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Reconnecting with those loved and lost

  • remember
“Not long ago I was one of those young people who automatically left shul for the mysterious Yizkor. Now I have joined that exclusive group that has parted with a parent. It’s sobering to be reminded that everyone standing outside still has their parents,” says Chaya S*.
by ELIANA CLINE | May 25, 2017

With Shavuot this coming week, many - like Chaya S - are reminded that this is one of four times a year that they get to say Yizkor, when only those who stay inside have lost a loved one.

For some, Yizkor is the number one reason they attend shul on Yom Kippur. Yizkor is also said on the last days of the three festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Succot. 

The word yizkor means to remember; the Yizkor service is a time-honoured way for people to remember close family members who have passed away.

Yizkor comprises two components. The first is a prayer in the name of the deceased. The second and main component is the private pledge to give charity following the holiday, in honour of the deceased.

The poignancy of Yizkor makes it an emotionally evocative experience for many. It also offers a profound and tangible connection to their loved ones.

“I haven’t missed Yizkor in over 20 years. I am not a big shul-goer, but Yizkor is important. It’s hard and painful, but there is comfort in it. It’s saying that no matter how many years pass, we still love and honour and miss their souls,” says Leanne Silver.

 “It is a beautiful gift, time carved out during the prayer service on Yomtov for deep connection, recollection and acknowledgement of my parents. During Yizkor my parents feel close to me, they glow large in my heart and I know I am still their child, a product of their love, sweat and tears,” says Wendy Hendler.

Some appreciate that there is a designated time to feel close to the departed within the cycle of the Jewish year.

“The first time was very painful. On the other hand, it’s nice to have something concrete to do. It’s something that connects us to a world that we have no access to. After the seven days of mourning, you have to remember this person in your own time,” says Yoni Matthers.

“It reconnects me with my parents and my late brother who died fighting for Israel, to whom I was very close. I think about them right through the year, but more deeply at Yizkor time. Then we go back to our regular days; you can’t grieve all the time,” says Naomi C.

For others, Yizkor is a painful encounter with the stark reality of loss.

“I lost my dad at a very young age, and lost my mom when I was older. It’s a really hard experience watching everyone leave shul and seeing that you are one of the youngest people there. I have never really understood the meaning of Yizkor; I don’t go by choice; I find it really draining,” says Klara Diamond.

The communal aspect is also significant - the sense of solidarity can be sobering and comforting.

“There is feeling of togetherness with all the people around me that stay in the shul,” says Naomi C.

Yizkor, however, is far more profound than remembering loved ones. What is the source of this mysterious and moving service? Rooted in the ashes of destruction, the service offers a deep insight to the purpose of mankind. 

Origins of Yizkor
Yizkor originated in the 11th century following the devastation of Rhineland Jewry during the Crusades in Germany. In the aftermath, Hazkarat Neshamot (Commemoration of the Souls) emerged as a communal ritual on Yom Kippur, remembering the mass destruction.

The Polish Jews extended its recital from Yom Kippur to include the last days of the three festivals. Yizkor was gradually transformed into a ritual to remember and redeem souls of deceased loved ones and became formalised into the holiday liturgy. Yizkor remains an Ashkenazi tradition; the majority Sephardic synagogues do not say this prayer. 

A spiritual gift to the departed
Beyond the psychologically stirring dimension, Yizkor is founded on the fundamental Jewish belief that the soul is eternal and that the living can elevate the soul of the departed.

Even though one’s ability to grow spiritually ends once the soul leaves the body, the living - particularly children - have the ability to enhance the condition of a departed soul in the afterlife through good deeds and prayer.

The central element of Yizkor is the commitment to give charity. By giving charity, we are performing a positive, physical deed in this world which is something that the departed can no longer do. The soul then gains additional merit as loved ones have been inspired to do good in their memory.

Yizkor is an opportunity for living relatives to have a positive spiritual impact on the soul of a departed loved one.

In this context, Yizkor is far more than a ritual or prayer. For those saying Yizkor, understanding its depth makes it an intensely meaningful and affirming experience.

“I re-evaluate myself in terms of whether the life I am living honours them, what they stood for and taught me, the values they worked so hard to imbue within me,” says Wendy Hendler. “I pray that my actions are fit to allow their souls to rise to a higher plane of existence in the world of truth, closer to the Divine Presence.

“I recommit to living in greater alignment with the mitzvot, to strengthen my connection to Hashem and His mitzvot and to giving tzedakah in the knowledge that it is only through the actions of their children that my beloved parents’ neshomos can become elevated each year. It is an awesome responsibility and a labour of love,” she says.

While painful and solemn, Yizkor is a beautiful and eternal gift from your soul in this world, to the soul of your loved one, in the next world and an awesome reminder of what is eternal. 

*Some of the names have been changed as the people did not want to be identifi

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