by David Roth
Jews engage in numerous practices to commemorate a yahrtzeit for the anniversary of a relative’s passing, generally a first degree relative1 for whom one would observe mourning. What are these practices and on what date are they observed?
Determining the Date for a Yahrtzeit
The Shulchan Aruch2 rules that yahrtzeit is based on the day of death and not on the day of burial, unless, as is common, the mourner was present at the burial but not at the death. The Taz3 quotes from the Masas Binyamin that the first yahrtzeit should be observed on the anniversary of the day of the burial, because otherwise people will come to be confused with the end of the twelve month mourning period because they tend to assume the yahrtzeit is the end of the twelve month mourning period, but here it would be before the end of the twelve months, which are counted from the time of burial. However, in subsequent years the yahrtzeit should be observed on the day of the death. The Taz himself disagrees with the ruling of the Masas Binyamin, and argues that it is better to always observe the yahrtzeit on the day of the death. The Shach4 suggests a compromise: if the burial took place two days5 or more after the burial, the yahrtzeit should be observed in the first year on the day of the burial and in subsequent years on the day of the death. But if the burial took place on the day of the death or the next day, even the first yahrtzeit should be observed on the day of the death. The Pischei Teshuvah6 notes, however, that if the intervening year was a leap year, one should be able to observe the yahrtzeit on the day of death according to everyone, since the twelve months of mourning already ended almost a month ago. Customs vary regarding how to act in this regard, and you should ask your rabbi questions about appropriate practice.
Determining Date of Yahrtzeit in Special Situations
In which Adar does one observe yahrtzeit in a leap year? If the relative died in a leap year, one observes the yahrtzeit in another leap year according to whichever month the relative died in, and in a regular year one observes the yahrtzeit in the one Adar. The question is when a relative dies in a regular year, in which Adar would one observe the yahrtzeit in a leap year. In one place, the Shulchan Aruch7 rules that one should observe the yahrtzeit in the first Adar; in another place,8 he rules that one should observe the yahrtzeit in the second Adar. The Rama9 writes that the [Ashkenazic] custom is to observe the yahrtzeit in the first Adar, and that some people are stringent to observe the yahrtzeit in both months.10 If one’s relative dies on the first day of rosh chodesh of the second Adar in a leap year, meaning on the thirtieth of the first Adar, then since there is no thirtieth of Adar in a regular year, one observes yahrtzeit on the first day of rosh chodesh of Adar, meaning on the thirtieth day of Shvat.11 If one’s relative dies on the thirtieth of Marcheshvan, which can have either twenty-nine or thirty days, there is a major debate among the later authorities whether in a year which has only twenty-nine days whether one should observe the yahrtzeit on the twenty-ninth of the previous month, or on the first of the next month. The Mishnah Berurah12 rules that if in the next year following the death, Marcheshvan has only twenty-nine days, one should always observe the yahrtzeit on the twenty-ninth of Marcheshvan, but if the next year Marcheshvan has thirty days as well, one should observe the yahrtzeit on years when it has only twenty-nine days on the first of Kislev. The same would apply to Kislev, which can also have either twenty-nine or thirty days.13
If the person died in a different time zone than his relative, the yahrtzeit is determined based on the time and location of the person who died, independent of where the relatives may be.14
Some claim that a yahrtzeit is only observed for fifty years, but the common custom is to observe a yahrtzeit forever.15
There is a custom to light a candle for the yahrtzeit of a relative. This custom is mentioned in the Magen Avraham in a completely different context. The halacha states that when there is a great need, it is permitted to ask a non-Jew to perform a forbidden act at the beginning of Shabbos, after sunset but before it gets dark (tzeis ha’kochavim).16 The Magen Avraham17 says that since people are so careful about lighting a candle for their relatives’ yahrtzeit, it is considered a great need, such that one would be able to ask a non-Jew to do so at the beginning of Shabbos. It is also permitted to light the yahrtzeit candle on the night of yom tov, since he will benefit from its light, but he cannot light it during the daytime of yom tov, since that will not serve a purpose.18
Fasting on the Day of a Yahrtzeit
The Shulchan Aruch19 rules that it is proper to fast on the yahrtzeit of a parent. Furthermore, the Rama20 rules that one should not participate in a meal on the night of a yahrtzeit, even though the fast has not yet begun. However, the Pischei Teshuva21 quotes the Mekom Shemuel who limits this to abstaining from a meal for a wedding, but not for the meal of a bris, pidyon ha’ben or siyum. If the yahrtzeit falls on Shabbos or Rosh Chodesh, according to the Shulchan Aruch22 one would fast on Sunday, but according to the Rama,23 one need not fast at all in such a case. The Rama24 also adds that this is the halacha on any day on which Tachanun is not recited.
