Of the many life cycles that we mark, the yahrzeit is probably the one that is most filled with bittersweet emotions. “Yahrzeit” is a Yiddish word that roughly translates into “that time of year.” We typically commemorate the yearly anniversary of the death of a loved one by lighting a special all-day candle, observing the day with remembrance rituals and saying the Kaddish prayer. It is a time when we relive both pleasant and sad memories.
It is customary to observe the anniversary of the death of a parent corresponding to the date in the Hebrew calendar. The proper manner of observing a yahrzeit was established in the 17th century. It includes lighting a yahrzeit candle, visiting the grave, giving of charity, receiving an aliyah to the Torah and reciting a memorial prayer. The Talmud (Shevuot 22a) calls for an abstention of festive meat and wine on that day. The Rema (Yoreh Deah 402:12) takes it a step further and calls for fasting entirely on that day. Some sponsor a “tikun” (collation) where food and drink are served. We expect the participants of the tikun to wish the departed soul an elevated status in Gan Eden.
R’ Abner Weiss reminds us that the yahrzeit of a person near and dear to us should be more than just an occasion for expressing our sentiments and feelings of sadness. It also helps reestablish the links that transcend the passing of time, links that are forged by the ongoing acceptance of responsibility for those we love, even beyond the grave. Judaism believes that those who are near and dear to us are judged by our actions. If our lives reflect fine character traits and Torah values, their lives are justified by the good qualities they transmitted to us. Through our continued commitment to our faith and the pursuit of good deeds, we help assure their continued progress through the Heavenly spheres. The spiritual progression of our loved ones takes place in annual stages. Their progress is determined on each yahrzeit. That is why that date takes on such importance.
My late mother’s 14th yahrzeit will be observed this Sunday. She was a Holocaust survivor who worked as a seamstress in the concentration camps to survive. When the war effort seemed lost for the Germans they tried to destroy any evidence of these camps. They marched the prisoners back toward Germany. Many people just ran out of energy and sat down, where they gave up and were shot. My mother almost gave up too but her sisters helped carry her for a while. She ended up in the Bergen Belsen concentration camp, where she stayed until the British liberated the camp on April 15, 1945. By then, she had contracted typhoid fever that nearly killed her. Fortunately, she survived and went on to raise a family, seeing her children and grandchildren grow successfully. Her name was Liba bat Michael, a”h. Her dying wish was that I not forget her.
The story is told of Sir Moses Montefiore who debated an English duke. The duke stated, “You Jews are a strange people. We bury our dead in their finest clothes while you Jews use the cheapest and simplest linen clothes and caskets to bury your dead in.”
Sir Moses Montefiore replied as follows: “It is the custom of the world that when a person departs on a long trip from which he has no intention of returning, he takes along with him all of his clothes, the very best of which he possesses. On the other hand, if he hopes to return he takes very little clothing with him. We Jews believe that we will be resurrected and we will rise again, “techiyat hametim” will take place in the time of the Moshiach. Therefore, when we die, we believe that we are just going to sleep for a short time. Now, a person who goes to sleep only wears a nightgown, a very simple garment.”
We Jews believe in a spiritual afterlife and in an eventual resurrection. When a person passes away we naturally mourn our loss and feel saddened. However, we are comforted by the thought that when one door closes another opens up in its place. Death is not the end of the story but only the beginning of the next chapter of existence. May my mother’s memory be a blessing for us all.
Rabbi Dr. Avi Kuperberg is a forensic, clinical psychologist in private practice. He is vice president of the Chai Riders Motorcycle Club of NY/NJ. He leads the Summit Avenue Shabbos Gemara shiur and minyan in Fair Lawn, NJ, and is a member of the International Rabbinical Society. He can be reached at [email protected]