Among the numerous Jewish festivals, the Yom Kippur Yizkor service is one of the most important. It is an occasion marked by Jewish people worldwide.

Yom Kippur literally means the ‘Day of Atonement.’ It is considered the holiest day of the Jewish calendar year. This day is marked with fasting and confessions. The confessions are of particular significance; each individual is supposed to confess their transgressions in a bid to show contrition, hoping for atonement.

Yizkor, meaning ‘memorial,’ is the prayer recited for dead relatives, family members, and any other martyrs of the Jewish people. In recent times, such martyrs mostly mean victims of the Holocaust. Of course, victims of other pogroms in the past are also included in these recitations. Yom Kippur Yizkor is, therefore, the recitation of these prayers for the dead as part of regular Yom Kippur proceedings. 

Customs of Yom Kippur

As early as the 11th century, Yizkor recitations were already being held in memory of the Jewish people that lost their lives in the Rhineland region, the birthplace of Yizkor.

The early massacres of the Jewish people, like during the times of the Crusades, resulted in the emergence of ritual ceremonies designed to commemorate communal martyrs around the time of the Shavuot—a Hebrew festival meaning the ‘Feast of Weeks.’ It also included parents mourning the loss of their children and vice versa.

The Yizkor commences with the words “Yizkor Elohim Nishmat…” which translates as “ May God remember the soul of…” These words have their roots in the Kaddish and Yahrzeit. 

The Kaddish is a hymn sung during Jewish prayers, with its overriding theme being the sanctification and praise of God’s name. There is also the mourner’s Kaddish, recited as a prayer for one’s dead parents, children, or other relatives.

The Yahrzeit is a specific Kaddish for one’s parents or close relatives.

Both Kaddish and Yahrzeit originated around that time period, including all the customs associated with them. For example, the lighting of a candle as part of Yahrzeit also became a custom during this time.

Yizkor on the Day of Passover and Shemini Atzeret

In addition to Yizkor being recited on Yom Kippur and Shavuot, there are other occasions during which its recitation happens. Rabbi Yaakov ben Moshe Moulin, a 14th-century Jewish scholar, is credited with the first mention of a Yizkor recitation on the Day of Passover and Shemini Atzeret. Shemini Atzeret is a Jewish holiday celebrated during the Hebrew month of Tishrei each 22nd day. This provision only holds when the celebrants are within Israel. Outside the Holy Land, it can be celebrated on either the 22nd or 23. Tishrei usually coincides with late September on early October in the normal calendar.

The rationale behind the recitation of the Yizkor during those occasions can be traced back to a portion of the Torah—the list of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible also known as the Written Torah. This was mainly read and recited by Jews in the diaspora.

This portion of the Torah, the Kol haBechor, is derived from Deuteronomy 15:19 to 16:17. Its main theme is commanding all those that make a pilgrimage to the Holy Temple during the Passover, Shavuot, and Shemini Atzeret to “…not appear before God empty-handed.” This means that such pilgrims are to “…make a donation” according to their ability.

This message from the Torah about donating goes hand in hand with reciting the Yizkor because this concept of giving to charity is to be done so in remembrance and merit of the soul of the departed.

The recitation of the Yizkor during these holidays originated in the diaspora; however, it is now recited in Israel on the last day of Yom Tov (festival day).

Sorrow on a Day of Joy

Given the Torah’s command to rejoice, how is it that Yizkor—a mournful recitation—is conducted during Yom Tov?

An explanation for this seeming disparity can be found in the book of Proverbs where it states that “Even in laughter, the heartaches and its end is that joy that turns to sorrow.” Reciting Yizkor on this day, therefore, brings joy to the memories of the departed even when they are being sorrowfully remembered.

Ultimately, reciting Yizkor for the departed brings not only joy to the one reciting it but also honor. By carrying out good deeds in memory of the dead—like reciting prayers for them—a person is fulfilling their obligations to the dead, both before God and the community.