Yahrzeit is a Yiddish word meaning anniversary of a death. It is the yearly anniversary of a loved one’s death (traditionally the anniversary of the Hebrew date, not the Gregorian date). Jews observe yahrzeit at home by lighting a special long-burning candle in memory of the deceased.
Yahrzeit candles are also known as yizkor candles, because they are also lit on behalf of loved ones on the four Jewish holidays (Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, Passover and Shavuot) that include a Yizkor, or Jewish memorial, service. These candles, often packaged inside glass jars, can be purchased at Judaica stores and online. Many supermarkets carry them as well.
It is customary the light the yahrzeit candle at sundown on the Hebrew anniversary (Jewish days begin at sundown, rather than midnight). To find out the Hebrew date of your loved one’s death, use this Hebrew calendar converter to convert dates from the Gregorian calendar to the Hebrew one and vice versa. When the yahrzeit falls on Shabbat, it is customary to light the yahrzeit candle before lighting Shabbat candles.
Traditionally, mourners keep the candle lit for the entire 25 hours from sundown on the eve of the yahrzeit to sunset on the day of the yahrzeit and allow it to burn itself out. If you are concerned about potential fire hazards, use an electric yahrzeit candle. Yahrzeit candles also are lit each day that shiva, the first seven days of mourning, is observed.
In the synagogue, yahrzeit is observed by reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish at services. Most synagogues maintain a memorial wall of plaques bearing the names of deceased members or deceased loved ones of current members. These plaques are often sold as a way of raising money for the congregation. Each year the plaque is illuminated on the day or week of the deceased’s yahrzeit.
Several websites, such as the National Jewish Memorial Wall and Virtual Yahrzeit maintain “virtual” walls and will send yahrzeit reminders for you free of charge. If you belong to a synagogue, you may be able to request annual reminders from the synagogue office.
Adapted with permission from Kavod v’Nichum, a nonprofit educational organization that promotes and assists the formation of bereavement committees and chevrah kadisha (Jewish burial society) groups in synagogues and communities throughout North America.
Pronounced: YAHR-tzite (long i), Origin: Yiddish, anniversary of a death on the Jewish calendar.