QUESTION: A family always finds itself at its country house when the Yarhzeit for their father occurs. They normally light bonfires several times during the week and would like to dedicate one of them to their grandfather each year,. May this be done in place of the Yahrzeit candle? (Rachel Cohen, New York NY)
ANSWER: Yahrzeit is an Ashkenazi custom which began in the Middle Ages (W. Jacob (ed) American Reform Responsa # 127). The custom of lighting a Yahrzeit candle was first mentioned by Solomon Luria (Responsa 46; Joseph Schwartz Hadrat Qodesh p 18). When candles or oil were not available or impractical, an electric light may be used (Gesher Hahayim I p 343). The Yahrzeit candle is lit on the evening when our days normally begin and continues to burn throughout the day of the Yahrzeit. On shabbat or festivals, it is lit before the festive candles. If one forget to light it, then one lights it upon remembering after shabbat or the festival has ended.
The commemoration should last twenty-four hours, from one evening to the next. It would be impractical to keep a fire burning for that length of time. Whatever the children intend to do as a memorial around the bonfire, they should also light the Yahrzeit light.