YAHRZEIT (Yid.; Ger. Jahrzeit ; lit. "year time," i.e., anniversary), the anniversary of a death. For the determining of the yahrzeit, see *Mourning. The commemoration of the yahrzeit (on the Hebrew date of the anniversary) is observed both for outstanding individuals and for parents; though some extend it to the other five close relatives for whom mourning is enjoined, brother and sister, son and daughter, and spouse. With regard to the former, *Rashi finds authority for it as early as the amoraic period. He quotes from a geonic responsum on the riglei ("festivals"), there mentioned as an amoraic institution: "the anniversary of the death of a great man was established in his honor, and when that day arrives, all the scholars in the region assemble and visit his grave with the ordinary people, and hold a ceremony there" (to Yev. 122a). The only yahrzeits which occur in the calendar in one way or another are the 7th of *Adar, the traditional date of the death of Moses (though observed only by minor liturgical changes and as the most common date for the annual banquet of the *ḥevra kaddisha), *Lag ba-Omer, the traditional date of death of Simeon b. Yoḥai (observed by popular pilgrimages to his grave at Meron); and the 3rd of Tishri, the Fast of Gedaliah (see *Fasts and Fasting), which is stated to be the day "on which Gedaliah b. Ahikam was murdered" (rh 18b; this was not observed as a yahrzeit but for its historical implications). The only biblical worthy whose day of death is recorded is Aaron (Num. 33:38), but the day is not commemorated. The Ḥasidim commemorate the yahrzeit of their respective dynastic leaders, but the commemoration takes a joyous form as the day on which he was translated on high. In recent times annual commemorations of such national figures as Herzl, Bialik, Rabbi A.I. *Kook, Z. *Jabotinsky, and past presidents of the State of Israel have been instituted.
Detailed regulations have been laid down for the observance of family yahrzeits. Where he is able to do so, the yahrzeit, as the person observing it is also called, conducts the weekday service, and even if not, recites *Kaddish. If the Torah is read on that day, he is called to the reading of the Torah; otherwise, he is called on the preceding Sabbath. A 24-hour memorial candle is lit for that day, as a symbol of the verse "the soul of man is the lamp of God" (Prov. 20:27). Fasting is recommended as an act of piety (Isserles, yd 402:12), but is not commonly observed.
The first known authority to employ the word yahrzeit was *Isaac of Tyrnau in his Minhagim book, and he is followed by Mordecai Jaffe (Levush Tekhelet, no. 133). Among the Sephardim the observance is called naḥalah, but so widespread is the use of the word yahrzeit that despite the fact that it is Yiddish, it is often found in Sephardi religious works. Filial piety has made the yahrzeit one of the most widely held observances in Judaism. Even in small communities where there is difficulty in assembling the necessary minyan for the congregational service, special arrangements are made for such worship when there is a yahrzeit. Its observance is an act of pious commemoration and emphasizes faith in the immortality of the soul.
Eisenstein, Dinim, 154f.; H. Rabinowicz, A Guide to Life (1964), 103–13.
[Louis Isaac Rabinowitz]