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This article is excerpted from Entering Jewish Prayer. It is reprinted with permission from Schocken Books.
The Yizkor service in memory of the dead is held on Yom Kippur and on the last day of each of the three festivals, Passover, Shavuot, and Shemini Atzeret. Its name derives from the first word of its central prayer, which means “May He remember.” Although it is variously elaborated with the recitation of psalms and other prayers, it is basically the recitation by individuals of a prayer for remembrance of those they mourn and by the collective community for all who have died. The text is simple:
May God remember the soul of…who has gone to eternity. May his/her soul be bound up in the bond of life with the souls of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, and with those of all the righteous in the Garden of Eden.
“Remember” has the connotation of “act for their benefit.” Thus the Almighty is asked to care for the souls of those who have departed and place them in paradise. This service appears first during the Middle Ages in Europe, where it was recited on Yom Kippur in order to remember the many martyrs slain during the Crusades. Such a memorial list was recited in Nuremberg in 1295, and the custom soon spread. Later, the practice began of saying it on the festivals as well. There were those who opposed this, since grieving over the dead is not in the spirit of the festivals, which are days of joy and gladness. Popular custom and desire overcame rabbinic reluctance in this as in many other cases, and the recitation became strongly rooted.
Many people erroneously believe that only those whose parents are dead should recite this prayer and that others should leave the synagogue at that time. This superstitious practice both vitiates the original intent of the prayer, which was for the community to pay homage to the martyrs of Judaism, and ignores the need to commemorate the terrible tragedy of our own day, the Holocaust. Surely the entire people of Israel, young and old, should commemorate those six million, many of who are unknown or left no relatives to remember them.
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