Yizkor—is it dead and buried?

The saying of Yizkor, apart from Yom Kippur (which is mentioned in the Medrash Tanchuma), is a more recent custom. It became part of the Ashkenazi liturgy probably during the time of the crusades in the 1400’s. The Rabbis specifically instituted it to be (outside of Israel) on the second day of Yom Tov. Why not the first day of Yom Tov? Clearly it was felt that by setting it the second day, this would encourage those who were vacillating about whether to attend the service on the second day to do so. Of course, Reform (who like to consider themselves and call themselves) progressive, just dismiss the second day of Yom Tov and banish it to an ordinary day no different in “holiness” to a non-Jewish ordinary day.

There is no requirement to say Yizkor with a minyan of ten males (or females I guess if you are Reformed). We don’t say Kaddish at Yizkor. It is a moment of vocal and silent contemplation during which one lists those who are to be remembered in one’s family and give charity in their merit.

There has always been a disagreement as to whether someone whose parents are alive leaves the Shule during Yizkor. Our family Minhag (like many) is to never stay inside during Yizkor if one’s parent(s) are alive.

During the first year of mourning after a parent, there are also divergent customs. Some say that the mourner stays inside for Yizkor but remains silent, whilst others leave the Shule until Yizkor has concluded and then re-enter (our Minhag)

Over time, special extra Yizkor prayers were added for those who were murdered during tragedies such as the Holocaust.

Jews of Sephardi origin never had the custom to say Yizkor, except on Yom Kippur. They were less influenced by their neighbours and I surmise their Rabbis didn’t need to insert Yizkor in order to cajole them to come to a Jewish service. They came anyway.

In truth, the first Yizkor (after my father ע’’ה) was on Pesach this year. I was planning to attend Elwood Shule, however, I was asked to make up a minyan (and be the sole Cohen for the priestly blessings) for someone who was too ill to attend Shule, and I said Yizkor in his house. My second Yizkor, the first in a formal Shule, was to be Shavuos, and I was planning on attending Elwood Shule again (my father’s Shule). However, I have bouts of plantar fasciitis which occasionally flair up, and had been at the Orthotist on Erev Shavuos because it had caused me pain. I went to Yeshivah Shule, which is closer, as a result. I stood there, while the Shule was engulfed in silence, each person uttering their personal Yizkors. My father used to daven there in the evenings, and had a seat there as well as Elwood.

Strangely, I was not moved. I had been more engrossed in refamiliarising myself with Megillas  Ruth!

I (over) think about my father regularly, either with tears, memories or laughter. For some reason, I could not focus at that ordained moment to make it especially meaningful.

One of my sisters undertook the very long walk to Elwood Shule specifically for this reason and came away quite sad. She mentioned that the Shule was morgue-like, with barely anyone in the women’s gallery and the same few familiar faces in the men’s gallery. She commented that Rabbi Gutnick had spoken well, but that looking at the Shule, she couldn’t get over a feeling of gross cavernous emptiness. It suited her mood though, and her Yizkor wasn’t mine. There is a custom to say Yizkor at the Shule where a parent used to pray.

These days most Jews don’t come to Shule on the first day of Yom Tov. You’d be lucky if they even said Kaddish on the day of the Yohr Tzeit. Perhaps they light a candle at home, I don’t know. Ironically, they went to Jewish Schools, and know what’s required. They aren’t complete ignoramuses. They are caught up in new-age Hedonism or “Tikun Olam”.

Even Yizkor seems to have lost its attraction to a generation that had and has no trouble accepting a financial inheritance, but plenty of trouble making time in a day to attend Shule and say a prayer like their parents, for their parent(s). Perhaps I’m over-harsh. It’s not the first time my blatant honesty has been interpreted as harshness and even offence. That’s just too bad. I call it as I see it. Word games are for U.N. Diplomats. They achieve nothing. Oslo accords anyone?

