Parshas Chukas (5770)
Yahrtzeit literally means "time (of) year" in Yiddish, and refers to the annual anniversary of the day of death of a relative.
It is interesting to note that of all the great Jews in biblical times whose deaths are recorded in the Torah, there is only one whose actual yahrtzeit (date of passing) is mentioned explicitly. The Torah (in Numbers 33:38) tells us that Aaron the first High Priest, brother of Moses and Miriam, passed away on the 1st day of the Hebrew month of Av (in the year 2487 from creation - 1274 BCE).
Aaron’s actual death is recorded in this week’s Torah portion as follows: “[G-d said to Moses:] ‘Take Aaron and Elazar his son and bring them up to Mount Hor. Strip Aaron of his vestments and dress Elazar his son in them; Aaron shall be gathered in and die there’. Moses did as G-d commanded, and they ascended Mount Hor before the eyes of the entire assembly” (Numbers 20:25-27).
Rashi quotes a Midrash which describes exactly how Aaron died: Moses brought Aaron into the cave, where there was a bed and a burning lamp. Moses told Aaron to mount the bed, straighten his arms, and close his mouth and eyes. Thereupon the Shechinah (Divine Presence) came down and ‘kissed’ him. [According to Kabbalistic tradition, deserving souls depart from this world through misas neshikah, “death by kissing”, as G-d descends to give the righteous person a neshikah (kiss), while gently drawing out the very soul that He had earlier blown in to him at birth.] G-d said to them: "Go out from here." As soon as they went out, the cave was sealed, and Moses and Elazar descended.
Let’s explore the Jewish tradition of Yahrtzeit – the commemoration the death of a parent or relative each year on the anniversary of his/her passing - its underlying concepts and meaning, as well as its various laws and customs. [Please note: This is in no way intended to be an exhaustive treatment of all the many laws and traditions associated with the yahrtzeit. To learn more, see, for example, www.mykaddish.com]
Yahrtzeit may be observed for any relative or friend, but it is meant primarily for parents. The Mishmeres Shalom writes that on the day of the yahrtzeit for a parent one should think in his heart: “My parents toiled their entire lives to provide for and raise me … The least I can do [now that they are in Heaven] is to devote one day of the year to remember them, and provide for their souls.”
In Jewish tradition, the yahrtzeit is an important day for both the departed and for the living. The yahrtzeit is a time of tremendous opportunity for the neshamah (soul) of the deceased person, as it becomes eligible for a “promotion” on this day, to be afforded a new and higher place in Heaven. With this opportunity, however, comes the need for the soul to stand in judgment once again, similar to the judgment we all undergo on Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year). The relatives of the deceased will therefore perform various mitzvos (good deeds) and pray on behalf of their loved one’s neshamah on this day to help it ascend ever higher and closer to G-d.
For the living, of course, the yahrtzeit is a time to reflect on the memory of their deceased relative, which can be a very moving experience. As the family gets together on the yahrtzeit to speak about their loved one and to engage in meritorious acts to benefit his neshamah, they reconnect with him in a powerful way. And as they remember the special qualities of the departed, it becomes a time of spiritual growth, as they learn from him and emulate his ways.
There are various practices and customs that are traditionally done on the yahrtzeit of a loved one – all of which serve to focus the living relatives on the main goal of the day: that the departed is standing in judgment before G-d, and that all the mitzvos and good deeds they do on his behalf will bring him great merit and will help ease his spiritual advancement.
Ideally, before performing any act on behalf of a loved one, the yahrtzeit observer should state expressly that it is being done to give merit to _______ (the departed’s Hebrew name) ben (son of)/bas (daughter of) ________ (his/her father’s Hebrew name).
Here are some main yahrtzeit practices one can observe for a deceased relative:
~ Prayers: Leading the davening (prayers) at the synagogue; saying kaddish, getting called up to the Torah for an aliyah; reciting the Keil Malei prayer.
~ Torah study: Learning various Mishnayos (teachings of the Oral Law recorded in the Mishnah); gathering the family together for a siyum (festive party to honor the occasion of the completion of a section of Torah); sponsoring Torah study.
~ Additional acts on behalf of the departed: Visiting the grave; giving tzedakah (charity); lighting a yahrtzeit candle; providing Tikkun (food and drink, often including schnapps) over which those who partake can make numerous blessings, thus providing more merit for the deceased.
There are also various restrictions observed by some on the yahrtzeit, including fasting and /or abstaining from meat and wine; certain aspects of mourning such as not participating in joyous occasions; and limiting or refraining from work and travel.
The most important thing to remember about yahrtzeits is this: If the main focus and goal of the yahrtzeit is accrue merit to our departed parents etc. through the various acts and mitzvos that we do with them in mind, then it should be obvious that the most important thing we can do on their behalf is to be a righteous person, the kind of person who will reflect well on our parents up in Heaven.
As Rabbi Shlomo Gantzfried wrote in his Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (26:22): “Even though the saying of kaddish and prayers are helpful to [the souls of] the parents, yet they are not the main thing. The most important thing is that the children walk in the path of righteousness, because with that they gain Heavenly favor for their parents.”
Saying kaddish or providing tikkun on the yahrtzeit is a special practice we can do to merit our loved ones only once a year – but being a good person and, more importantly, a good Jew, is something we can do that will provide merit for our parents 24/7, 365 days a year.
May it be G-d’s will that we always do mitzvos and provide merit for the neshamos of our parents, grandparents etc. as they gaze down upon us with pride from their dwelling place close to G-d in Heaven. Amein.
[Sources: The Neshamah Should Have an Aliyah: What You Can Do in Memory of a Departed Loved One by Rabbi Tzvi Hebel, Judaica Press, pages 127-148]