YAHRZEIT⏤The Mitzvah of Memory
For some time I have wanted to write a column about an unlikely topic⏤Yahrzeit.
This Yiddish term refers to the anniversary of a death of a loved one.
Traditionally, yahrzeit is observed according to the Hebrew calendar. But many, if not most, Reform Jews find it easier to remember the civil date and prefer that designation. So our data-base has been adjusted accordingly, and each issue of our bulletin lists these dates, and the Shabbat service which follows them.
Customarily, the observance of yahrzeit has two components: one that is designed to be private, and the other that is intended to be public. The former is the lighting of a memorial candle at home; the latter is the reciting of the memorial prayer (kaddish) at the synagogue.
Traditionally, yahrzeit is also marked by visiting the grave of our loved one.
Another venerable custom is to give tzedakah, to make a charitable contribution in memory of our relative. For some of our members this takes the form of sponsoring the reception (oneg) after the service.
Each week I dutifully and reverently read the yahrzeit names at our service. It makes me sad when I read these names and no relative is present to hear them or join in the kaddish. In the same way that visitations to cemeteries have declined markedly over the years, so too has yahrzeit observance at the synagogue. I cannot say whether this extends to the lighting of a candle at home… but I suspect it does.
I know that we can summon the memory of our dearly departed at any time, but Judaism is all about designating certain times as sacred and special. Like the Sabbath and holidays, we are asked to pause from our frenetic routines and remember. The mitzvah of memory is a powerful one in our tradition⏤a key to our survival. Although we live in an anti-ritualistic age, we have come to learn that rituals survive because they bind us together and help us remember.
We do not desire for our loved ones to be forgotten. Perhaps it is time to recommit to our observance of yahrzeit, not only for the sake of our departed, but for our sake as well.