Yom Kippur, which begins this Tuesday evening, is one of the significant and dramatic moments of the Jewish year. It is the only day on the Jewish calendar when Jews everywhere around the world, regardless of background, experience or inclination to practice Judaism from one Yom Kippur to the next, spend an intensive block of time in the synagogue. For some, Yom Kippur is defined by the experience of fasting. For others, it is defined by hearing the haunting melody of Kol Nidrei chanted on the eve of the holiday. And for a great many people, Yom Kippur is defined by the recitation of Yizkor prayers.
Yizkor, Hebrew for “May He remember” (referring to God), is a very old Jewish practice of reciting memorial prayers for the dead and pledging to give charity in their name. The practice is mentioned in a 5th century midrash as being associated with the Yom Kippur service in the synagogue. The Ashkenazic rite added Yizkor prayers to the last day of the three Pilgrimage Festivals (Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot) as well, probably during the time of the Crusades when the number of deaths was alarmingly high. To this day, we recite Yizkor prayers in the synagogue on the three festivals and on Yom Kippur. Yizkor is recited for anyone for whom someone was a mourner according to Jewish tradition—a parent, a child, a sibling or a spouse. However one may say Yizkor prayers for any relative or friend. It is a common practice for those who were never a mourner, especially children, to leave the room during the recitation of Yizkor prayers, though this is not required.
Yizkor prayers occur immediately after the reading of the Torah and Haftarah portions, just before the recessional through the congregation and the return of the Torah scrolls to the ark. The recitation of the Yizkor service lasts about 15 minutes, and contains both communal and private prayers. Thus, we both share with one another our feelings of loss and bereavement and express the emotions we feel about our loved ones in an intensely private manner. It is common to see people crying as they recite Yizkor prayers. Yizkor prayers are traditionally recited in Hebrew, but those who are not able to say them in Hebrew can and should say them in any language they wish.
The Yizkor service opens with the recitation of a psalm reflecting the theme of the mortality of all human beings. Next, the congregation shares a poetic reading (in English) that helps us to articulate our sense of loss and the power of memory. Transitioning from communal to private prayers, each person then recites the traditional Yizkor passage separately for each of the people whom they are remembering. Our High Holiday Machzor presents that passage both in Hebrew and in English. The recitation of individual Yizkor prayers is an intensely private moment that takes place in the midst of a congregation full of people doing the same thing. Many people cry, and you should allow yourself to cry if that is what you feel. You may wish to bring a photograph of your loved one to hold and gaze at during the recitation of Yizkor prayers. And you may wish to think of some special memory that comes to mind when you think of your loved one. Yizkor is a time to feel deeply and remember vividly.
The Yizkor prayers ask that we pledge to give charity and live nobly as a testament to the memory of our loved ones. Consider Yizkor as an opportunity to do just that. If there are especially poignant and meaningful ideals and values that your loved ones would have been pleased for you to embrace, Yizkor may very well serve as a moment of resolution and a turning point in your life.
Following the recitation of private Yizkor prayers, prayers for the Six Million victims of the Nazi Holocaust, as well as for congregants who have passed away, are recited publicly. Then the “El Maley Rachamim” prayer is recited (Hebrew for “God, who is compassionate”)– this is the same prayer that is recited at funerals and unveilings. The service concludes with the recitation of Psalm 23 and the Mourners’ Kaddish.
If you are saying Yizkor, whether for the first time or after many years of having lost a loved one, I hope that the Yizkor prayers that we recite this Yom Kippur will be meaningful and restorative for you.
I wish you, and all those dear to you, a “Gemar Chatima Tova,” a sense resulting from your observance of Yom Kippur that the New Year that has just dawned will be a time of fulfillment, serenity and joy.