Reprinted with permission from A Time to Mourn, A Time to Comfort (Jewish Lights).
Jewish mourning is both private and public. When we visit a grave or observe a yahrzeit [the anniversary of a person’s death], we generally do so in private. Yizkor is the public observance for the community of bereaved.
Yizkor means… [“may (God) remember,”] from the root word zakhor–remember. It is the memorial service, recited four times a year in the synagogue–after the Torah reading on Yom Kippur day, Shemini Atzeret (the holiday adjacent to the end of Sukkot), the eighth day of Passover, and the second day of Shavuot [in Israel, on the combined Simchat Torah/Shemini Atzeret, the seventh day of Passover, and on the only day of Shavuot].
Originally, Yizkor was recited only on Yom Kippur. Its primary purpose was to remember the deceased by committing tzedakah [charity] funds on the theory that the good deeds of the survivors elevate the souls of the departed. It also enhanced the chances for personal atonement by doing a deed of lovingkindness. Since the Torah reading on the last day of the pilgrimage festivals [the holidays of Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot, when the ancient Israelites made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem] mentions the importance of donations, Yizkor was added to these holiday services.
It was… the custom [in medieval Germany (Rhineland)] for each community to read a list of its martyrs [from Yizkor Books] at the Yizkor service. The practice was eventually expanded to include the names of other members of the community who had died. Today, most synagogues publish lists of those who are remembered by congregants, which are distributed at the Yizkor services. In addition, the lights on all the memorial tablets in the synagogue are turned on.
The service itself consists of four parts:
1. A series of readings and prayers, recited and chanted, that sets the mood for the solemn service.
2. Paragraphs that individuals read [silently] recalling the deceased. There are paragraphs for a father, mother, husband, wife, son, daughter, other relatives and friends, and Jewish martyrs. During the service, each person reads the appropriate paragraph(s).
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