It’s so very sad but remembering is part of a much bigger picture. That picture has now been dumbed down and recreated in the image of modern fun events. Kids seem to come to Shule on the first day when you offer them ice cream. Great. Perhaps the second day should be “Whisky day” for the adults? It’s all very nice, but it isn’t Jewish Identity unless it leads somewhere. There can be no Jewish Identity without solid authentic Jewish Education, and I do not include the University style study of History, Poetry or the Arts in that category. Yep, you heard me right.

If you dumb Judaism down, reduce it to clichés or the spiritual, and over focus on the experiential and don’t achieve follow-up there is nothing to hold the house up in the future. That’s my view. Take it or leave it. If you are offended by my observation, do try to focus on the fact that my intention is always to call a spade a spade; and yes, some are offended by that. מה אפשר לעשות.

Author: pitputim

I'm a computer science professor in Melbourne, Australia. I skylark as the band leader/singer for the Schnapps band. My high schooling was in Chabad and I continued at Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh in Israel.

17 thoughts on “Yizkor—is it dead and buried?”

  1. BS”D

    Reb Icze,

    As someone who was in attendance at Elwood Shule, 2nd day Yontov (Shavuos Yizkor), I can assure you the the shule was not “morgue-like” as regretfully described by your sister. In fact I sensed a tangible Oyneg Yontov and a Simchas HaMokom especially during R. Avigdor Arons reading of Megilas Rus.

    While it is true that the ageing Kehila at Elwood is down on numbers the Sheyres HaPleyte is sufficient to hold up the four walls. Ultimately all a shule needs is a Minyan!

    Irrespective of your orthotist’s diagnoses you should have endured the trek to Elwood Shule that needs as many mispalelim as it can get, not Yeshivah which is at surplus. As a Kohen, your absence was duly noted by many, that duchen is not as crowded as it used to be.

    Indeed R. Mottel Gutnick spoke eloquently and reminded us that the Neshomohs of the Kedoshim enter the Shule itself on Yizkor. Based on this belief, Elwood Shule would have had the highest attendance rate in Melbourne. These Neshomohs, more alive than many of us in Olam HaZeh. There was no “cavernous emptiness”, the shule was filled with the Neshomohs of martyrs.

    While there may not have been the audible weeping of R. Chaim Gutnicks day, the atmosphere was emotionally charged and one could feel the ruach of Chag HaKatzir in the hallowed sanctum of Elwood Shule.

    Gut Voch.

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    1. What can I say. Your perspective and my sisters were chalk and cheese. That being said, I’m not sure on what basis you decided my feet (which are still tender) should have walked it? I had my runners on and my wife wouldn’t let me out of the house in them 😷

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    2. Shimshon
      Your comments are a contradiction in terms. Every Neshoma that came down was looking for their offspring. How sad they were not there. Rabbi Aron’s dikduk in Megilas Rus and I’m sure there would have been no trouble hearing it. I remember the days when one had to strain to hear it because of the real numbers that far exceeded the current attendees by a factor of 20 or more. By the way, yeshiva wasn’t full. There are many youth minyanim. The main shule really was also nothing like I remember it due to the absence of Baalei Batim who didn’t wear a kapote and were in another world. But as I stated in a subsequent post I’m an outlier. A bare minyan brings me little joy. I’m glad you were inspired

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  2. BS”D

    We learn from the Talmid Muvhok of the Arizal, R. Chaim Vital that neshomohs leave a reshimah in the Beis HaKnesses where their tefillohs once emanted from. I believe this museg is also held by the Esh Kodesh, R. Kalonymus Shapiro the Piaseczno Rebbe who elaborates further that neshomohs are present on the 4 times mazkir is set down for each luach. Perhaps the Piaseczno is stating the significance for a Yid to have a mokem tefillah.

    On Yizkor that reshimah is drawn forth and is surely present in the shule in the same way that a reshimah remains by a kever or matzevah.

    Right now we are in the Tekufah of small kehillas in Melbourne, the multitudes will return as mysteriously as they have vanished over the last decade.

