Yizkor: A four part guide

A four-part guide to understanding, observing and touching the depth of one of Yom Kippur’s peak moments

For many people, Yizkor, is the number one reason why they attend synagogue on Yom Kippur. The word yizkor literally means to remember, and Yizkor is a time-honored way for people to remember close family members who have passed away. Yizkor, however, is about far more than just memory. Yizkor is a gateway into some of the deepest Jewish insights into the soul, the nature of the afterlife, and the relationship between our reality in this world, and the world beyond.

What follows is a very brief overview of the Jewish understanding of the soul, the Afterlife, the inner meaning of Yizkor, and a glimpse into the life of a remarkable man, my brother, Uncle Harry.

 Part I: The Soul and the Afterlife

The Soul Lives On

The essence of every human life is the the soul. After death, the soul lives on. Yizkor is about life, death and eternity; about the core mission we all share to bring light, life, kindness and goodness into this often dark and cruel world; about the transcendent bond and timeless connection between you and someone you loved, and still do. Yizkor is far more than a ritual or prayer. Yizkor is a gift from your soul in this world, to the soul of your loved one, in the next world.

The Soul and Life

Each of us is a synthesis of physical and spiritual; body and soul. The Hebrew word for soul is neshama and is derived from the word nishima, meaning “breath.” When God created the first human being, He “breathed” a soul into the physical body. This breath of God is the source and essence of the soul.

Throughout life—day in and day out—we are all confronted with interests, urges and inclinations that are rooted in the body and the soul. The body is interested in physical pleasures; you know, stuff like a Mocha Cookie Crumble Frappuccino with a slice of Blueberry Oat Bar, a good back scratch, or a nap on the couch. The soul, on the other hand, is interested in deeper pleasures; like meaning, helping someone in need, making a difference in a child’s life, and ultimately, a spiritual connection to God.

The following announcement is really super-duper important:

Judaism does not relate to the body and the enjoyment of physical pleasures as inherently bad, as a necessary evil, or as something to be avoided at all costs. Other religions may look down on physical pleasure, but not your religion.  Likewise, Judaism does not view the soul and the realm of the spiritual as the exclusive domain in which to live life. The Torah (also known as the Bible or the Five Books of Moses) teaches us that people are created “In the image of God.” This means that just like God breathed spiritual life into an inanimate physical body, in a sense, we can do the same. In Jewish life, we don’t run away from the body, we refine it. Whether it’s good food, sexuality, or relaxing on a sandy beach, Judaism views life as an ongoing challenge to elevate the body and infuse the physical with the spiritual. In Jewish life, physical urges are not shunned or starved, rather they are refined and uplifted by harnessing and experiencing them in a spiritual context. As we saw earlier in chapter xx, the body can be viewed as a horse, while the soul is the rider. The definitive question of life is; who is leading whom, and in what direction is ones life headed?

 

The Soul and Death

For many people, any ideas they might have about the Afterlife come from films like The Sixth Sense, Angels in America or Field of Dreams. (I must admit, Field of Dreams gets to me every time I watch it.) If you are like most Jews today, you probably have no clue about what Judaism has to say about the Afterlife. Here is a very concise summary of a very big topic: To begin with, let’s just assume that anything you may have heard about heaven and hell has nothing to do with Jewish belief, at all. Okay, so then what does Judaism believe in?

Judaism sees life as a shared body-soul experience. The pivotal issue, as we said, is which of the two is the most influential in shaping our lives. Will one’s life be primarily defined by the body, while the soul is relegated to brief cameo appearances, or will the soul be the star of the show with the body playing a wonderful supporting role? The soul that has been breathed into every one of us is a priceless gem that becomes even more refined and sparkling when we choose to live a soul-directed life. If, on the other hand, one lives more of a body-centered life, the soul atrophies, so to speak. It loses some of its shine.

 

Disclaimer: The terms and imagery used in this section is not meant to be taken literally, rather it is an attempt to convey a feeling for realities that lay beyond the horizon of our complete comprehension.

 

The nature of the body is that it decays and dies. The soul, however, lives on. When the soul departs the body it enters a spiritual world known as Olam ha’bah, the “World to Come,” where the deep pleasure of pure spirituality is infinitely more manifest than it is in the physical world.  As the soul transitions into the spiritual world, it does so with both it’s beautiful, well-developed features, and the unsightly atrophied features it acquired in the physical world. In the World to Come, the soul steps in front of a spiritual full-length mirror where it has a deep realization of everything good and meaningful it achieved in the physical world. The result is a profound experience of closeness to God. This experience is what Judaism calls “reward.”  To fully experience the reward of this spiritual dimension, the soul needs to rehabilitate the limbs that became atrophied. The realization that the soul lost the opportunity to fulfill so much of it’s potential in the physical world, and the subsequent rehabilitation process, are what Judaism calls “punishment.”

