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The Power of Yizkor

The murmured words of Yizkor echo in the upper worlds


Many of us have childhood memories of scampering out of shul when the gabbai banged on the bimah and announced loudly: “Yizkor.”

As we waited outside shul, we wondered what was transpiring within. What was it about Yizkor that brought non-shul-goers out a few times a year? Even the mere mention of Yizkor sends chills up our spine. What indeed is the power of Yizkor, and why do the children leave the shul during this service?

Forgive, Don’t Forget

Originally, the chachamim instituted the recital of Yizkor on Yom Kippur. Midrash Tanchuma on Ha’azinu explains that the words “Forgive Your people Israel” at the end of Shoftim refer to those who are living, and that the words in the continuation of the pasuk, “whom You have redeemed” refer to those who have passed away. Hence, the day is actually referred to in the Torah as Yom HaKippurim, in the plural, since both the living and the dead are granted forgiveness.

The word “Yizkor” is usually understood as “Hashem remembers,” meaning that in the merit of our tefillos and good deeds, Hashem should remember our loved ones who have died and allow them to move closer to the Shechinah.

Rav Yosef Ber Soloveitchik explains the word Yizkor to mean “atone.” Just as on Rosh Chodesh in the times of the Beis Hamikdash we brought a korban as a remembrance, and the day was considered an auspicious time for forgiveness, Yizkor is also linked to the concept of forgiveness, and through it, we ask for atonement for the aveiros of those who have passed on from This World.

What is the dynamic of atonement that we can achieve atonement for those who are no longer here? Rav Tzvi Hebel, in the sefer The Neshamah Should Have an Aliyah, quotes the idea that the mere mention of the deceased’s name has an impact on their neshamah. This is based on Midrash Tanchuma parshas Va’eschanan, which says that right before Moshe Rabbeinu passed away, he requested that when the people enter the Land of Israel, they should remember him and mention his name. On a mystical level, Rav Hebel notes, when a soul’s name is mentioned, it is renewed. Hence the words of Yizkor, when recited with kavanah, impact the Upper Worlds.

Kol Bo asserts that recalling those who have died prods those who are alive to repent. When we focus on the fact that life is fleeting, it creates feelings of contriteness and repentance, which is appropriate for the day of Yom Kippur. These departed neshamos are the medium for peoples’ self-improvement, and hence, they gain merit for being the conduit of change.

In Their Name

Another aspect of effecting atonement for the soul is through promising to give tzedakah on their behalf, which is an integral part of the Yizkor tefillah. The Mishnah Berurah explains that when a pledge is made in memory of the deceased, the Heavenly court views this as a deed that the departed himself would have done, had he been alive, and is credited to his account. The Chofetz Chaim continues to explain that the pledge itself is considered a good deed, even before it’s fulfilled.

Many Yizkor texts use the phrase “bli neder” regarding giving charity, since vowing has tremendous implications. We should be very careful to fulfill our pledge as soon as Yom Tov is over. Netei Gavriel points out that it’s best is give tzedakah beforehand and say, “ba’avur shenasati — for I have given,” instead of the words bli neder.

The ArtScroll/Mesorah Machzor notes that the custom of saying Yizkor also on Pesach, Shavuos, and Succos was of much later origin, perhaps during the time of the Crusades, when many communities were wiped out. The connection between these specific holidays and Yizkor is based on the final pesukim in the Torah reading in chutz l’Aretz, beginning “Kol Habechor.” The pasuk states, “Each man according to the giving of his hand” (Devarim 16:17), and therefore, we, too, make pledges to tzedakah on these days as well.

Of Psalms and Candles

Before saying the Yizkor tefillah, many have the custom to first say chapter 91 in Tehillim.  This chapter deals with Hashem being the Refuge, the Protector of mankind. This chapter is also customarily said at funerals.

The Yizkor tefillah is followed by a Keil Malei Rachamim. Most communities say a public “Keil Malei” for those who died in the Holocaust, and for the rabbanim of that community who are no longer alive. It’s special to pause before saying Yizkor and to think of the special character traits that these individuals had that we’d want to integrate into our own life.

The Netei Gavriel notes that it’s particularly beneficial, if possible, to say Yizkor in the shul where the deceased davened. If a person is unable to go to shul, he or she can say Yizkor at home; this tefillah doesn’t require a minyan to be recited.

It’s customary as well to light a yahrtzeit candle on days that Yizkor is recited, in memory of those that have died.  Each neshamah is referred to as a “candle of Hashem,” and lighting a candle in their memory brings a level of atonement to the souls as well.

Children Out

If the Yizkor service has such a powerful effect on the departed neshamos, why do those whose parents are still alive leave shul?

The most common reason, which Rav Elie Munk quotes, is that a person may accidently join with the Yizkor service, and our words create powerful effects, and we don’t want to “open our mouths for the satan.” Similarly, the Netei Gavriel notes, often one’s children and grandchildren are named after those who have died, and one doesn’t want to mistakenly mention their names, which might happen if they’re standing nearby. Likewise, there’s an element of ayin hara; people may look with jealousy at those whose parents are still alive.

The Netei Gavriel quotes the Levush Mordechai who offers a completely different approach. We don’t say Tachanun when a chassan is in shul during his week of sheva brachos since everyone needs to feel and be part of his simchah, and we don’t want to be sad and diminish the chassan’s simchah. Similarly, Yom Tov is a time of joy, and it’s inappropriate to negatively affect the simchah people feel. Therefore, those whose parents are alive leave the shul, so that they won’t be affected by the sadness that ensues when people say Yizkor.

Many who say Yizkor find crying and reliving memories to be a cathartic and uplifting process. It’s for this reason there are differing views about whether a person in their first year of mourning says Yizkor, as it may be too emotionally triggering for them.

Rav Ahron Soloveitchik, in his sefer Logic of the Mind, Logic of the Heart, offers a different perspective on Yizkor, and why it’s appropriate to say it on Yom Tov, whose main mitzvah motif is simchah.  He explains that simchah is different from “hollelus.” The latter is an escape from reality, while simchah is an experience of approaching reality and connecting with one’s inner self. Yizkor is about remembering the images of our loved ones, to integrate our pasts into our present. In so doing, one’s individuality is broadened, and we access deeper parts of ourselves that enhance the true simchah of the day.

What goes on behind those closed doors during Yizkor? Movement, lots of it. Souls can ascend to higher levels with the mention of their names and with tzedakah being donated in their honor. Likewise, those who are saying the tefillos recognize the preciousness of life and do teshuvah, becoming closer to Hashem and ultimately to their core selves.

What a powerful tefillah!


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 828)

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