May 29, 2024
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Of the many life cycle events we celebrate, the yahrzeit is one that is probably most filled with bittersweet emotions. “Yahrzeit” is a Yiddish word that means “that time of year.” We typically commemorate the yearly anniversary of the death of a loved one by lighting a candle and observing the day with special customs, remembrance ceremonies and saying the Kaddish prayer. It is a time when we relive both pleasant and sad memories. Many people also use the occasion to visit the cemetery and reflect at the graves of our loved ones as well.

The Torah has references to both the seven day “shiva” mourning period that Joseph observed for Jacob and the thirty day “shloshim” mourning period that the Jewish people observed when Moshe passed away. Yet, there is no reference to a yearly mourning period. Why, then, do we engage in this special event?

To answer the question, we first have to consider who the mourning rituals and ceremonies are for. There are two schools of thought. One school of thought is that these mourning rituals are done for the sake of the deceased. Our tradition tells us that our loved ones are judged not only by their own actions but also by the legacy of how they impacted upon their children and relatives. As such, our saying the kaddish prayer, pursuing extra mitzvot, donating to a charitable cause and staying committed to our faith helps the neshamas, souls of our loved ones continue their continued ascent through the Heavenly spheres. They get a yearly boost, so to speak, when we observe the special rituals of the yahrzeit day.

The other way of looking at this is that the mourning rituals and ceremonies are actually for the benefit of surviving relatives. Under this second school of thought, the survivor is comforted or has some consolation based upon the various rituals being performed in a timely manner. The occasion of the yahrzeit is a time for survivors to reestablish links and memories with our loved ones who are now deceased. Another year may have passed but we still remember the special ties and bonds that connected us and link us together, transcending through time.

My late mother’s yahrzeit will be observed this Shabbos. 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 towards 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 which 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.

May we all take comfort in the inspirational thought that the souls of our deceased loved ones continue to flourish in the Garden of Eden. May we faithfully maintain their memories and learn affirmative lessons from their lives and their righteous traits. By doing so, we are not only perpetuating a memory, but we are keeping their good deeds alive as well.


Rabbi Dr. Avi Kuperberg is a forensic, clinical psychologist and a member of the American Psychology-Law Society. He is acting president of the Chai Riders Motorcycle Club of NY/NJ. He is the coordinator of Bikur Cholim/Chesed at Congregation Torah Ohr in Boca Raton, Florida. He can be reached at [email protected].

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