A Yahrzeit (YAR-zite) is the anniversary of a death in Jewish tradition.
When we are alive, we celebrate our birthday every year. In much the same way, we observe a yahrzeit for loved ones who have died. It is a way of marking the great passages of life: first, the passage into life (birthday) and then the passage out of this life (yahrzeit.)
The custom of observing yahrzeit is an acknowledgement that we do not “get over” the loss of a parent or a dear one. It is also a way of expressing kibud av’v’em, honor to our parents.
Most Jews observe the yahrzeit of their deceased parents. Some authorities extend that observance to the other categories of close losses: siblings, children, and spouse. Some Jews may also observe the yahrzeits of prominent individuals, for example, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Yahrzeit is usually observed on the Hebrew calendar date of death, although some prefer to keep it on the Gregorian calendar date.
Yahrzeit observance can take various forms. The most common:
A Yahrzeit candle is a special, long burning candle that is lit at sundown and is allowed to burn for 24 hours. (See photo above.) They are available from Judaica shops and some grocery stores.
Recently I went to a friend’s house for Shabbat dinner. She asked all of us to bring our candlesticks and candles with us, and as the sun sank in the sky, we lined them up on the dinner table and lit them! It was a beautiful display.
Every set of candlesticks had a story. Some of the stories were simple: “These were my mother’s,” and some were long and involved. Some came from Israel, some from Walgreens. One set came from eBay. Some were very fancy (the ones from eBay were silver and pre-war Polish) and some simple (one set had been made in religious school by a now-grown child).
I’ve lit Shabbat candles in lots of places. I’ve scrunched up aluminum foil for “candlesticks,” or lit tea lights, and when I was a chaplain in a nursing home, we had electric lights. There’s nothing quite like the glow of a real candle, but even the little electric lights said “Shabbat” to us.
As we look forward to lighting the Chanukah candles, let’s pause to enjoy our Shabbat candles this week. Chanukah is fun, but it only comes once a year. The faithful little flames of Shabbat are there for us week after week, bringing comfort and joy.
May your Shabbat be a time of true rest, before the razzle-dazzle of Chanukah and the preparation of the Thanksgiving feast.