The Taz25 writes that if somebody is one of the key players in a bris – which generally includes the mohel, sandak and father of the boy – he is exempt from fasting. The Gesher Hachaim26 suggests that this should be extended to a siyyum; however, the Shach27 quotes from the Maharil that one should not eat at a siyum when he has yahrtzeit. The Gesher Hachaim28 suggests based on the Beis Lechem Yehuda that one can eat at his own siyum on a yahrtzeit, but should not partake at a siyum made by somebody else. Some say29 that learning two pages of gemara with the commentary of the Rosh is somehow equivalent to fasting, and one can fulfill the custom of fasting in such a manner.
The practice of fasting on a yahrtzeit is much less widespread today than it once was. The Minchas Yitzchak30 explains that since it is difficult for many people today to fast, many have the practice to instead sponsor a “tikkun” for the yahrtzeit, meaning that they provide food for everyone in their synagogue. By doing so, they gain the mitzvah of tzedaka (by giving this food to the poor), as the recitation of and answering “amen” to the blessings on the food, in memory of the deceased relative of sponsor.
There is a custom to learn mishnayos beginning with the letters of the name of the deceased relative.31 If the yahrtzeit falls on Shabbos, it is permissible to learn the mishnayos on that day,32 although some have the custom to learn the mishnayos on Friday.33
Visiting the Cemetery
Shulchan Aruch34 rules that when a wise person dies, we visit his grave at the end of twelve months. The custom has developed to visit the grave of any departed relative on his yahrtzeit.35 Some say that even one whose relatives are buried far away and will not be able to go them on the day of the yahrtzeit, should still go to another Jewish cemetery nearby.36 Some also say that even a kohen, who cannot enter a cemetery, should nevertheless go close to the cemetery.37 The custom is to recite Psalms chapters 32, 16, 17, 72, 91, 104 and 130 while at the cemetery;38 although normally it is not proper to perform mitzvos in a cemetery since the dead can no longer perform mitzvos, it is permitted to recite words of Torah in honor of the memory of the deceased even in the cemetery.39 The Chazon Ish is reported to have said that one who is learning full-time in yeshiva need not leave in order to visit his relative’s grave, but rather should learn extra that day.40
Reciting Kaddish and Leading Prayers
The Rama41 rules that one always recites kaddish on a yahrtzeit, and if he is able to, he should lead prayers as well.
In a place where only one person says kaddish,42 the Rama43 rules that somebody within shiva (the first seven days of mourning after the death of a relative) would take priority over a yahrtzeit; if there is somebody in sheloshim (the first thirty days of mourning after the death of a relative), the yahrtzeit gets one kaddish and the person in sheloshim gets the rest of the kaddeishim; and if there is somebody in the eleven-month period of saying kaddish for a parent, the yahrtzeit gets all of the kaddeishim. The Biur Halacha,44 however, rules that a yahrtzeit is entitled to one kaddish even in the presence of somebody in shiva, and that somebody in the eleven months of saying kaddish for a parent is entitled to certain kaddeishim which are external to the main part of the prayer service, such as shir shel yom. In any case, the Rama45 himself rules that if there is a varying local custom, we follow the local custom regarding the matters of how to distribute kaddish.
