It is one of the most solemn moments of the Yom Kippur service — on Monday, Oct. 6 — and the entire Jewish calendar.
It is one of the most solemn moments of the Yom Kippur service — on Monday, Oct. 6 — and the entire Jewish calendar. The chazzan and the entire congregation rise to recite Yizkor and commemorate the memories of parents, family and friends who have passed away. To help bring meaning and understanding to the Yizkor service, here are some valuable resources available on the World Wide Web.
Yizkor, which means “He shall remember,” was originally recited only on Yom HaKippurim, which literally means the “Day of Atonements.” As the Orthodox Union site points out, this phrase is in the plural and refers to the Atonement for the Living and Atonement for the Dead — http://www.ou.org/yerushalayim/yizkor/laws.htm. Chancellor Ismar Schorsch of the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary explains how this memorial prayer has also become associated with the holiday of Shemini Atzeret, Passover and Shavuot at www.learn.jtsa.edu/topics/parashah/5761/yizkor.shtml.
There are many Web sites that do a good job of presenting the text of the prayer, but I think the best is ORT’s Yizkor Online Memorial. The prayer is presented in the original Hebrew, in English and in an English transliteration for people who need a bit of assistance. If you need a bit more help, click on the link and listen to Yizkor being recited, at http://yizkor.ort.org/html/yizkor.shtml.
Following the recitation of Yizkor, the prayer El Malei Rachamim (God Full of Mercy) is recited. Many congregations have adopted the practice of reciting versions of El Malei Rachamim to remember victims of the Holocaust and to honor the memory of the men and women who have given their lives in defense of Israel. “God full of mercy who dwells on high, grant proper rest in the wings of Your Divine Presence in the lofty abode of the holy, pure and valiant who shine as the brightness of the heavens to the souls of the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces …”
Since many prayer books do not include both these prayers or contain varying texts, you may want to print out the version found at the ORT site and distribute them in your synagogue. The Orthodox Union’s Yizkor section has another very good version of all these prayers at www.ou.org/yerushalayim/yizkor.
Who should stay in the room while Yizkor is being recited? How soon after the death of a relative should the prayer be said? You can find answers to questions about Yizkor customs and traditions at both the Orthodox Union site and at Jewish Virtual Library, which have very good summaries of Yizkor traditions. The latter is at
www.us-israel.org/jsource/Judaism/yizkor.html. In a Jewish Post article — www.jewishpost.com/jp0903/jprabbi0903c.htm — Rabbi Rafi Rank answers common questions surrounding the tradition of lighting a Yizkor candle.
Rabbi Goldie Milgram — www.rebgoldie.com/yizkor.htm — suggests that aside from just lighting a candle, this is the ideal time to involve children in remembering a relative who has passed away. After lighting the candle, she recommends passing around a photo of the person being remembered. Then share a story a story about that person’s life and his/her meaning in your own life.
As you browse through the Yizkor-related sites, you see reference to an interesting character: the so-called “Yizkor Jew.” Once chided for appearing in synagogue only for the Yizkor service and making a quick exit afterward, the Yizkor Jew is making fewer forays into the synagogue, several sites report. An article is at
Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Encino’s Valley Beth Shalom says the reason is obvious: “Yizkor is no fun.” Why think about death or attend Yizkor when there are so many more pleasurable things you could be doing? Schulweis suggests that reciting Yizkor and experiencing pain are essential because learning demands suffering. He draws on a 2,500-year-old quote from Greek poet Aeschylus. “He who learns must suffer and even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart and in our despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.” His article is at www.vbs.org/rabbi/hshulw/tragedy_bot.htm.
Then Schulweis concludes, “Yizkor, yahrtzeit, kaddish and the El Mole are not fun. But they are the way that the wisdom of memory finds meaning in life.”
Mark Mietkiewiczis a Toronto-based television producer who writes, lectures and teaches about the Jewish Internet. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.