Years pass, time heals, but there is no need to forget. Jewish tradition acknowledges the need to relive a loss, to not totally let go, and sets the Yahrzeit date. Even though the word is German, the custom is Jewish in origin. In the Gemara, a Yahrzeit is described as a time to avoid joy, specifically by refraining from eating meat and drinking wine.
A Yahrzeit is an anniversary that commemorates a death according to the Jewish date. Yahrzeits tend to fall within three weeks before or after the secular anniversary. To help survivors remember the Yahrzeit date, Jewish funeral homes give out calendars and synagogues tend to send out Yahrzeit reminder notices.
Unlike the other mourning periods, a Yahrzeit is marked in years, not days or months. A Yahrzeit will be celebrated on the same Jewish date each year.
Leap years only complicate matters if a death took place during the Jewish month of . A Jewish leap year adds an entire second month of Adar to reconcile the Jewish lunar and secular solar calendars.
A death during a non-leap year Adar is commemorated during a leap year’s Adar I. A death during the leap year’s Adar II is commemorated during a non-leap year’s sole Adar. When a leap year returns, the Yahrzeit is celebrated in Adar II.
Unknown Yahrzeit Dates
If you know the secular date and year of death, then it’s easy to find out the Yahrzeit date. Special calendars with the Jewish and secular dates are a rabbi’s best friend, because these questions come up often.
Some children, who have no clue as to what one parent’s date of death was but are clear on the other parent’s, commemorate both parents on the known Yahrzeit.
When an exact Yahrzeit date isn’t known, but thought to be one of two dates, mark the Yahrzeit on the earlier date. That way the Yahrzeit is celebrated early and not, possibly, missed entirely.
If a Yahrzeit was missed, it should be commemorated as soon as the oversight was noticed.
Yahrzeit Candle – Customs and Traditions About the Custom of Candle Lighting
Candles are found at many Jewish lifecycle events. Ki ner Elohim nishmat adam – the candle of God is the human soul. The flame casts pure light like a soul freed from its physical boundaries. Lit candles give a physical presence to the day.
These candles are available through synagogue gift shops, Jewish bookstores, kosher butchers/grocers, and even general supermarkets with a Jewish clientele.
When to Light
A 24-hour candle, Yahrzeit memorial candle, is lit at the onset of the Yahrzeit – after sunset on the eve of the anniversary.
If a Yahrzeit candle is to be lit on Friday night, light it before the Shabbat candles are kindled. Shabbat’s joys and prohibitions, including the command to refrain from lighting a fire, begin once the Shabbat candles are lit.
What to Say When lighting a Yahrzeit Candle
No blessing is said upon lighting the candle, though this is a time to share memories and reflect. Lighting one candle per household is the common custom.
How Many Yahrzeit Candles to Light
If more than one person is being commemorated on the Yahrzeit, light one candle for each soul.
Forgot to Light A Yahrzeit Candle?
Light a Yahrzeit candle on the morning of the anniversary if the candle wasn’t lit the night before.
Fasting on Yahrzeit
Fasting from the afternoon on the eve of the Yahrzeit until nightfall after the Yahrzeit is a time-honored custom, but not a halacha. Toning down one’s consumption of food by avoiding meat and wine is a variation on this tradition.
Yahrzeit At the Synagogue Leading Services
On the Shabbat before the Yahrzeit, being called up for the maftir aliyah, the last portion of the Torah read on Shabbat morning, is considered an important honor. Some recite the El Maleh Rahamim prayer at the afternoon mincha service after the Torah reading.
On the Yahrzeit itself, leading the prayers – at least the mincha service – is an important custom. Generally the Yahrzeit is commemorated after services with a few refreshments: cake and liquor with which to say a “l’chaim”, the “to life” toast.
Mark the day by saying the Kaddish with a minyan. In some congregations, a person observing a Yahrzeit will be called to the Torah for an aliyah. and for saying Kaddish.
Charity and Torah Learning
Donating money to charity or time to a good cause is a traditional way to mark a Yahrzeit. A life that inspires good deeds was a life well lived.
It is customary to learn Torah on a Yahrzeit, particularly a mishnah, laws and ethics drawn from the Torah upon which the Gemara is based. The word “mishnah” is written with the same letters as “neshama”, meaning soul.