Nizahker Venikatev

Nizakher Venikatev: A Reflective Guide for Yizkor

Yizkor, the memorial service for the deceased, is recited four times a year: at Shemini Atzeret (just after Sukkot), Passover, Shavuot, and Yom Kippur. The service is especially resonant on Yom Kippur, a day on which the boundaries between life and death are blurred: We wear white (the color of burial shrouds), refrain from eating and drinking, recite the Vidui, and contemplate our own mortality. Yizkor is intended particularly for those who have lost a close relative (parent, child, sibling, or spouse), though it is also a time to hold in our hearts all who once walked this earth and no longer do. Some people whose parents are still living have the custom of leaving the sanctuary during Yizkor (so as not to tempt the “Evil Eye” and bring misfortune on their families), while others remain present to support the community of mourners. 

Dr. Ron Wolfson writes, “Yizkor always seemed to be the climax of Yom Kippur day. The shul was crowded with people all day long, but it was packed at Yizkor time. There was something about this mysterious, awe-inspiring service that drew people. It was the pull of remembrance.” Have you participated in a Yizkor service in person before? What was it like? Do you feel this “pull of remembrance” on the High Holy Days?

For those who have lost a loved one, holidays can be an especially challenging time as we remember past occasions celebrated together. If you have lost someone in your life, spend a few moments thinking back on your time together. Did you observe holidays with one another? Was there a specific holiday that your loved one enjoyed? Write down a few memories on a piece of paper and imagine your loved one sitting with you this Yom Kippur. Consider carrying this paper with you during the Yizkor service.

A major component of Yizkor is pledging to give tzedakah (charity) in honor of the deceased. Why do you think that giving charity is part of the remembrance process? Were there certain causes that your loved one cared about? If you are able, consider donating in their memory before Yom Kippur. What are other ways that you can continue your loved one’s work in the world?

Mahzor Lev Shalem includes a Yizkor meditation by Robert Saks in memory of a parent who was hurtful (p. 292). “Help me, O God,” the prayer asks, “to subdue my bitter emotions that do me no good, and to find that place in myself where happier memories may lie hidden, and where grief for all that could have been, all that should have been, may be calmed by forgiveness, or at least soothed by the passage of time.” Do you connect with this prayer? Is it challenging to remember with fondness certain people in your life? How do you balance the desire to memorialize a lost relative with the desire to let go of harm they may have done? The meditation ends with a prayer that God “liberate me from the oppression of my hurt and anger.” How can the Yizkor ritual help you to overcome hurt and anger?

Rabbinical student Maya Zinkow writes of a traditional Eastern European folk ritual in which Jewish women would visit cemeteries prior to Yom Kippur, measuring the circumference of certain headstones with string and then using that string as wick for memorial candles. During Kol Nidre, these “soul candles” would light the synagogue, carrying the memory of lost loved ones, martyrs, and biblical patriarchs and matriarchs into the Yom Kippur service. Imagine that you are in a synagogue lit by soul candles. What does it look like? What does it feel like? How does this ritual help you to connect with the generations before us? (For more information on this ritual, see Sarah Bas Tovim’s tkhines in Voices of the Matriarchs by Chava Weissler.) If you have the ability, bring a piece of string with you to a loved one’s grave or to a site that was important to them. Wrap the string around the headstone or another object in the area. Place the string alongside a traditional Yizkor candle in your home, close to where you plan to pray during Yom Kippur. How do the candle and string add to your experience of the holy day?

As part of the Yizkor service, many communities chant Psalm 23. Listen to the psalm here. What emotions does it evoke? Why do you think this psalm was chosen as one of comfort in the face of loss?

It may be particularly challenging to recite Yizkor this year, since we can’t be together in person. Remember that people all over the city and the country are saying these prayers alongside you. During Yizkor, we are still a community of the bereaved, even from a distance. How can you connect with others who are remembering loved ones, on Yom Kippur and during the rest of the year?

For Families and Kids:

Saying goodbye to someone you love can be very hard. Talk to your parents about what it is like to say goodbye to a relative or friend who has died.

Think about your grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents, great-great-great-grandparents, and all of the generations that came before them. Can you imagine what they were like? What their lives were like every day? What do you wish you could say to the people who came before you?