Physical and spiritual, good and evil, deep and superficial, and productive and destructive actions all have their place in this world. In the life of this world, one can always grow, change, improve and live a more soul-focused life. After all, that’s what Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are all about. After death, the time for achieving has passed. What’s done is done. Nonetheless, there remains a way, a powerful way, that the soul can gain new levels of elevation even after death. The living, particularly children, as well as other relatives, have the ability to enhance the condition of a departed soul in the afterlife. This is where Yizkor comes in.

 

Yizkor and Kindness: Elevating the Soul, the Self and the World

Yizkor is founded on two fundamental Jewish beliefs. Firstly, that the prayers and actions of people in this world can have an elevating, spiritual effect on the souls of the departed. Secondly, a primary mission in every person’s life is to make the world a kinder, better, more beautiful place. In Jewish life, this pursuit of goodness and kindness is known as olam chesed yibaneh, “to build a world of kindness.”

Yizkor is a beautiful expression of these ideas. The central element of Yizkor is the commitment to make a charitable donation in honor of one’s departed relative. By making this commitment, you are affirming the belief that God wants us to do what we can to alleviate the suffering of others and to help other people reach their own unique potential. When you make an effort to help someone else, and do so in honor of a departed relative, then that person becomes the motivating cause behind your act of kindness. The result is threefold; you become a better, more giving person, the departed soul of your relative is elevated, and the recipient benefits from your kindness and generosity.

 

So, now that you know absolutely everything there is to know about the soul and Afterlife, here is the basic information you need to know about Yizkor itself.

 

Yizkor Part II: Just the Basics

 

  1. The word yizkor means “to remember” and refers to a special prayer said on behalf of family members who have passed away.
  2. Yizkor is an opportunity for living relatives to have an elevating, spiritual impact on the soul of a departed loved one. For the person saying yizkor, this is an important time for reflection and contemplation.
  3. In addition to Yom Kippur, Yizkor is also said on the holidays of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot.
  4. One begins saying Yizkor on the first holiday after the person passed away.
  5. Yizkor can be recited on behalf of any relative, though people are most meticulous to say it on behalf of those for whom kaddish is said: parents, children, siblings and spouse.
  6. It is customary for one who will be reciting Yizkor, to light a candle at home before sunset at the beginning of the holiday. Ideally the candle stays lit for the entire day. There are special twenty-four hour candles known as Yartzeit candles that can be purchased in Jewish bookstores, Kosher grocery stores and often in the Kosher section of your local supermarket. If Yizkor will be recited on Saturday (Shabbat), the candle must be lit on Friday afternoon before sunset.
  7. There are two parts to yizkor: 1) A brief prayer for the departed and 2) A commitment to give charity (tzedaka) on behalf of the deceased persons soul. In addition to a monetary donation, one can also commit to donate time to a charitable cause.
  8. It is very common for people who do not regularly attend synagogue to do so in order to participate in the Yizkor service. There is nothing hypocritical about this, in fact, the effort to say Yizkor is a beautiful statement of respect for a departed relative. Judaism is not an all-or-nothing affair. Whatever you do, whenever you do it, is meaningful. Sure, the more the merrier, but one step at a time is always fine.
  9. Though the Yizkor Service is brief, it is customary for all congregants other than those who will be saying Yizkor, to leave the synagogue while it is said.
  10. If there is no synagogue where one lives, or if it is difficult to attend synagogue, one may say Yizkor privately at home.
(The same is true for all the prayers of Yom Kippur. No synagogue? No way to get to one? No problem. God makes house calls, on Yom Kippur, and every day.)

            For more about Yizkor and Kaddish visit mykaddish.com

 

Yizkor Part III: Creating a Personal Journal of Reflection

 

God remembers every little thing, all the time. But we don’t.

I’d like to suggest that you create a personal Yizkor Journal of Reflection for family members that have passed away. The purpose of this journal is twofold: first, it can deepen your lifelong connection with your relative, and second, your journal will become a means through which you can connect children, grandchildren and other family members with a relative who they may never have known. This journal is not meant to be a detailed family tree or geneology project. Rather, it is an informal way of keeping meaningful family memories and stories alive.  To do this, all you need is Mocrosoft Word, or, if you prefer the more personal touch, an old fashioned spiral notebook and pen. No one is going to grade your writing, so incomplete sentences, bits-and-pieces of stories, partial memories and not so much perfectly well grammar is okay too.

Here are the essential ingredients for your journal:

1) Personal Information.

