. Yizkor was extended to the three Festivals (Passover, Shavuot and Shmini Atzeret), times when Jews would make the pilgrimage to the Temple for the holidays.
Sephardi Jews do not share the same Yizkor tradition and liturgy. Hashkavot are recited on the anniversary of a death and on Yom Kippur for members of the community who have died during the past year. The men’s version begins with a quote from Ecclesiastes 7:1 – “A good name is better than good oil, and the day of death than the day of one’s birth.” And for women, from Proverbs 31:10 – “A woman of valour who can find? For her price is far above pearls.” You can listen to Hashkavot recited at Shaar Hashamayim, London, England.
Yizkor is always followed by the moving K’El Maleh Rachamim (God Full of Mercy) prayer, which you can listen to being chanted by the Virtual Cantor – also known as Josh Sharfman.
Many congregations have adopted the practice of reciting versions of Yizkor and K’El Maleh Rachamim to remember victims of the Holocaust – “for the souls of the holy and pure ones who were killed, murdered, slaughtered, burned, drowned and strangled for the sanctification of the Name.” And to honour the memory of the men and women who have given their lives in defence of Israel. “They were quicker than eagles and stronger than lions as they volunteered to assist the nation, and they saturated our holy land with their pure blood.”
Most siddurs will offer variations of K’El Maleh customized to mourning the loss of parent, sibling or spouse. But Rabbi Ira Stone feels that another tragic loss deserves recognition. “Mourning a stillbirth or the loss of a child shortly after birth – which has been de-emphasized in Jewish tradition – has received more attention and concern in recent years.” He then quotes a Yizkor prayer for stillborn and infant deaths from Rabbi Jack Riemer’s book, Jewish Insights On Death And Mourning.
“May the memory of the joy she/he brought to me in the short time that we were together strengthen me, and may God count that joy as the weight of a life filled with such blessing, binding through that love and joy name bat/ben parents’ names in the bonds of eternal life. For the gift of her/his life without transgression, I pledge to do acts of righteousness and tzedakah charity that she/he may merit eternal life and that I may find comfort in this world.”
A popular tradition for people who have not experienced the death of a parent is to exit the sanctuary while Yizkor is being recited. “Some will tell you that it is a sign of respect for one’s living parents not to remain inside while Yizkor is being recited for the deceased. Others will say that it is from fear of the ayin hara (“evil eye”) and that those with living parents go out so as not to tempt fate. Opponents of the practice say that going out is based on superstition and not recommended, or perhaps it’s just insensitive to those reciting it.”
When she was growing up, Sarah Fineman had a name for the people who got to stay in, the “Yizkor Club.” “It isn’t actually called the Yizkor Club,” Fineman writes. “But as a child I had always thought of it that way. It was something exclusive, something that Mommy was a part of but I wasn’t.” And then there was the day Fineman joined the club and she realized no one really wants to join.
“I can’t begin to describe the swelling pain, the emptiness and longing I felt for Mommy the very first time I walked through the doors of Yizkor Club… Now I stand in her place in the Yizkor Club, and continue a legacy of honouring the unforgotten souls of our family. I cry for losing something irreplaceable and my prayers float through the gates of heaven, each time, upon fresh tears. I ache for Mommy, and at the same time, find comfort in the fact that even death can not separate us, for our souls are forever connected.”