Image: Candle flame. (Public domain)
I converted pretty late in life. My parents are long gone, and I’ve never been sure whether or not I should observe their yahrzeits. Both were gentiles. What do you think?– A Reader
Great question! When a Jew has Jewish parents, they normally have an obligation to bury the parents, say kaddish for them, mourn them for a year, and then observe their yahrzeit in following years. Yahrzeit is the Ashkenazi word for the anniversary of a person’s death, and we observe it by lighting a candle, saying kaddish with a minyan, and giving tzedakah in their memory. The corresponding name in the Sephardic tradition is nahalah.
A Jew is not obligated to say kaddish for a non-Jewish parent. However, they may observe all Jewish mourning practices for them if they so choose. Thus the answer to your question, “Should I observe their yahrzeits?” is that you have no obligation to observe them. However, you are permitted to observe them if you wish.
In making your decision, a Jew should consider related mitzvot, particularly the mitzvah to honor one’s parents (Exodus 20:11.) Even then, there is no single answer. I have known Jews who chose to observe yahrzeits for their parents out of love and respect for the parents’ memories. I have also known Jews who did not observe yahrzeits for their parents because they believed the parents would not have wanted it, so out of respect they do not observe.
Jewish mourning practices have developed over many centuries. There is a deep wisdom in providing mourners with a fixed process through which they can mourn with support, and then emerge back into ordinary life. Some losses are profound, and for those, having periodic brief times of mourning such as yahrzeit and Yizkor can provide comfort even years after a death.
In general, I advise gerei tzedek [converts] to observe Jewish mourning practices for non-Jewish relatives unless they have strong objections to doing so. Mourning is no time to separate oneself from the community. Like every other Jew, the ger tzedek has a right to the comfort and support that Jewish mourning practice can provide.
6 thoughts on “Mourning a Non-Jewish Parent”
I am a convert and I celebrate my father (catholic) on his Yarzheit. It’s a nice way to remember him every year and in that spirit I think he would be okay with it.
thank you for this answer, it is comforting to know that honoring parents and personal consolation are the bottom line here
You are very welcome, Meredith. Those indeed are the “bottom line,” the core Jewish values in this situation.
Sound advice, Rabbi. Consistent with all my Chevrah Kadisha learning.
Thank you, Dan! Shana Tova!
I’m so glad you wrote this. On the community side – we who are fellow synagogue members of Jews by choice need to be sure to follow their lead & need in mourning relatives. I have a friend who lost her sister and was bereft. She didn’t know what to ask for or how to ask. Eventually she went to her rabbi and told her that she needed support. She should NOT have had to ask.