How do we determine who leads the prayer service? In general, the priorities for who recites kaddish apply to leading the prayer service as well. However, there is only one leader of every prayer service, so therefore it would follow that only the person with the highest level of priority to get a kaddish would be entitled to lead the prayer service, namely a yahrtzeit. However, R. Moshe Feinstein46 rules that the person in sheloshim has higher priority to lead the prayer services than the yahrtzeit, even though the yahrtzeit has higher priority to receive one kaddish.
Additionally, the Rama47 quotes the practice in many communities during the period of selichos, that the person who leads the services for selichos is entitled to lead all of the prayers for the entire day.48 The Mishnah Berurah49 quotes the Magen Avraham50 that he has priority even over a yahrtzeit. However, the Mishnah Berurah51 also brings the opinion of the Eliya Rabba and Pri Megadim that if the yahrtzeit is fasting he should be allowed to lead services even during the period of selichos.
The Rama52 also quotes a practice that when there is a bris (circumcision), the mohel (the one who performs the bris) leads the prayer service. The Shach53 questions if this is a correct practice to begin with, and he says that certainly if there is a mourner or a yahrtzeit, the mohel should not have priority over them to lead the services. However, it is clear from the Shach that the prevailing custom was indeed that the mohel does have priority over the mourners to lead services, and yahrtzeit would probably be the same halacha as a mourner.
There is also a custom that on the Shabbos before a yahrtzeit, one should receive the maftir aliyah,54 lead the services for Musaf, as well as the Maariv service immediately following Shabbos.55 Others have the custom that one leads all of the payer services on the Shabbos before a yahrtzeit.56 Also, the yahrtzeit is entitled to an aliyah on the Torah reading day which coincides, or precedes his yahrtzeit, and he should recite a Kel Malei prayer for the soul of his relative at the time of his aliyah.57 However, the prevalent custom is to recite the Kel Malei prayer on the Shabbos before the yahrtzeit, or earlier if necessary.58
Some have the practice to recite kaddish and lead services for their grandparents once their parents are no longer able to do so; however, they are not entitled to do so if that means that they will take these privileges away from other mourners present.59
As always, customs vary and you should ask your rabbi questions about appropriate practice.
A first degree relative is defined as a father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister and spouse (Shulchan Aruch YD 374:4). ↩
YD 402:12 ↩
YD 402:9 ↩
YD 402:10 ↩
His position about two days appears to be a little unclear; at one point he says a distance of three days or more, at another point he says “the day of the death or the next day.” My inclination is to read it that a delay of two days should be considered a long gap, and a gap of three or more days means three including both the days of death and burial themselves, such that one should observe the first yahrtzeit on the day of the burial. ↩
YD 402:3 ↩
YD 402:12 ↩
OC 568:7 ↩
OC 568:7 ↩
Mishnah Berurah (MB) 568:42 rules, however, that in a place where only one person says kaddish, he is only entitled to a kaddish in the place of other mourners in one month. Presumably this would be the case for having priority to lead the prayer services as well. See also Gesher Hachaim, volume 1, 32:10 who brings both opinions of the Rama and says that the common practice is to observe yahrtzeit only in the first Adar. ↩
MB 568:42; Gesher Hachaim, volume 1, 32:10. ↩
MB 568:42 ↩
