Home Perspectives Features A pre-Yom Kippur look at Yizkor traditions

A pre-Yom Kippur look at Yizkor traditions


It is one of the most solemn moments of the Yom Kippur service – and the entire Jewish calendar. The chazzan and the entire congregation rise to recite Yizkor and commemorate the memories of parents, family and friends who have passed away. Today, a look a some of the traditions surrounding the Yizkor service – as well as the phenomenon of the “Yizkor Jew.”

How soon after the death should Yizkor be recited? OU.org quotes an opinion that “Some have the practice not to recite Yizkor during the first year following a death while the emotional wounds are still quite fresh.”

Rabbi Norman Lamm disagrees. “Despite the common practice, Yizkor should be recited beginning with the very first holiday after death. There is a widespread belief that Yizkor may not be recited during the first year. This is an unfounded belief, which may well be discarded. Precisely because Yizkor is a redemptive prayer for the dead is reason enough for it to be recited during the first year, when the soul is said to be judged.”

One custom that has become inextricably connected to remembering a loved one is the lighting of a candle. Rabbi Goldie Milgram suggests that this is the ideal time to involve children in remembering a relative who has passed away. After lighting the candle, she recommends passing around a photo of the person being remembered. Then share a story about that person’s life and his/her meaning in your own life.

And that charity appeal that seems to occupy a special place just before the recitation of Yizkor? Well, it has roots that stretch back thousands of years. “The act of giving charity,” writes Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, “is both an integral part of the atonement process and an important theme of the prayer Yizkor… Although the deceased can no longer perform mitzvot, they can benefit from prayers, acts of charity and other good deeds that their survivors perform on their behalf.”

What should you think about during Yizkor? In Yizkor for the Living, Stewart Gisser writes that when he recited the prayer, he not only remembered the gentle, loving, kind man who was his father. He also thanked God for his mother, alive and well.

“During Yizkor, I remembered. I thought, have I told her that I will prove myself worthy of the gifts with which she blessed me?… Perhaps there should be another service, immediately after. A short service. Everyone who left comes back to sit with their parents, to say prayers of thanksgiving. They can be thankful that they didn’t have to stay for the memorial prayers, and can remember those still living who enrich their lives.”

As you browse through the Yizkor-related sites, you see reference to an interesting character: the so-called “Yizkor Jew.” Once chided for appearing in synagogue only for the Yizkor service and making a quick exit afterward, several sites point out that nowadays the Yizkor Jew is making fewer forays into the synagogue.

Jenna Weissman Joselit writes, “Not only did they not know their way around the sanctuary, they didn’t know their way around a machzor, either. They seemed lost, ill at ease… And then, presto! No sooner did they complete their prayers than they left. Just like that. Having created quite a stir by their appearance, the Yizkor sayers created quite another by their departure.”

And despite what once felt like an annoyance, Joselit laments their dwindling numbers. “I’ve belatedly come to understand that their occasional appearance come Yizkor, was an expression of yearning, of seeking meaning, of losing themselves in something larger, of situating personal memories of a loved one within a collective context. What they were up to was nothing less than the sacralizing and ritualizing of memory.”

Rabbi Harold Shulweis says the reason that we may be seeing fewer “Yizkor Jews” is obvious. Yizkor is not pleasant. Why think about death or attend Yizkor when there are so many more pleasurable things you could be doing? Rabbi Shulweis suggests that reciting Yizkor and experiencing pain are essential because learning demands suffering. He draws on a 2,500-year-old quote the Greek poet Aeschylus. “He who learns must suffer, and even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”

Rabbi Shulweis concludes, “Yizkor, yahrzeit, Kaddish and the K’El Maleh are not fun. But they are the way that the wisdom of memory finds meaning in life.”