By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
I have always observed my father’s yahrzeit on Nov. 25, the day of his burial. I recently was told that the custom is to observe it on the day of his death, which would be Nov. 23. Should it be on the day of death or the day of burial?
While we’re on the subject, could you fill me in on what should be done of the day of the yahrzeit?
With much appreciation,
— Phyllis P.
The yahrzeit (literally meaning “the time of year” in Yiddish), is observed on the day of death, not the date of the burial (Code of Jewish Law, Orach Chayim 568:8, Yorah Deah 402). The date observed, however, is the Hebrew date, not the English one.
You can contact me or any synagogue to find out the Hebrew date of Nov. 23 on the year your father passed away, and you should observe the yahrzeit on that date in the future. It is also significant to know if he passed during the day or after nightfall, since after nightfall it would be considered the following date (Hebrew dates begin on the previous night).
On the eve of the yahrzeit, it is customary to light a special yahrzeit candle that lasts for the full 24 hours. This is because the verse says Ner HaShem nishmat adam, “The candle of God is the soul of man” (Proverbs 20:27). This is why the yahrzeit candle is also referred to as the ner neshama, or “candle of the soul.”
The Kabbalistic writings explain that the soul itself is a type of spiritual light. On the day of the yahrzeit, the soul has permission to travel about in the world. When the soul sees lights lit in its honor, it derives nachas from this, as the soul derives joy from lights lit for spiritual reasons. The word ner, spelled nun resh, also stands for the words neshamah ruach, or soul and spirit.
Kaddish is recited in a minyan on the day of the yahrzeit. If one cannot recite the Kaddish themselves, a synagogue, kollel or yeshiva can be contacted to appoint someone to say the Kaddish for them.
Kaddish means “sanctification,” as the Name of God is sanctified through the recital of Kaddish. This is to make up for the loss of a Jew, whose purpose in the world is to sanctify the Name of God through his or her life, known as a life of Kiddush HaShem.
Kaddish is not, as is commonly thought, a prayer for the dead. It is very much a prayer for the living, bringing honor to the Name of God by the very profound praises we utter through the words of Kaddish. When the progeny of the deceased utter such great praises in their memory, effecting a Kiddush HaShem, the soul of the deceased is endowed with a more illuminated, elevated and joyous state in the world in which they reside.
In addition, Torah should be studied on the day of yahrzeit. Torah study by the child of the deceased greatly benefits their soul — especially the study of Mishna, the letters in Hebrew also spelling neshama, or soul. It is customary to give tzedakah to the poor or to support the study of Torah, which is also a great benefit to the soul of the loved one. If possible, it is meritorious to visit the grave and recite special psalms that coincide with the Hebrew name of the deceased.
Many also have the custom of fasting from sunup till sundown on the day of the yahrzeit. Other customs are observed besides those we have mentioned, but these are some of the core ones.
The main thing to keep in mind is that your father’s “representative” in the world is you. The more mitzvot you observe and Torah you study, whether on the yahrzeit or any other day, brings him continued bliss and reward in the world in which he now resides. He continues, and will continue, to derive nachas from all the good things you do.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at email@example.com.