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Fasting on Yahrzeit

It is customary to fast on the Yahrzeit / יארצייט of parents. In our time, however, when the generations are weak, some rabbinical authorities, especially amongst Chassidim, are lenient and do not require people to fast. Instead they recommend to increase the amount of Tzedakah / צדקה — charity and Torah learning in memory of the deceased.

The Yahrzeit fast begins at dawn and ends with nightfall. However, one should not attend a wedding or, according to many rabbinical authorities, any festive meal even on the night of the Yahrzeit, before the fast starts. Likewise, those who do not fast for one reason or another should not attend a festive meal on the day of the Yahrzeit either. There is also a custom to refrain from eating meat and drinking wine on that day.

There are two types of fasts in Jewish tradition: Taanit Tzibur / תענית ציבור — public fast and Taanit Yachid / תענית יחיד — private fast. There is both stringency and leniency associated with each type of fast.

Public fasts were instituted by rabbinical decree to commemorate tragic days in Jewish history. A public fast cannot be rescheduled to another day even when it is inconvenient for a particular individual for some business or personal reason. It may be canceled for medical reasons, however, and if it is indeed canceled, the person does not have to make it up on a different day when he or she gets better. The same rule applies to Yom Kippur / יום כפור — a scripturally mandated fast, the nature of which is, of course, very different, because it is one of the Jewish Holidays. Yom Kippur is unquestionably a very solemn day, but it is not a sad day.

Private fasts are undertaken by individuals to atone for a particular sin or because of a bad dream, etc. Private fasts may be scheduled and rescheduled by individuals for any reason and to any other day, except for days of communal rejoicing, when one is not allowed to fast. However, if a person has to cancel the fast because of a serious medical condition, he or she must fast on a different day to make up for this fast. In this respect, private fasts are more stringent than public fasts.

The Yahrzeit fast is clearly a private fast, but it must be on the actual day of the Yahrzeit and cannot be rescheduled. The only exception is when the Yahrzeit falls on the Sabbath or Rosh Chodesh / ראש חודש. In this case some have a custom to advance or to postpone the fast by one day. The majority, however, does not fast at all when the Yahrzeit falls on the Sabbath or any of the days of communal rejoicing. If a person forgot to fast or had to cancel the fast because of a serious medical condition, he or she cannot make it up by fasting on a different day. In this respect it is similar to public fasts.

Before fasting on the first Yahrzeit, it is advisable to stipulate that this decision is not to be considered a vow and to reserve the right to skip a Yahrzeit fast if necessary. One should also reserve the right not to fast until the end of the day if the Yahrzeit falls out on Friday or on the day following or preceding to a public fast. As any personal fast, it should be accepted on the day before the Yahrzeit, prior to sunset. Otherwise, the fast is still valid for those who usually fast every Yahrzeit and is not valid for those who fast only occasionally.