See also Gesher Hachaim, volume 1, 32:11, who rules basically like MB, although he concludes that when he observes yahrtzeit on the twenty-ninth, if there are no other mourners from whom he would take kaddish, it is proper to recite kaddish and lead services on the first of the following month as well. ↩
Gesher Hachaim, volume 1, 32:14. See however Penei Baruch 39:40 who cites other opinions as well. ↩
Nitei Gavriel, volume 2, 77:22 ↩
Shulchan Aruch 261:1 ↩
OC 261:6 ↩
Gesher Hachaim, volume 1, 32:4. One could argue that this does not apply nowadays when the house is fully lit on Yom Tov night with electric lights. Also, this is difficult for the Penei Baruch, chapter 39, footnote 33, who says that the real reason that one should be allowed to one to ask a non-Jew to light a yahrtzeit candle at the beginning of Shabbos is because it is considered a melacha she’eina tzericha l’gufa (an act for a purpose different than that in the mishkan, which is only forbidden Rabbinically), and therefore it should be permitted based on the principle of shevus d’shevus b’makom mitzva (a double Rabbinic act is permitted in order to perform a mitzva), but according to this, he does benefit from the light. The last answer in Biur Halacha 514 d”h ner shel batala could possibly be a resolution to our problem. ↩
YD 102:12 and OC 568:1 and 568:7. ↩
YD 391:3 ↩
YD 391:8 ↩
OC 568:9 ↩
OC 568:5 ↩
YD 246:27 ↩
Nitei Gaviel, volume 2, 72:6 ↩
Minchas Yitzchak 6,135. See also Nitei Gavriel, volume 2, 72:1. ↩
Gesher Hachaim, volume 1, 32:3; Penei Baruch 39:13; Nitei Gavriel, volume 2, 71:10. ↩
Gesher Hachaim, volume 1, 32:3; Penei Baruch 39:14 ↩
Gesher Hachaim, volume 1, 32:3; Penei Baruch 39:14 ↩
YD 344:20 ↩
Gesher Hachaim, volume 1, 29:1 and 32:5. He also cites the Tiferes Yisrael in Eduyos 2:6, but there appears to an issue with the girsa (textual variant) there. ↩
Nitei Gavriel, volume 2, 76:10 ↩
Nitei Gavriel, volume 2, 76:11 ↩
Gesher Hachaim, volume 1, 29:3 and 32:5. ↩
Shulchan Aruch 344:17 ↩
Nitei Gavriel, volume 2, 76:3 ↩
YD 376:4 ↩
The custom in most communities in the past was that only one person said each kaddish. This is clear for Rama (YD 376:4), Taz (YD 376:4), Shach (YD 376:7-13), as well as Biur Halacha (132), from the fact that they are discussing who has priority to say which kaddish. In his responsa, the Chasam Sofer (OC 1:159) strongly defends this practice, and argues that a kaddish said by more than one person will not have much of an effect for the soul of the person who has died. I have also observed that when R. Hershel Schachter has yahrtzeit, he prefers to not say kaddish at all, rather than to say kaddish with somebody else. Nonetheless, the custom in most places today has become to allow all of the mourners to recite kaddish together, as mentioned in the Pischei Teshuva (YD 376:6) in the name of the Divrei Igeres and the Halachos Ketanos. I have also seen a practice that in general everyone says kaddish together, but when there is a yahrtzeit he gets a kaddish on his own. I cannot find any source for this practice, but I suspect it is a carryover from the original practice of only one person saying kaddish at all times. ↩
YD 376:4 ↩
Biur Halacha 132 ↩
YD 391:3 ↩
Igros Moshe YD 4:60 ↩
OC 581:1 ↩
There is a debate among the commentaries on the Shulchan Aruch if this is coming to include just Shacharis and Mincha, or if it even includes Maariv the night before, see MB 581:14. ↩
OC 581:7 ↩
YD 265:11 ↩
YD 265:23 ↩
However, some insist that he should not receive maftir, but rather one of the seven main aliyos, see the second opinion in the Penei Baruch 39:12. ↩
Gesher Hachaim, volume 1, 32:2 ↩
Penei Baruch 39:2 ↩
Gesher Hachaim, volume 1, 32:2 ↩
Kol Bo Al Aveilus, 5:4:21 ↩
Matte Efraim, dinei kaddish yasom, shaar 3, seif 14; Penei Baruch 39:8; and Nitei Gavriel, volume 2, 70:12 ↩