Yizkor, the Memorial Service

Yizkor is the memorial service recited four times a year by the congregation during Jewish holiday services.

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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].

yizkorOriginally, 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).

3.      The memorial prayer for the deceased, the El Male Rahamim [God full of compassion ]is chanted by the cantor. This is essentially the same prayer said at Jewish funerals.

4.      A special prayer, Av HaRahamim (Ancestor of Mercies), probably composed as a eulogy for communities destroyed in the Crusades of 1096, is recited by the congregation as a memorial for all Jewish martyrs. Some also add Psalm 23.

Although in its traditional structure Yizkor does not include the recitation of the Mourner's Kaddish [the memorial prayer in praise of God], many congregations do add this as the climax of the Yizkor service.

Non-Mourners During Yizkor

When I was a kid in Omaha, Yizkor always seemed to be the climax of Yom Kippur day. The shul was crowded with people all day long, but it was packed at Yizkor time. There was something about this mysterious, awe-inspiring service that drew people. It was the pull of remembrance.

It was also break-time for those of us who were shooed out of the synagogue by our parents. A powerful superstition pervaded the community: If your parents were alive, you didn't stay for Yizkor. God forbid, you should tempt the ayin ha-ra, the evil eye, by hearing and seeing others mourn for their departed. God forbid, you should sit down while virtually everyone else was standing for the Yizkor prayers, somehow making the mourners feel bad. So, during the 20 minutes or so of the Yizkor, the "fortunate" people whose parents were alive sat outside kibbitzing [chatting], while the vast majority of the congregation who had sustained a loss participated in the service.

These superstitions are just that--superstitions, bubbemeises. There is no legal requirement for those whose parents are alive to leave the service. In fact, many rabbis today suggest that everyone stay for Yizkor so that the entire congregation can offer the prayers for the martyrs of the Jewish people and offer moral support to friends and family who may be deeply touched by the memorial service. But, as with much of the folk religion, this custom is sure to continue in many communities. Ultimately, it is a matter of personal and family decision-making as to your practice.

Questions About Yizkor

Can I say Yizkor privately?

Since the Kaddish is not recited as part of Yizkor, there is no technical requirement for a minyan [quorum of 10 Jews necessary for communal prayer]. Therefore, the memorial paragraphs can be said privately if you cannot get to the synagogue.

How do I get names listed in the Yizkorbook?

Most congregations ask their members to list those who are to be remembered in the coming year as part of the yearly membership survey when you join or renew your affiliation. If someone dies during the year, the names are generally added as a matter of course, unless the synagogue publishes one book for use throughout the year. You may want to check this with the synagogue office to spare yourself the unease of the name missing when you expect it to be on the list.

What about donations?

In keeping with the origins of Yizkor, it is very appropriate to make a tzedakah contribution to honor those you are remembering. Many congregations appeal for funds at Yizkor services for the synagogue or for Israel. If you don't belong to a synagogue, consider making a donation to a worthy cause.

Do I light a memorial candle when Yizkor is recited?

Yes. The 24-hour memorial candle should be lit in your home before the fast begins on Yom Kippur. On the other festivals, if your custom is to light a yahrzeit candle, use a flame from a pre-existing candle or other source to light the candle. These memorial candles are widely available in synagogue gift shops, kosher stores, and often in supermarkets. There is no blessing recited when you light the memorial candle, although it is certainly appropriate to reflect upon the memory of loved ones. The candle may be placed anywhere in the home.

Do I observe Yizkor during the first year of mourning?

Contrary to popular belief, yes. Clearly, Yizkor is observed for a spouse, a child, and a sibling and, according to most authorities, for parents during the first year.

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Dr. Ron Wolfson

Dr. Ron Wolfson is the Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University and the president of Synagogue 3000.