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Yahrzeit Memorial Service

Lighting memorial candle. On the day before the Yahrzeit / יארצייט prior to sunset, it is customary to light a Ner Neshamah / נר נשמה — memorial candle that will burn for 24 hours in memory of the departed either in the house or in the synagogue. It is preferable to light with olive oil, although wax and paraffin candles may be used as well. Many synagogues have memorial plaques inscribed with the names of the deceased and on the day of the Yahrzeit an electric bulb is lit next to the name of the individual. At home, however, one should light with a real candle.

The candle and the flame symbolize the body and the soul, as it is written in the Book of Proverbs 20:27“Man’s soul is the Lord’s candle / נר ה' נשמת אדם”. The flame is the soul that rises up, while the candle is the body that the soul is attached to. The candle supports its flame until it burns out, thus fulfilling together their mutual purpose of giving light. Maharil / מהרי"ל — Rabbi Jacob Moellin, mentioned earlier, explains that the word “Ner / נר — candle”, can be construed as an anagram of the words “Neshamah / נר נשמה — soul” and “Ruach / רוח — spirit”. The Gematria / גימטריה — numerical value of the word “Ner / נר” is 250, which corresponds, according to Jewish tradition, to the 248 limbs of the body plus the 2 spiritual components: Neshamah / נשמה — soul and Ruach / רוח — spirit.

If lighting a candle for a spouse from a previous marriage would hurt the feelings of the new spouse, one should refrain from doing it openly.

Reciting Kaddish and leading the prayer services. Mourner's Kaddish / קדיש יתום recitation is central to Yahrzeit observances. The idea of Kaddish and its importance for the soul was already discussed in the Mourner's Kaddish section. It is also customary for the person observing Yahrzeit to lead the prayer services, which gives him an additional opportunity to recite Kadish. Some have a custom to lead prayer services not only on the Yahrzeit, but also on the Sabbath preceding the Yahrzeit, especially the evening prayer service at the conclusion of that Sabbath. For the rules of precedence and other details please consult the Leading Prayer Services section.

First and foremost, Kaddish is recited for up to 12 months after death to ease the departed soul’s punishment in Gehinnom / גיהנום — the inferno of Hell. Only the extremely wicked receive longer punishment. Consequently, it would be a reflection upon the departed to recite Kaddish after the first 12 months. On these grounds, Sephardim originally were opposed to reciting Mourner's Kadish on the Yahrzeit. This was exclusively a custom of Ashkenazim until the time of Arizal / האר"י הקדוש — Rabbi Isaac Luria, the famous Kabbalist of sixteenth-century Safed, in the Land of Israel. Arizal, who was of Ashkenazic descent himself, explained that Kaddish recited on each Yahrzeit helps to elevate the soul to a higher level in paradise and this explanation was universally accepted.

One who failed for some reason to recite Kaddish on the day of the Yahrzeit should recite it after the evening prayer right after the Yahrzeit or, according to some rabbinical authorities, even on another day, as soon as he has the opportunity. Some of the Sephardim have a custom to start reciting Kaddish either from the Saturday night preceding the Yahrzeit or seven days prior to the Yahrzeit.

Reciting the traditional memorial prayer. It is customary to call up a person observing a Yahrzeit to the Torah reading of that day. He also recites the Kaddish after the Torah reading and recites himself or asks the cantor to recite the traditional memorial prayer. If the Yahrzeit occurs on the Sabbath the prevalent custom is to call up the person observing it to be the Maftir / מפטיר — the one who reads the portion from the Prophets.

In some congregations the memorial prayer is not recited on the Sabbath at all or, if it is recited then it is only recited after the Torah reading in the afternoon. If the Yahrzeit occurs on the day when there is no Torah reading, Ashkenazim recite the memorial prayer on the nearest preceding day, on which the Torah is read. Likewise, Ashkenazim do not recite memorial prayer on days of communal rejoicing, except when it is part of Yizkor memorial service. Sephardim, however, have a custom to recite memorial prayers on the day of the death anniversary even when there is no Torah reading and even on days of communal rejoicing.

For additional information about the traditional memorial prayer please consult the Memorial Prayer section.