American Reform Responsa
QUESTION: What is the status of Yahrzeit within the Reform Movement? When shall the Yahrzeitbe commemorated–should the Hebrew or secular calendar be used?
ANSWER: The origin of the custom of observing Yahrzeit–commemorating the deaths of parents, children, siblings, and spouses–is obscure. The Talmud mentioned hazkarat neshamot, but not as a widely-observed custom. We first find Yahrzeit as such in the writings of the 16th century authorities, Tyrnau and Jaffe (Isaac Tyrnau, Minhagim, and Mordecai Jaffe, Levush Techelet, 133). Its name would indicate that the custom arose in Germany. Guedemann has suggested that it was derived from a similar custom among German Catholics (GeschichteIII, 132). The custom may also have evolved from the traditional commemoration of the deaths of great individuals such as Moses (seventh Adar) and Gedaliah (third Tishri), or of great Rabbis (Rashi to Yev. 22a, quoting Gaonic responsa).
Yahrzeit quickly became established among Ashkenazic Jews. The Sefardim were late in adopting the custom, feeling that Kaddish recited after twelve months of mourning reflects poorly on the deceased. They interpreted Kaddish as a prayer intended to assure a better status for the deceased in the world to come. Isaac Luria, the German Kabbalist who settled in Safed, countered this by stating that the Yahrzeit Kaddish elevated the soul of the deceased to a higher level year by year (Sperling, Ta-amei Haminhagim Umekorei Minhagim, p. 488; A. Lewysohn, Mekorei Minhagim, 98). Of course, this is not necessarily our reason for reciting Kaddish. We do so to honor and to remember our dead, and to praise God for their lives and accomplishments.
The custom of lighting a Yahrzeit candle is medieval (Solomon Luria, Responsa, 46; Joseph Schwartz, Hadrat Kodesh, p. 18). If candles are unavailable or impractical, an electric light may be used (Gesher Hachayim I, p. 343). The Yahrzeit candle is lit on the evening before the day of Yahrzeit, and is burned for twenty-four hours. On Shabbat or Yom Tov, the candle is lit before the Shabbat or holiday candles. In case one forgets to light it, it is lit upon remembering, or after the Shabbator holiday is completed.
The date of the Yahrzeit is the date of death, not the date of burial. If the date is unknown or is questionable, then an appropriate date may be chosen and maintained in succeeding years. The Hebrew calendar should be used for the Yahrzeit, as it provides a Jewish rhythm for the year. It forms an additional link to tradition. In those cases where special calendar problems arise–as with Adar II or two days of Rosh Chodesh–a rabbi should be consulted. There is precedent, however, for the use of the secular calendar when the Hebrew calendar cannot be used. Analogously, the Mishnautilized it (albeit reluctantly) for dating divorces (Gittin VIII.6); Rabbinic authorities sometimes dated their responsa by it; it is generally used on tombstones, along with the Hebrew date.
For us, the recitation of Kaddish is incumbent upon both men and women at congregational services held on the date of the Yahrzeit or on the Shabbat nearest the date, if no service is available on the date itself (Isserles to Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De-a 376.4; Gates of Mitzvah, p. 62). In some congregations, a family member is called up to the Torah on the Shabbatpreceding the Yarhzeit. Many observe the custom of visiting the cemetery. In addition, the donation of a charitable gift in memory of the deceased is recommended.
Tradition does not demand that Yahrzeit be commemorated for those who died before they were thirty days old, while some restrict that to twenty days (Joseph Schwartz, Vayitsbor Yosef, 21). Yet, there are sound psychological reasons for commemorating all deceased through Yahrzeitobservance. Such a death is difficult for a young couple; they and the family need the catharsis of mourning and the comfort provided by others.
Someone who has remarried after the death of a spouse should continue to recite Kaddish in the synagogue on the Yahrzeit. Because tradition has always been sensitive to the feelings of a second spouse, the Yahrzeit candle at home may be omitted (Mo-ed Katan 21b; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De-a 385.2). Anyone who has forgotten to commemorate a Yahrzeit should do so upon remembering (Greenwald, Kol Bo Al Avelut,p. 394).
Yahrzeitis well-established among us, and everything should be done to encourage it as a valid expression of religious feeling.
Walter Jacob, Chairman
Leonard S. Kravitz
W. Gunther Plaut
Harry A. Roth
Rav A. Soloff
S.B. Freehof, “Secular Date for Yahrzeit,” Reform Responsa, pp. 168ff; “Kaddish When Worshipping Alone,” Recent Reform Responsa, pp. 14ff; “Kaddish and Yahrzeit for a Child,” Reform Responsa, pp. 165ff.
If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.