Yahrzeit: Remembering on the Anniversary of a Death

The yahrzeit is a time of remembering the dead by reciting the Kaddish, lighting a 24-hour candle, and remembering the person who has died.

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Though it is traditional to observe yahrzeit on the anniversary of a loved one's death according to the Hebrew calendar, some Reform communities follow the secular calendar. Reprinted with permission from Jewish Literacy (HarperCollins Publishers Inc.).

When the year of mourning is over, mourners are expected to return to a fully normal life. "One should not grieve too much for the dead," the Shulhan Arukh, the 16th-century code of Jewish law, notes, "and whoever grieves excessively is really grieving for someone else."

But there are several occasions each year when the dead are memorialized. The most significant of these is yahrzeit, the anniversary of the death, which is observed according to the Hebrew calendar. Most synagogues keep registries of the Hebrew dates of members' deaths and send out notices reminding family members of the yahrzeit date. 

As is the case in all Jewish holidays, yahrzeit observance begins at night. A 24-hour candle is lit and, as one woman I know says: "The spirit of the dead person fills the room again for 24 hours." One attends synagogue for the evening, morning, and afternoon services and again recites the Kaddish [the memorial prayer]. One should not go to a celebration or party on the day of yahrzeit, and some people fast on that day.

 

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Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin is the author of Jewish Literacy and Words that Hurt, Words that Heal, along with other widely-read books on Judaism and the "Rabbi Daniel Winter" murder mysteries. He lives in New York City and lectures widely throughout North America.