Jewish culture is rooted in tradition. In funeral and grieving practices, it is customary to pay tribute to a loved one and to memorialize their life for years to come. One Jewish tradition in particular, yahrzeit observance, allows family and close friends to respect and remember the life of their loved one annually.
As one of Judaism’s most time-honored traditions, yahrzeit is a deeply ingrained observance intended to honor and celebrate the life of a loved one through lighting of candles, prayer, study and a visit to the cemetery.
What is yahrzeit?
In Jewish culture, the term yahrzeit, a Yiddish word meaning “time of (one) year,” refers to the anniversary of the soul’s passing. This date, which is calculated in accordance with the Hebrew calendar, marks one year after an individual’s death. Yahrzeit is traditionally performed over a 24-hour period in commemoration of the death of a close family member such as a parent, spouse, child or sibling. However, the observance is also sometimes dedicated to a grandparent or close friend.
Calculate and remember the yahrzeit
Because the Hebrew calendar differs from the traditional English calendar, it's important to calculate the correct date for the yahrzeit observance. The Hebrew lunar calendar consists of 12 months (Tishre, Chesvan, Kislev, Tevet, Shevat, Adar, Nissan, Iyar, Sivan, Tammuz, Av and Elul), each with 29 or 30 days. During a leap year, one extra month is added (Adar I). It's important to know the correct date of observance in this circumstance.
A yahrzeit calculator can be used to determine the correct date of yahrzeit observance for a loved one. Calculating the correct date is an essential first step to ensuring that the proper observance can take place each year.
The annual Jewish customs of yahrzeit observance allows the family a chance to recall the pain of a loss but also the opportunity to celebrate and honor the memory of the person they loved. When the anniversary of the death approaches, loved ones may choose to fast or to abstain from participating in festivities. Those observing yahrzeit should not partake in the consumption of meat or wine during this time.
The yahrzeit is a time for study, charity, kindness and reflection in honor of the loved one. Observed every year, the kindling of a yahrzeit candle and the recitation of the Kaddish serve to honor the memory of a loved one now and for generations to come.
In Jewish tradition, a candle is often believed to be a symbol of the soul. The yahrzeit candle, a special candle designed to burn 24 hours, should be lit at sundown on the day preceding the anniversary, burned throughout the yahrzeit and allowed to extinguish on its own. When observing yahrzeit for a parent, one candle may be lit if all children are present in the same household; however, if children are in separate households, each child should burn his or her own candle.
Under some circumstances, a lamp may be lit in place of a candle, though it is not preferred since the candle and its sacred symbolism are meant to honor the loved one’s memory. Likewise, if for safety reasons the yahrzeit candle should be extinguished manually after 24 hours, this is permissible.
This essential Jewish custom continues to take place every year on the anniversary of the death.
Prayer and study
The Mourner’s Kaddish, a public affirmation of faith, is a prayer traditionally spoken on the yahrzeit in honor of the loved one. It's the Jewish custom for anyone who is in observance of the yahrzeit to recite this special prayer; those who have lost a parent will likely have said the prayer often in the months following the death.
Grieving friends and family members may also study portions of the Mishnah, a Jewish legal code that forms the base of the Talmud, or sections of the Torah or Bible. Additionally, tzedakah, or charitable donations, may be made during this observance to honor the life of the loved one.
On the day of the yahrzeit, it is customary to visit the loved one’s gravesite. During this time, those in attendance will likely devote memorial prayers to God. This might include such prayers as the Kel Maleh Rachamim, or Prayer for the Souls of the Departed. Readings from the Book of Psalms or the studying of the Mishnah may also take place at this time.
It is preferred that family members in mourning will read, pray and speak aloud at the yahrzeit cemetery visit rather than calling on a medium or rabbi to speak.
If a yahrzeit falls on the Sabbath or a holiday, Jewish customs regarding if or when a candle may be lit can vary. The cemetery may be visited on the day before or after the Sabbath, and fasting should take place only on days other than the Sabbath.
Still have questions?
are available to assist you and your family with any questions you may have regarding the observance of yahrzeit. Our funeral providers understand and are committed to the important religious practices associated with Jewish mourning traditions. We strive to serve you in any way that we can.