Yartzeit, from Yiddish, means ‘time of year’. It is the term used to mean the anniversary of one’s death. Judaism does not explicitly instruct us to celebrate a Yartzeit, but it is a beautiful tradition that we have been celebrating for many years.
In Judaism when someone dies we light a memorial candle for them to remember their soul. A soul is compared to a flame, like it says in Proverbs 20:27, ‘Ner Hashem Nishmat Adam’, the human soul is G-D’s flame. It is interesting that we ‘celebrate’ a death, because Judaism actually puts enormous value on life. We value life so much that a person is not allowed to put his life in danger, and we can actually break the Sabbath in order to save somebody's life. G-D values life and he values people. So why would we be celebrating death? What is there to celebrate?
A Yartzeit is commemorated every year on the anniversary of a loved one’s passing. But lighting a candle is not just for the anniversary. We light a candle on the day they are buried. We have a candle burning all throughout the 7 days of mourning. And then we keep that flame burning for the whole first year after they died. When one candle burns out another one is immediately lit so there is always a candle burning. Nine-day candles are used for this purpose. That is quite a large supply of candles over a year.
Why exactly do we light a candle for the soul?
It is evident that even a little bit of light takes away a lot of darkness. The light brings warmth and comfort to the mourners, and a certain sense of gladness. It is hard to understand why people could be happy at all as they go through the pain of losing and missing their dearly departed. But then, we really need to understand what exactly death is.
Death is a celebration of life. When a person passes, we remember their life as a complete experience. We celebrate the connections they made with other people, experiences they’ve had, and the things they have accomplished. We think of all that they've done and seen, how they have influenced everyone they met in some way. The people who have passed away are not simply gone, they are remembered forever.
We light a candle every year on a Yartzeit, and four other times throughout the year- the ‘Yizkors’.
There are four Jewish holidays throughout the year when it is customary to go to the synagogue and recite the Yizkor- 'remembrance’ prayer, and the mourner's kaddish- hymn: Yom Kippur, the last day of Sukkot which is called Shemini Atzeret, the last day of Passover, and the second day of Shavuot. It is a prayer that is recited for the souls of one's mother or father who have passed away. We ask that G-D remember their souls, and in the merit of the charity that we vow to give, G-D bound up their soul “in the bond of life with the souls of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, and with the other righteous men and women who are in Gan Eden''. We light a candle before the start of the holiday, and when it is not Shabbat we can light a candle on the holiday at nightfall, from an existing flame.
We light the Yartzeit candle on the anniversary of death according to the Hebrew calendar. There are many online resources that help find the Hebrew date on the Gregorian calendar. The candle is lit at sundown on the eve of the Yartzeit and left to burn itself out. You can pick up a 24 candle in most supermarkets. Although some people have the tradition to use a candle made out of beeswax, it does not need to be any special candle.
There is no special prayer to recite when lighting the candle. You can recite the name of the person who passed, in this format: their name, the son/daughter of (here you would recite their father’s name) and then ask that their soul be elevated on high. We also recite psalms as a way of helping the soul on its journey towards G-D.
We light a candle for the soul of the departed, but we also light it for us, the ones who have been left behind.
Interestingly, while you would think the mourner's prayer would be about the deceased, it is actually words of praise for G-D. “Glorified and sanctified be G-D's great name throughout the world… May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity…” From this we learn that even while being sad about someone’s death and missing them, there is still room for joy. We are not supposed to be consumed with sadness, we are not supposed to mourn any more than what is proper and appropriate. We are commanded to mourn for somebody's death, but beyond that we are remembering their life. It is a celebration.
The candle represents the soul, and the soul got a chance to come down to earth and accomplish its mission here. We believe each soul is tasked with ‘Tikkun Olam’, repairing a broken world. Each soul comes down for a specified period of time to help other people, give charity, do kindness and find other ways to ‘fix’ what is broken. And when their mission is complete, their soul is returned to their Creator. In death, we are actually celebrating what they came here to accomplish and that they completed their journey.
Imagine a ship back in the day when people would come in their finest clothing to wave the ship off and wish them a good journey. It was exciting! The crew would break open a bottle of champagne for this first new journey on the sea. And when the boat returned there were people waiting there to welcome them back. It was a celebration, the ship returned from its voyage! It has completed its mission. When a person passes away, even though we may be sad for ourselves that they are physically gone from this world, we are happy that they were able to accomplish their mission here on earth and return to their maker after their journey. Even through sadness it is a time to be happy.
Lighting a candle gives solace and comfort to the mourners.
The soul of a Jew is a flame, so our flames have been dimmed when a loved one passes on. By lighting a candle in their memory we are actually rejuvenating our soul, causing lightness and gladness of heart. We give charity and do good deeds in their honor because a person who has passed can no longer do Mitzvot and get merit in this world. Any good deed that we do is for their memory and gives them merit on our behalf.
It is also customary to visit the gravesite of the deceased on their Yartzeit, and pray for the elevation of their soul. And while some people have a tradition to fast on a Yartzeit, others actually feast instead.
A Yartzeit is a beautiful and comforting tradition for people to celebrate the life and death of someone they have lost. It can be a day of reflection, of laughter and memories, and yes- tears. During Shiva, the mourning period following the burial, people bring food to the mourners. Food in Judaism, as in many traditions, is an act of comfort. It is literal sustenance for our bodies. The flame is a way to connect with something deeper, a part of our loved ones that we can no longer reach.
When you light the Yartzeit candle, you can be comforted knowing your loved one is where they are meant to be, and their soul is at peace. And as it says in the prayer we recite in front of the mourners during Shiva, “May the Omnipresent comfort you among the rest of the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”