How do you honor the death of your loved ones? In many traditions around the world, the funeral is only the first step in this process. For Jewish people, it’s important to observe what’s known as yahrzeit. Yahrzeit is a Yiddish word meaning the anniversary of a death. Each year on the anniversary of a loved one’s death, Jewish families observe yahrzeit at home.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What is Yahrzeit?
- How Do You Find a Yahrzeit Date?
- What’s the Significance of Candle Lighting in Yahrzeit?
- What Do You Say During Yahrzeit?
These small anniversary traditions keep the memories of the dead alive in surviving relatives. Having a small way to honor their life, reflect on their memories, and pray is a powerful way to overcome feelings of grief.
While the death anniversary of a loved one might be emotionally challenging, it can also be an opportunity to come closer as a family. In this guide, we’ll learn more about the yahrzeit tradition and how Jewish people around the world honor the dead.
What is Yahrzeit?
Yahrzeit, as mentioned above, is the Yiddish word for “anniversary.” It specifically refers to the day on which someone died. On this day, there are specific ways family and friends honor the memory of their deceased loved one.
Why observe yahrzeit?
Traditions across the globe practice traditions on the anniversary of loved ones’ deaths for a variety of reasons. It might be a way to find comfort or a way to bring peace to lost spirits. Why exactly do Jewish people observe yahrzeit?
One of the primary reasons is to remember the best qualities of the one who passed. It’s important for survivors to reflect on their relationship with the individual, as well as his or her best qualities. This is a way to undergo personal growth. Considering how one’s life and death made an impact on us is a powerful way to bring you closer to your own life and legacy.
Another reason to observe yahrzeit is to elevate the soul of the departed. In the Jewish faith, people’s souls always reach upwards. In life, we can elevate the souls of our deceased loved ones by lighting a candle in their honor and thinking about their achievements. Similar to sitting shiva, this is a chance to strengthen religious and relationship bonds.
How does one observe yahrzeit?
Now that you know why Jewish people observe yahrzeit, it’s time to talk about how people practice this tradition. To observe yahrzeit, people purchase what’s known as a Yizkor candle. These are specifically designed to be lit on behalf of loved ones during Jewish holidays like Passover and Yom Kippur. These are also used during memorial services.
The candle is lit at sunset on the anniversary of the loved one’s death. The candle should burn for 24-hours. If it continues to burn after the 24-hours are up, it’s not extinguished. In addition to the burning candle, many people do the following:
- Torah Study: This is a day to focus on religious studies. Even for Jews who don’t read from the Torah regularly, yahrzeit is a time to reflect on religious life and traditional study.
- Charity: On yahrzeit, many people make donations on behalf of their loved ones. They could gift to a religious school, synagogue, medical institution, or to the poor.
- Fasting: Fasting is most common when yahrzeit is in honor of deceased parents, but it could be for any family member. The fast begins at dawn and continues when the sun sets. For those who can’t fast due to medical reasons, it’s common to avoid meat, wine, and other festivities.
- Visit the grave: It’s also not uncommon for the family to visit the graves of loved ones during yahrzeit. Jewish people traditionally lay stones on graves as a sign of respect.
While everyone practices yahrzeit differently, the above traditions are very common. These take place yearly on the anniversary of the loved one’s death. The only exception is if the date of yahrzeit conflicts with a holiday. In this case, the focus is typically on the religious significance of the holiday.
How Do You Find a Yahrzeit Date?
The date of yahrzeit follows the Hebrew calendar. This means it might not be as straightforward as marking the date of death on a regular (Gregorian) calendar. The date of yahrzeit is one full Hebrew year after the date of death. This gets tricky in the case of leap years or other unusual dates.
An important thing to note is yahrzeit is not judged in terms of months but in terms of years—even if the burial took place several days after death. If the burial happens weeks or months after the death, however, the first yahrzeit should be on the anniversary of the burial.
If the mourners are not able to determine the exact date of death accurately, it’s best to choose a date. A yahrzeit calculator is helpful for determining when to observe yahrzeit.
What’s the Significance of Candle Lighting in Yahrzeit?
Like most things in Judaism, the candles used during yahrzeit carry a lot of significance. These special memorial candles and their flames symbolize the human soul and body. The flickering of the flame is seen as a visual for the fragility of life. We might burn bright, but this is always temporary. Even the most vivid lights burn out, and this is only natural.
These are commonly lit in honor of parents, spouses, and children. Unless the family members live in the same household, they each partake in their own individual customs and ceremonies. If multiple family members passed, there should be a candle for each person.
The candle is never extinguished. Part of the tradition is to allow the candle to burn out itself. The candle is lit at sundown, which is the start of the Hebrew day. It continues until sundown the following day or longer.
What Do You Say During Yahrzeit?
During yahrzeit, there are no concrete rules about what you can or can’t say. Most people choose to say common Jewish funeral prayers, but any prayers are welcome. People generally choose whatever brings them and loved ones the most comfort.
There is no specific prayer that needs to be said during the lighting of the candle. Many families recite certain Psalms or any other prayers that bring them comfort. This is also a chance to talk about important memories and other things you love or miss about the deceased.
Throughout the 24 hours burning the candle, prayers might be said many times. Many people read the Torah or reflect through other religious studies.
Common prayers for those mourning are:
- Jewish Blessing of the Mourners
- Malei rachamim memorial prayer
- The Mourner’s Kaddish
What to say to family or friends
If your friends or family are mourning a loved one by observing yahrzeit, it’s normal to feel intimidated about what to say. Honoring a close loved one is an intimate act of love, and it’s difficult to know how to respond to this situation.
It’s always best to offer your condolences and sympathy, but also to keep a respectful distance. Observing yahrzeit is a personal tradition. This is something only practiced within close families, and it’s not usually open to outsiders or friends.
However, your sympathy and support are likely very welcome, especially since this time brings up painful feelings and grief. Here are ways to offer support:
- Let them know you’re thinking of them: The easiest way to support someone observing yahrzeit is to let them know you’re thinking of them. Keep them in your thoughts and follow up with them about how they feel.
- Send a sympathy card: Another way to be there for someone in need is through a sympathy card. While a phone call or in-person sentiment is great, having a way to write down your condolences and support also is very meaningful.
- Offer food or another treat: Food is a way to bring people closer together. Offering food, a delivery gift card, or baked treat is a way to be there for someone in a time of need. However, check whether the family is fasting before preparing food.
Honor the Dead with Yahrzeit
Honoring the dead takes many forms. Yahrzeit is an old-world tradition that allows families to reflect on loved ones who passed away in previous years. Having an annual opportunity to elevate one’s spirits and the spirits of the deceased highlights the importance of living life to the fullest.
Tomorrow is never guaranteed, but those of the Jewish faith use these reminders to live with family and faith first. Are you ready to give thought to your own priorities and end-of-life decisions? Start end-of-life planning to determine how you’ll live your own life to the fullest.
- Golinkin, David. “What a Person Passed Away in Adap, When is the Yahrzeit Observed in a Leap Year?” The Schechter Institutes. Volume 5, issue 4, February 2011. Schechter.edu.
- Lamm, Maurice. “Yahrzeit: Memorial Anniversary.” Chabad. Chabad.org.
- “Yahrzeit Candles.” OhrSomayach. 21 December 2002. Ohr.edu.