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Observing Yizkor

Observing Yizkor

QUICK LINKS: Wisdom of Our Tradition  |  Yizkor Schedule  |  Observing Yahrzeit at Home  |  Reflection by Rabbi Stern

Our tradition shows great wisdom in teaching us to gather for services of remembrance on Yom Kippur and on the three pilgrimage festivals (Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot). These moments that mark the seasons of the year—and the seasons of our lives—awaken strong memories of relationships that shaped us, sustained us, and sometimes challenged us; and of holy days we shared with loved ones and cherished friends.

When they are gone, we can still affirm the beautiful and lasting values we learned from them, and remember them in all their humanness. One of the ways we do that is by coming together as a community of comfort and care.

From its inception a thousand years ago, when it was prayed by Ashkenazic Jews on the morning of Yom Kippur, Yizkor has had two profound themes: God’s embrace of the loved ones who are beyond our reach; and our commitment to do the good deeds that are within our reach by giving tzedakah in their memory. When we say Yizkor (May God remember…) we proclaim our faith that those who have died have significance now and forever.

Mishkan HaNefesh, Yom Kippur, p. 538

Pesach: Friday, April 22, 2022
Shavuot: Sunday, June 5, 2022

The Lights of Memory: Remembrance at Home
Our tradition teaches, “the light of God shines in the human soul” (Proverbs 20:27). We make that understanding manifest by lighting a candle for Yizkor four times a year as well as on the yahrzeit, the anniversary of the death of a loved one. Unlike the lighting of Shabbat or Chanukah candles, there is no traditional blessing to accompany the lighting of this candle that burns for 24 hours. Perhaps that is because the silence allows our memories of the person and our own deeds to be the blessing. As you light the candle, know that you carry their light in your soul—not only during the 24 hours that it burns, but always.

About the Yizkor Candle
Yizkor or yahrzeit candles, also known as memorial candles, are a standard size, designed to burn for 24 hours, that are a little bigger than a votive candle. They are sold in metal or glass vessels and are available at Judaic Treasures. Decorative memorial candle holders are also available at Judaic Treasures. 

When to Observe Yizkor
Yizkor is held at Passover, Shavuot, Yom Kippur, Simchat Torah. You may be remembering one or several people at the same time. Only one candle is necessary; you may light more if you prefer. The candles are lit at sunset, when the Jewish day begins, as the holiday begins. 

Prepare and Reflect
Take a few moments to create a ritual space in your home. Consider placing photographs or keepsakes that remind you of the people you are remembering near the memorial candle. 
Quiet all distractions in the room. Stand in silence and take a few deep breaths to focus your thoughts on the person for whom you are observing Yizkor. If others are with you, share a favorite memory if you choose. Or you may decide to read and reflect on a meaningful piece of poetry, prose or liturgy. Below is a blessing for lighting a candle offered by Rabbi Irwin Kula and Vanessa L. Ochs in “The Book of Jewish Sacred Practices.” 

Yizkor Elohim Nishmat
May God remember the soul of <deceased>.
In loving tribute to <his or her> life, I will study and perform acts of loving kindness. Through study and deeds, and through prayer and memory, may <his or her> soul be bound up in the bond of life, a source of endless blessing.

Direct my heart toward God and toward the memory of <deceased>, and may I be comforted. May <his or her> memory inspire me to live justly and kindly. 

Baruch atah ha’menacheim b’zichronot.

Yizkor Sermon 1997 by Rabbi David Stern
Isn’t it interesting that there is no blessing for lighting a Yahrtzeit candle, no Baruch Atah, Adonai to be recited?  I wonder if it is because blessings not only sanctify moments, they set them apart─they frame time as having a beginning, middle and end. Maybe we do not say a blessing when we light the Yahrtzeit candle because we know the truth─that while candles come and go, the light of memory never really dies. It never dies because the ones we remember are always a part of us. It never goes out because on dark and difficult nights it is the light of memory that brings us comfort and guides our way. It never goes out because in the light of their lives, we gained some glimmer of the holy sparks that fill God’s world.

So there is no blessing for lighting a Yahrtzeit candle. But maybe there should be one for the moment it goes out.  And perhaps it should go something like this:
Baruch Atah, Adonai, blessed are You, O God, for the gift of their lives─it is a gift I carry in light and darkness.
Baruch Atah, Adonai, blessed are you, O God, for the flame of who they were─ while it danced, it brought great joy to my life.
Baruch Atah, Adonai, for the light of this candle, because it reminds me of their light.
And baruch Atah, Adonai, for the moment when the flame disappears. It reminds me of how precious the light of life is. It reminds me that I can survive the challenge of the darkness.
And it reminds me that wax and wick pale in comparison to the inextinguishable glow of memory that is sometimes my sadness, sometimes my strength─ but always aglow, and ever a blessing.
Baruch, Atah Adonai...