  • Your relatives name, including his or her Hebrew name if you know it.
  • Names of spouse, children, parents and siblings. Anything you don’t know, don’t worry about. Remember, this is meant to be simple.
  • Any other personal information you know. Place and date (even approximate) of birth, where they lived, occupation, date when they passed away, where they are buried.
  • Five to ten words that best describe the person. Begin with the good stuff and then you can throw in a few worts if you want.

2) Quick Bits of Information, such as—

  • Hobbies and interests
  • Passions, cause(s) they were committed to, organizations they belonged to.
  • Favorite team, movie, performing artist, book, place to vacation etc.
  • Fill in the blank:—

The most important thing in the world to her was                       .

The thing he had no patience for was                    .

Her favorite thing to do was                        .

What I most loved about him                      .

3) Stories.

  • Your favorite personal story about the person.
  • Best story you heard about him or her from someone else.
  • Fill in the blank: I’ll never forget the time that                              .
  • Any stories about their childhood, high school or college days.
  • Most important of all: Stories that can serve as a source of inspiration for family members.
  • You can also email other family members, tell them what you are doing and solicit stories and anecdotes.

 

Yizkor Part IV: Choose Life: In Memory of My Brother

 

Eons ago, when I was dating my wife, I told her that my younger brother Harry was my hero. You see, Harry was a drug addict. And, if you are an addict, or love someone who is, then you know that it is a life long battle, perhaps the hardest battle any person could ever face. Then, and now, my brother was the embodiment of what I consider to be the most important commandment in all of Judaism. And what commandment is that? The commandment to “choose life.”  In one way or another, it’s life that we reflect on over and over again during the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. Throughout your prayer book you will find the phrases “remember us for life” and “inscribe us for life” popping up all over the place. Beneath it all, life is arguably the core focus of these holidays. You see, there is only one time in the entire Torah when we are told to make a choice, and the choice we are asked to make is life.

 

I place before you today life and death. Choose life.

Source

When one chooses to be a giver, rather than a taker, one is choosing life. When one chooses honesty and integrity where deceit and duplicity are just as available, one is choosing life. When one chooses to be loyal to a friend when everyone else is abandoning that person, one is choosing life. When one chooses commitment and consistency despite a track record of procrastination and half-hearted efforts, one is choosing life. And, when an addict chooses clean-and-sober, he or she is very literally choosing life.

My brother lived a remarkable life. A life filled with soaring goodness, and with great darkness. A life of many struggles, of failure and of triumph. A life of sadness and joy, and a life in which he had a dramatic impact on the lives of others. Anyone who knew him will tell you that Harry didn’t just light up a room, he lit up the world.

(The inscription on his grave is on page xx)

 

I would like to share a few stories with you about my brother.

 

  1. The Guy on the Couch

As a person who had hit bottom himself, Harry would go out of his way to reach out to those whose lives were hanging by a thread. “Whose that sleeping on the couch Dad?” was a question Harrys’ daughter asked more than once. And the answer could be Carlos, Craig, Jermaine, or even Turtle. You see, though Harry wore big funny looking glasses with thick lenses, those lenses were blind to color, religion, social standing or anything else that often separates people from one another. Harrys’ couch always had a vacancy sign flashing over it. He saved many lives, some on numerous occasions.

 

  1. The Butcher

During Shiva, (the traditional seven day mourning period) a family friend went to the local kosher butcher to buy something for my parents. When the butcher heard that Harry had passed away, he told the person the following: “For years, when Harry would come in, in addition to paying for his kosher bison or venison, he would give me an extra hundred dollars and tell me to deduct from the bill of someone who was having trouble paying.”

After hearing that, Harrys’ wife recalled that even when he was very sick and unable to work any longer, he would tell me to tell the butcher to deduct money from peoples’ accounts and that when he got well enough again to work, he would pay the butcher back. After shiva I went to see how much Harry owed. “Forget about it,” was all the teary-eyed butcher could manage to say.

 

  1. Money in a Prayer Book

Harry and his family were once on vacation in the Dominican Republic. They wanted to find a synagogue and meet some local Jews. When they got to the synagogue, no one was there. They looked around a bit and then Harry took a prayer book off a shelf, tucked a hundred dollar bill inside, and put the book back on the shelf. Why? “Because at the right time, I’m sure someone who really needs that money, will find it.”

 

  1. Tzitzit

Harry wasn’t a “religious” Jew, per se, but he certainly was a holy one. Once, when visiting us, our five-year-old son Baruch innocently asked, “Uncle Harry, why don’t you wear tzitzit*?”

Harrys’ honest answer was, “I’m too lazy.”

Later, when Harry returned home, he said to himself, “What kind of example is that to set for my nephew? That if you are too lazy to do a mitvah, you don’t have to do it?” So, just like that, Harry went out and bought tzitzit, and he wore them every day for the rest of his life.

