On Yom Kippur, Jews everywhere will gather to pray. Among the most familiar and popular prayers is the Yizkor service, memorial prayers for the dead recited by those who have lost loved ones. In the midst of praying about our own vulnerability and matters of life and death, we pause to remember family members and friends who have died.
While Yizkor is also recited on the last day of the three Pilgrimage Festivals (Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot), the Yom Kippur Yizkor was the first to be instituted as a part of Jewish liturgy. The Rabbinic sages reasoned that praying about those who have died would cause people to focus intensely on their own mortality, which is one of the themes of Yom Kippur. Originally the Yizkor prayers were focused on martyrs who had been killed—their names were read aloud in the synagogue. As the service evolved, people began to pray about their own loved ones. That is the focus of Yizkor today—memorial prayers for family members and friends.
A common custom is for people who have never been mourners to leave the sanctuary during the recitation of Yizkor. Many reasons have been offered for this practice. Some say it developed to avoid causing mourners to feel envious that others around them had not suffered the pain of loss and still had their loved ones around them. Others say the practice of leaving was intended to prevent people who were not mourners from saying Yizkor by mistake, thus tempting fate. I know that my own parents never wanted me to stay in the sanctuary when Yizkor prayers were recited, a practice that continues in my own family.
The Sephardic custom is for everyone to stay in the sanctuary during the Yizkor prayers. That custom seems to me to be the most meaningful. People who don’t have a personal reason to recite Yizkor should nonetheless stay in the room in order to be supportive to those who are saying memorial prayers. It’s good and healthy to help a fellow congregant to face their pain and to help soften their sorrow. And it’s good for everyone, those who have been mourners and those who have been spared the pain of loss, to think about mortality. Our culture encourages us to avoid thinking about death and dying. But Jewish tradition encourages us to face the reality of death with our eyes open. Doing so should not diminish our zest for life or our life span.
How are the Yizkor prayers recited? Here are some suggestions for a meaningful Yizkor experience.
- Connect to others. Yizkor is a blend of an intensely private experience and a public one. Before delving into the private prayers, look around the room. See who else is saying Yizkor. Imagine yourself as part of a community of people that strengthen one another.
- Listen to the music. The Yizkor service is more than a formulaic recitation of prayers. The service begins and ends with music. Close your eyes and listen to the music, participating when you can and want to.
- Bring a photo of your loved ones. Having an image of your loved ones to gaze at during the Yizkor prayers will deepen and enhance your memory of them as you speak their names.
- Take your time. During the portion of the Yizkor service, take your time reciting the passage for each of the people you are remembering. Speak their names quietly. Conjure up a fulfilling and uplifting memory.
The Yizkor service can be a very meaningful time. By being mindful and attentive to its purpose, we can be reminded of the beauty and blessing of the lives of our loved ones and feel that we have been strengthened by the experience of sharing life with them.
Let me take this opportunity to wish you a Gemar Chatima Tova. May you be “sealed in the Book of Life” for the year that lies ahead and beyond.
Note: Kol Nidrei will begin on Tuesday of the coming week at 6:00 PM. I hope to seeyou on this most stirring and meaningful nights of the Jewish year. Our day long observance of Yom Kippur will begin at 10:00 AM on Wednesday.