Many Jewish people would love to perform a Yom Kippur Yizkor service in remembrance of a loved one’s passing. However, they may not be fully aware of all the intricate details of the rituals to be performed on such an occasion. Getting the right guidance is key. Performing such a service isn’t just a matter of routine; it holds a special meaning for the soul of the deceased for whom the service is performed. That’s why it’s best to contact a relevant authority if you’re unsure of what exactly this service entails.
Just like with most other religions, the concept of sin is central to many aspects of Judaism. Man is not perfect; he sins from time to time. Unlike in Christianity where man is considered inherently sinful (due to the original sin of Adam), inherent sin does not apply in Judaism. Everyone is born pure and untainted until they make the conscious decision to sin. A good understanding of the concept of sin helps to contextualize the need for atonement.
Yom Kippur means “the day of atonement.” It is celebrated on the 10th day of Tishrei–the first month of the year in the Hebrew calendar. The concept of Yom Kippur can be traced to a verse in the Torah that states that “…the tenth day of the seventh month…is the day of Kippurim…” Kippurim translates as “to cleanse.” Thus, cleansing an individual of their transgressions, intended or otherwise, is the central idea behind Yom Kippur.
Immortality of the human soul is a key principle in Judaism. Among the many beliefs surrounding this concept is the idea that prayers and recitations by the living can effect some positive changes on the soul of the dead. This is the gist of Yizkor. It translates as “May He (YHWH) remember,” a reference from the term “zachor.”
Yizkor is a ceremony during which recitations are made for the dead. It involves saying prayers for one’s dead parents or relatives. These prayers are said four times a year on the following occasions:
i) Yom Kippur
ii) Shemini Atzeret: This is a Jewish holiday celebrated on the 22nd or 23 of the Tishrei, depending on whether the Jewish person is within the land of Israel or not.
iii) Shavuot: This is a holiday to mark wheat harvest in the land of Israel. It is celebrated on the sixth day during Sivan–the third month of the Hebrew calendar. Yizkor is recited on its second day.
iv) Pesach (Passover): This is a Jewish holiday celebrated during the month of Nisan on the fifteenth day. Yizkor is recited on its eighth day.
While the concepts of Yom Kippur, and Yizkor developed separately, they became intertwined with time. Yizkor prayers were only performed on Yom Kippur hence the nomenclature became Yom Kippur Yizkor prayers. In addition to reciting Yizkor on the other aforementioned holidays, it came to include prayers not only for one’s deceased parents but also for other Jewish people killed during the different massacres in Europe. For example, many Jewish people in the Rhineland lost their lives due to conflicts during the time of the Crusades, somewhere between the 11th and 12 centuries. Yizkor also includes victims of the Holocaust– the systematic and unabated ethnic cleansing campaign perpetrated by the Third Reich.
The main idea of Yom Kippur Yizkor prayers is to seek cleansing and atonement for the soul of a deceased Jewish person in Yom Kippur.
A typical Yizkor session begins with the congregation reciting some Biblical verses. For instance, the congregation begins to recite Psalms 144:4, which states that “God will redeem my soul from the depths.” Shortly, Psalms 91 is recited. This is considered a prayer of protection, with its main theme being that YHWH is the refuge of mankind. These verses are meant to express the nature of man’s life and the afterlife.
These verses also act as a preamble for the actual recitations of Yizkor. In addition to seeking YHWH’s favor for the deceased’s soul, those reciting Yizkor also pledge to do charitable deeds on behalf of the deceased. There are special lines to be recited. For instance, when performing Yizkor for a father, the males will chant, “May G-d remember the soul of my father, my teacher (father’s Hebrew name and his mother’s too)…”
Performing Yizkor for a mother begins in a similar fashion, with the words, names, and gender being substituted accordingly. It’s crucial to remember that Yom Kippur Yizkor prayers are usually performed in a synagogue.
Ultimately, Yizkor prayers are a plea to God on behalf of the deceased while accompanied by doing charity on behalf of them.