Image: A lit yahrzeit candle. (Public Domain)
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.
- Saying the Mourners’ Kaddish with a minyan at synagogue.
- Some mourners mark the day by giving tzedakah in memory of the deceased.
Yahrzeit is a Yiddish word, the Ashkenazi Jewish language. The same observance is kept by Sephardim, who call it nahalah.