 

  1. Gone Fishin’

Harry loved to fish. Growing up, he and I often went fishing with our only uncle, my mothers’ brother. Uncle Al lived to fish, and long past childhood, he and Harry had a special bond.

When Harry was near the end, he started to say, “When I croak, I’m goin’ fishin’ with Uncle Al.” Harry died on a Saturday morning, Shabbat. That Saturday night was significant for two reasons. It was beginning of the first day in a new Jewish month, and it was also the Yartzeit, the anniversary of the passing, of Uncle Al. Every Jewish month has a symbol.

The symbol for Adar is two fish.

 

When Harry passed away, one of his oldest friends, Lee, flew from Colorado to Cleveland to be with our family. I’ll never forget when Lee said to me, “You know how they say about certain people that after God made him, He threw away the mold? Well, with Harry, there never was a mold to begin with, because he was able to recreate himself every day.”

And isn’t that what these holidays are about?

The essential belief that no matter what transpired last year, or yesterday, that we always have the ability to begin again, and, today, right now, to choose life.

 

Yizkor Part V. The Yizkor Prayer Service

 

The central element of Yizkor Service is the commitment to make a charitable donation in honor of one’s departed relative. When you make an effort to help someone else, and do so in honor of a departed relative, then that person becomes the motivating cause behind your act of kindness. The result is threefold; the departed soul of your relative is elevated, you a more giving person, and the recipient benefits from your kindness and generosity.

 

When saying Yizkor, you include the name of the deceased. It is ideal to use the persons’ Hebrew name, though if you don’t know it, then you can certainly use the English name. If there is a relative who might know the Hebrew name, give him a call, write the name on this page, and then you will have it in years to come. If you are using the Hebrew name then the way to say it is by first stating the name of the deceased followed by the word ben (son of) or bat (daughter of), and then say his or her fathers’ name.

For example:

For a woman: Sarah bat Yacov

For a man: Avraham ben Moshe

 

The English text of Yizkor will go here.

 

Yizkor For One’s Father

Yizkor: May God remember
the soul of my father, my teacher—insert name of deceased here—who has gone on to his world, 
because, without making a vow, I will give to charity on his behalf.

As reward for this, and in his merit, 
may his soul be bound in the Bond of Life, 
together with the souls of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; 
Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah; 
and together with the other righteous men and women in the Garden of Eden.

Now let us respond: Amen.

 

Yizkor For One’s Mother

Yizkor: May God remember
the soul of my mother, my teacher—insert name of deceased here—who has gone on to her world, 
because, without making a vow, I will give to charity on her behalf.

As reward for this, and in his merit, 
may her soul be bound in the Bond of Life, 
together with the souls of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; 
Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah; 
and together with the other righteous men and women in the Garden of Eden.

Now let us respond: Amen.

 Yizkor For Other Relatives

Yizkor: May God remember
the soul of my relative,—insert name of deceased here—who has gone on to her (or his) world, 
because, without making a vow, I will give to charity on her/his behalf.

As reward for this, and in his merit, 
may her/his soul be bound in the Bond of Life, 
together with the souls of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; 
Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah; 
and together with the other righteous men and women in the Garden of Eden.

Now let us respond: Amen.

 

 

 

Yizkor For Victims of the Holocaust & Muslim Terror

Yizkor: May God remember
the souls of the innocent men, women and children; individuals, families and communities, the holy and pure ones
who were killed, murdered, cruelly experimented upon, slaughtered, blown-up, burned, gassed, strangled, and beheaded solely because they were Jews,
for the sanctification of the Name,
because, without making a vow, I shall give to charity on their behalf.

As reward for this, and in their merit, 
may their souls be bound in the Bond of Life, 
together with the souls of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; 
Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah; 
and together with the other righteous men and women in the Garden of Eden.

Now let us respond: Amen.

 

Yizkor For Members of the Israeli Defense Forces

Yizkor: May God remember
the souls of the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces
who gave their lives
for the sanctification of the Name, for the defense of the Jewish People, and for the Land of Israel;
who died a heroic death
in missions of liberation, defense and security.

They were quicker than eagles and stronger than lions
as they volunteered to defend Am Yisroel, the Jewish people,
and who, with their pure blood, soaked
the soil of our holy Land. The memory of their self-sacrifice
and heroic deeds
will never perish from us.

Without making a vow, I shall give to charity on their behalf.

As reward for this, and in their merit, 
may their souls be bound in the Bond of Life, 
together with the souls of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; 
Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah; 
and together with the other righteous men and women in the Garden of Eden.

Now let us respond: Amen.

 Rachel: some soft ornamental treatment before and after the following

 

May this chapter be an eternal merit for the soul of my brother

Harry Apisdorf

Herschel Avraham z’l ben Dovid HaLevi

1 Comment

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