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Remembrance

“A good name is better than good oil,  
And the day of death than the day of birth.”

Ecclesiastes 7:1  

Yahrzeit - יארצייט

The word Yahrzeit / יארצייט — anniversary of death in Yiddish, originated from two German words (Jahr — year and Zeit — time) combined together as “die Jahrzeit”; not to be confused with another combination of the same words — “die Jahreszeit” that means something different. This term was introduced no later than fifteenth century, since it was already used in the writings of Maharil / מהרי"ל — Rabbi Jacob Moellin, who lived in fifteenth-century Germany. It is spelled also as Yahrtzeit, Yartzeit, Yarzheit, Yartziet, Yortsayt or Yohrtsayt.

Sephardim have their own term “Nahalah / נחלה” — inheritance, for the anniversary of a death, but nowadays they also call it by its Yiddish name — “Yahrzeit / יארצייט”. The modern Hebrew equivalent of the word “Yahrzeit / יארצייט” — “Yom HaShanah / יום השנה”” — is just a calque from Yiddish. The term “Yom Zikaron / יום זיכרון” — Memorial Day, is also used. The Yahrzeit of a famous rabbi or a righteous person is sometimes referred to as “Yom Hillulah / הילולה” — a day of commemoration.

Yahrzeit insights. Even though the word “Yahrzeit / יארצייט” is relatively new, the concept of the Yahrzeit observance is much older — it is mentioned in the Talmud (Tractate Nedarim 12a). It is interesting that the Jewish custom is to commemorate the anniversary of a person’s death and not the date of his or her birth. Why? — Because “the day of death [is more important] than the day of birth / ויום המות מיום היולדו”, answers King Solomon in the Book of Ecclesiastes 7:1 and the rabbis (in Yalkut Shimoni) explain it using the following parable: The way of the world is to make a big party when a ship is about to sail, but there is no celebration when it arrives at its destination. Yet the wise men would do just the opposite. They would celebrate only when the ship arrived at its destination in peace. The same applies to a birthday — who knows how the newborn child will turn out? When a person leaves this world, however, we know what he has accomplished.