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Death & Bereavement in Judaism: Yahrzeit

Yahrzeit is a term in Yiddish meaning the anniversary of a death and refers to the day of one's death in the Hebrew calendar. It has become one of the most widely held rituals in Judaism and its observance is an act of pious commemoration and emphasizes faith in the immortality of the soul.

The commemoration of the yahrzeit is mainly observed for deceased parents or outstanding individuals, though many authorities extend it to the other five close relatives for whom mourning is enjoined, namely siblings, children and spouse.

The commentator Rashi finds the earliest authority for yahrzeit in the amoraic period from a responsum that mentioned an institution where "the anniversary of the death of a great man was established in his honor, and when that day arrives, all the scholars in the region assemble and visit his grave with the ordinary people, and hold a ceremony there" (Yev. 122a). The first known authority to employ the actual word yahrzeit was Isaac of Tyrnau and he is followed by Mordecai Jaffe. Among Sephardim the yahrzeit observance is called nahalah.

Jewish tradition has laid down detailed regulations for the observance of family yahrzeits. Traditionally, ahe family member marking yahrzeit conducts the weekday service and recites Kaddish . If the Torah is read on that day, he is called for an aliyah; otherwise, he can be called on the preceding Shabbat. A 24-hour memorial candle is also lit for that day as a symbol of the verse "the soul of man is the lamp of God." Fasting is recommended as an act of piety but is not commonly observed.

The only yahrzeits which occur in the national Hebrew calendar are the 7th of Adar (traditional date of Moses' death), Lag b'Omer (traditional date of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai's death), and the 3rd of Tishri (now called the Fast of Gedaliah). In the Hasidic community, the yahrzeits of their respective leaders are commemorated communally, however the memorial usually takes a joyous form to celebrate the life of the deceased.

In Israel, annual commemorations of such national figures as Theodor Herzl, Hayyim Nahman Bialik, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Ze'ev Jabotinsky, and past presidents have been instituted.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.