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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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.

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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.