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Rediscovering the Meaning of Yahrzeit

One of the most important but also neglected customs of the year is when we observe the Yahrzeit of a loved one.  It occurs with such frequency that we often will forget about the date altogether because we may have forgotten the Hebrew calendar date.

According to R. Solomon Freehoff, this circumstance is the principle reason why he thinks a secular date of death may be used lest the actual day of Yahrzeit be forgotten. Nevertheless, he encourages synagogues and rabbis to instruct people how to observe the traditional Yahrzeit based on the Hebrew calendar—a point that is pragmatic as it is effective. [1]

With the plethora of Jewish calendar programs available in Android, determining the Yahrzeit is no longer a daunting task. Yet, human laziness being what it is, it is still easy to overlook a Yahrzeit—whether one has a computerized program or not.

For some of us, the Yahrzeit date involves no great effort to remember—especially if our parents or loved ones died on a Jewish holiday.

On Purim of 1996, my father Leo Israel Samuel died as I was reading the Megillah at my old beloved congregation in Glens Falls, New York. As a Holocaust survivor, my father’s death left a lasting mark on many of my old congregants who remembered what happened that fateful evening—many of whom remembered speaking to my father who had lived with us during the last year of his life.

Yahrzeits are so personal—most of us have difficulty remember their own Yahrzeits, let alone someone else’s Yahrzeit.  However, this past week, I found myself deluged by dozens of Yahrzeit acknowledgements from people who remembered my father.  Someone had sent me with a beautiful Yahrzeit candle with an acknowledgement. I felt very touched and moved beyond words . . .

As a side note I want to add that as I thought about this experience I suddenly realized how valuable the Facebook website could be in helping people reconnect with old friends and family. It seemed as though the arms of the cyber community lifted me up and I realized that if it could lift me up, it can lift up other lives detached by geographical distance, but united in a spirit that transcends distance—and even time. Creating a web of cyber relationships can also help you expand your sphere of friendships and family many of us have lost touch with over the years. Facebook also can help us renew these old friendships–it is a forum where cyber-friends become almost like an extended family. This past year, I have also discovered many lost relatives bearing the same Samuel name–all through Facebook. No longer do we have to wait to see pictures in the mail of our grandchildren, with a keystroke, suddenly the pictures are there for everyone to see.

Jewish mystical teaches us that the death of a good man or woman represents a moment when the soul graduates to the next higher level of existence. At the time of death, the soul experiences a transcendent release enabling it to grow wings as  it ascends into the eternal reality of spirit. When a loved one dies on a Jewish holiday, this can have great spiritual significance. I remember many people I have helped buried as a rabbi, who passed away on Yom Kippur. According to Jewish legend and folklore, if your loved one dies on Yom Kippor, all of one’s sins are completely forgiven. As a Holocaust survivor who defied Hitler’s hoards with his body and soul, it seemed only apropos my father died on the day of Purim—a time recalling how our ancestors survived the Hitler of their time—Haman.

Rest in peace in the world of eternity—in a realm where suffering no longer has any bite or reality.



[1] Solomon Freehoff, Contemporary Reform Responsa (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1974), 1:168, 2:17.