THE YAFIRZEIT DAY
In those Orthodox congregations which can gather a minyan every day, the person with yahrzeit can easily observe the exact day of his yahrzeit. In most Reform congregations, however, services are held at most three days a week (at the weekend), and the question arises as to which day to say qadish at the anniversary of the death of a close relative. Which day shall be the yahrzeit day if the day falls on those days of the week in which the congregation has no public service? (Asked by a number of people.)
The observance of the anniversary of a death of a parent goes far back into the past. It has its roots in the Talmud. The Talmud (Nedarim 12a) makes reference to a vow that a person makes to refrain from meat or wine on the day that a parent had died. And more generally, the Talmud says that one’s parents should be honored in their death as in their life (Qedushin 31b). From this natural pious impulse there arose the custom of regular observance of the anniversary of the death of a parent. The custom in the Middle Ages in Germany as the name yahrzeit would indicate must have arisen as a regular observance.
In fact, at first some Sephardic authorities were rather sarcastic about this annual Ashkenazic custom because when a parent died we are careful to say qadish only the first eleven months of the year (for it is only the wicked who need a whole year of redemptive prayer). Then why should the Ashkenazim, who already, in the year of the death, had recited qadish for the sufficient eleven months, also feel the need of repeating qadish every year? Nevertheless, in spite of such objection, the idea of yahrzeit meets so natural a need that it has spread far beyond Ashkenazic Jewry.
Over the years a considerable amount of halalshah has developed with regard to the reciting of the qadish during the synagogue worship. Before the custom developed of everyone who had qadish to recite reciting it in unison, as is generally the present custom, the person with qadish to recite would either conduct a service or recite the qadish at the reading-desk. This raised the question of privilege. If there are in the synagogue a number of people who have to recite the qadish, if one of them is an orphan (in the first year of his bereavement), another is observing yahrzeit, or if one is a local person and the other a visitor, which one has the right of precedence? With regards to these laws of qadish precedence which have become quite complicated, Moses Sofer in his responsa (Orah Hayyim 159, p. 60c) quotes Jacob Emden, the famous scholar of Hamburg (Altona) where there was also a considerable Sephardic congregation. Jacob Emden, according to Moses Sofer, said that he did not trouble himself to work out the complicated rule of qadish precedents but admired the custom of the Sephardim who have all of the sayers of qadish recite it in unison. (Cited also by Greenwald, p. 371). This custom of all the sayers of qadish reciting it in unison has gradually spread among many congregations. So this question of precedence which is virtually the only halakhah that developed around yahrzeit, has became somewhat theoretical as the custom spread of having the qadish said in unison by all those in duty bound to say it.
But as to fixing the exact day of yahrzeit, the law is still rather indefinite. Isserles said that in the first year the yahrzeit is not from the day of death but from the day of burial. Other authorities disagree and say that it is from the day of death even on the first year. One of the customs is to call up the yahrzeit to the Torah; but suppose no Torah is read on that day? Shall the yahrzeit be preceded to an earlier day or to a later day when the Torah is read? It was the custom, though now largely lapsed, to fast on the yahrzeit. Suppose the yahrzeit falls on the Sabbath or a holiday where no fast is permissible? Shall the yahrzeit be pushed back or forward? As a matter of fact, the movability of the date is made quite clear by Azulai in his Kikar Leoden, p. 160b (in the Leghorn edition which, I believe, is the only edition). He said that if a person has forgotten to say qadish on his yahrzeit, he can pick any day of the year on which to make up for the omission and say the qadish at the service.
Since then the date of yahrzeit under various special circumstances, is relatively unfixed in the law, therefore in those congregations where there is no daily service and, therefore, the yahrzeit cannot often be observed on the exact day, the worshipper has a choice of selecting an appropriate day that year. Perhaps the most practical thing to do is, if the yahrzeit comes in the early part of the week, to observe it on the preceding Sabbath. If it falls on the latter part of the week, it may be observed on the following Sabbath. If it falls on Wednesday, the worshipper may take his own choice. There is enough leeway in the law to permit such freedom of choice.