    By the way, does one have to wear a Kapotel to be considered one of the Baalei Batim?

    Vesein chelkeinu besorosecho 🙂

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    1. It’s all well and good but somehow missed the sephardishe mekkubalim. As to the kever you will be aware that R Chaim and Minhag Beis horav was never to go there. I assume you mean Kappote. This has nothing to do with being Baalei Batim. Witness Sephardim who are more lax. It is the levush of a Cohen, a Talmid Chacham where there is such a minhag, rebbes and those who imitate them. The Lubavitcher rebbe didn’t wear one till he became rebbe

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        1. He took it off after his wedding at the Seuda … During the week many Chassidim don’t … It’s an interesting observation neither his father nor his father in law did that. It’s not a critique. Just an observation of his unique style!

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  3. BS”D

    The Vilna Gaon never went to a Beis Almin either, probably for different reasons than R. Chaim Vital.

    I would be interested in hearing your theory on why Kapotes are not as visible as they use to be down on Hotham Street, is it due to the absence of R. Yitzchok Dovid?

    The levush doesnt mean anything anymore, there are Yidden wearing the biggest shiniest Tuzlik who don’t know what Atzmus is. Keep in mind too Reb Zushia of Annopoly whose own levush consisted of rags, and he was surely many sephiros above a Talmid Chochem! The 7th Lubavicher donned the Kapote but spurned his shvers Spodik, now that was quite a trade off when it comes to levush.

    Enjoy the Queens Birthday long weekend.

    Me’or shebo machzirom l’mutov……………………..

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    1. Kapotes aren’t as visible for the same reason the LR told Rabbi Groner. It’s chitzoniyus and if it drives one person to be uncomfortable wear a normal Suri. The Vilna Gaon never went because he said it was a place full of Avi Avos HTuma with dangerous shedim,
      .i don’t know what atzmus is. Metaphysics hasn’t caught on with me.
      He didn’t spurn the Spodik. His mother in law refused to give it to him and he was too much of a gentleman to aggravate by buying his own.

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    1. I read what you wrote there very quickly and I’m not sure where you saw the reason for SECOND day Yom Tov or did I miss it. I heard the reason from a few Rabonim (not Rabbis). Which part do you object to, the Tanchuma reference?

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  4. where did you see that i wrote that the Izkor was the reason for the second day Yom Tov, my comment was on what you wrote:

    “The Rabbis specifically instituted it to be (outside of Israel) on the second day of Yom Tov. Why not the first day of Yom Tov? Clearly it was felt that by setting it the second day, this would encourage those who were vacillating about whether to attend the service on the second day to do so”.

    if you heard the reason from a few Rabonim, it shows the level of knowledge of the local Rabonim, and it may explain why they don’t prepare their Drashot.

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  5. “Jews of Sephardi origin never had the custom to say Yizkor, except on Yom Kippur. They were less influenced by their neighbours and I surmise their Rabbis didn’t need to insert Yizkor in order to cajole them to come to a Jewish service. They came anyway”.

    Jews of Sephardi origin never had the custom to say Yizkor on Yom Kippur, as Yizkor is an Ashkenazi creation, the Sephardim didn’t need the second day Yom Tov or Yom Kipur to pray for dead realetives, they did it every time they are being called to the Torah on Shabat, they call it Hashkava. See כף החיים סי’ רפד אות לח

    “There has always been a disagreement as to whether someone whose parents are alive leaves the Shule during Yizkor”.

    Yizkor was there for over 600 years, the custom that someone whose parents are alive leaves the Shule during Yizkor is not that old.

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    1. Yes, but they did give special Tzedoko on Yom Kippur Davka (which is the Ikkar of Yizkor)
      I know it is called Hashkava, and they do that on a Yohr Tzeit (or the Shabbos near it) and donate (as we are meant to do)

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  6. the Tzdaka they did give special on Yom Kippur Davka, has nothing to do with the Izkor/with the dead. the sfaradim say haskava at any time of the year, and not only before a yohrtzeit.

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