When I was a newly ordained rabbi working to start a new synagogue, I — along with a small cadre of committed volunteers — decided to do a pop-up High Holidays, turning a local music conservatory into a synagogue for three days in 2011. Although we were a brand new community with no building and no members, Rosh Hashanah went off without a hitch. By the time Yom Kippur came around, we all relaxed a bit. At Kol Nidrei, the first communal prayer service of Yom Kippur, our voices soared.
At some point during the next day’s Torah service, as I leafed ahead through the machzor (high holiday prayer book), an alarming realization spread over me: Yizkor.
With Yom Kippur’s hallowed memorial service, Yizkor, rapidly approaching, I had absolutely no idea what was supposed to happen. I had never attended a Yizkor service. Sure, I had studied Yizkor; during my Yom Kippur morning sermon, I had even planned to introduce Yizkor by exploring the parallels between the Jewish customs of mourning and our observance of Yom Kippur. I knew a thing or two about Yizkor, but I had certainly never experienced it.
As a teenager, Yizkor was the time when my parents and their friends, more and more of them over the years, huddled together to whisper quietly while those of us who had not experienced a loss of a parent or close relative were ushered out of the room and spoke at full volume.
Among Jewish prayer services, Yizkor is distinguished by both its gravity and its mystery. Yizkor, which literally means “God will remember,” is a collection of short paragraphs that memorialize family members (along with other groups like Jewish martyrs or fallen Israeli soldiers). During Yizkor, individuals also pledge tzedakah in memory of their loved ones.
Yizkor began as a part of the Yom Kippur liturgy and later migrated to the final day of each of the three pilgrimage festivals as well: Pesach, Sukkot and Shavuot. This tradition of exiting the sanctuary for fear of tempting the Evil Eye is fairly widespread, though relatively new by halachic standards (first recorded in the 18th century).
I remember listening to a rabbi in New York who devoted an entire sermon to exhorting young adults about the importance of staying in for Yizkor, even if they hadn’t lost a member of their nuclear family; 90 percent walked out nonetheless. Indeed, the mass exodus before Yizkor reflects a common attitude regarding death, part advice and part superstition: avoid this particular life experience as long as you can. Don’t go near it. Once you lose someone close to you, it changes you and there is no going back. An invisible line in the sand of your life has been drawn.
Historically however, Yizkor emerged to address a distinction even more stark: the relationship between living and the deceased. The tradition of saying memorial prayers for the deceased started out as a way the living somehow help the dead. “The living redeem the deceased … therefore, it is our tradition to mention the dead on Yom Kippur and pledge charity on their behalf … which will raise them up just as an arrow ascends from a bow.” (Tanhuma Chadash, Haazinu, 60:1)
Yizkor began primarily as a moment to pledge charity in memory of a loved one. According to some sources, such charity was given in hopes of somehow helping to redeem the dead through the good deeds of the living. (To be clear, this concept of human action benefiting the deceased was the subject of a major question among medieval rabbinic authorities, with arguments and texts on both sides of the debate.)
At the core then of Yizkor then is a question of purpose: Who is Yizkor for, those who say it or those for whom it is said? Perhaps the two elements of the Yizkor service — tzedakah and memory — speak to this dichotomy. The act of pledging charity on behalf of those who have died is a poignant attempt to extend the lives of our loved ones just a bit further. While we can’t know if this helps the deceased in a cosmic way, we can be sure that good deeds can manifest our loved ones’ values and sense of purpose in this world. It is their mitzvah; we are just their messengers.
On the other hand, there is something very powerful about coming together for a fixed time to remember. Technically speaking, the Yizkor service doesn’t need to be said in community or even with a minyan. It could potentially be said even on a different day. Still, this tradition has evolved, much like Judaism’s rituals of mourning, to revolve around communal observance. Those who say Yizkor can be comforted by the shared experience of those around them. For a few times during the course of the year, a loss that may have felt isolating and defining for someone can be public and even shared.
By the time our community arrived at Yizkor during those pop-up High Holiday services, I still felt completely unprepared. I didn’t know if the sky would open up, if people would start wailing, or if I was supposed to begin chanting. I gingerly announced the page as well as the traditional proviso about leaving the service or staying in, knowing that many of the young community members would probably want to excuse themselves. One of the congregants gently suggested (or perhaps nudged), “Are we going to recite the names?” I quickly agreed.
And so we began Yizkor that day, calling on the memories of loved ones with those around us and committing ourselves to turning their memories into blessings.
Rabbi Aaron Finkelstein lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Julie, and is the Middle School Rabbi at Milken Community Schools. He received rabbinic ordination from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York, served as a rabbi in Brooklyn and Nashville, and now enjoys sampling L.A.’s kosher eateries.