The Significance of a Yahrzeit: The Annual Memorial for the Deceased

The Jewish People have a tradition of holding an annual memorial for a deceased person on the day of his passing. At the Azkarah (aka Yahrzeit, or Najala) those who knew the deceased gather, pray and study Torah. They also eat and drink.

It is easy to understand why we learn and pray in memory of a deceased person, but why eat and drink? The reason is that when there is a proliferation of food, we also recite many blessings. When these are dedicated to the memory of the deceased we are, in some way, granting him new strengths and helping to elevate his soul from one level to a higher one.

Why is this done specifically on the anniversary of his passing?

Kabbalistic teaching clarifies that there is great significance to specific dates in a person’s life. We are referring, of course, to the Hebrew calendar, not the Gregorian one (which has no relevance). A person’s date of birth is particularly significant. On that day, a great abundance of positivity is channeled to a person. That is why, says the Ben Ish Chai, a person should always reflect inwardly on his birthday, and hold a cheshbon nefesh (an internal accounting). He should then take upon himself a new resolution, anything that will enable him to climb to greater spiritual heights. By doing so, he can harness the potential of the positive influences that are being sent his way on that special day.

The day of death is also of tremendous significance to man. Each year, on the day of his passing, the deceased man is being judged anew. This is hard to understand — what is there left for him to be repeatedly judged for, year after year, after the judgement he received upon passing?

Let’s imagine a person who founded a charitable organization, established a yeshiva or built a shul. After his passing — even though he is no longer alive — his charitable works continue to bear fruit. The charity, the Torah study, the prayers — all these acts of kindness that are committed in his absence are accredited to him in the Heavenly courts. If a man sent his children to study in Torah institutions and educated them to the best of his ability to Torah and Mitzvot —the chinuch he gave them will continue to bear fruit after his passing.

Thus, every year, on the date of his passing, the Heavenly court reconvenes and judges him once again for his deeds — i.e. the ongoing ramifications of the deeds he committed in his lifetime, as they have played out in the year that past.

Man is also judged, obviously, for the negative outcomes of his actions, not just the positive ones. If a man composed a blasphemous book, for example, that had a disastrous effect on its readers — then each year, on the day of his death, he is judged for his “deeds”, i.e. the negative influence he had throughout the year on all those who read his book, whose souls were tainted and corrupted by what they read. On the previous anniversary of his passing he was judged for the negative influences that played out in the preceding year, and on this anniversary, he will be judged for the negative influences caused by his actions that came into effect from the last anniversary to the current one.

This takes places for many years following a person’s death, year after year! That is why we hold a memorial on the day of a person’s passing. The deceased is in a place where he cannot help himself. But, his family and relatives — those that are still alive and care for his wellbeing — can help him elevate his soul and rectify it.

Having said this, it is always best for a person to be self-reliant. A wise man makes the most of his every breath to improve himself and to amass Torah and Mitzvot.

It is in this regard that King David says “Whatever your hand attains to do [as long as you are] with your strength, do; for there is neither deed, nor reckoning, neither knowledge nor wisdom in the grave, where you are going.” (Kohelet 9;10):

And the Talmud’s words in Masechet Shabbat (153a) are well-known:
“Rabbi Eliezer says: Repent one day before your death. Rabbi Eliezer’s students asked him: ‘Does any man know the day of his death?’ – He said to them: ‘How much more so, should he repent today, in case he dies tomorrow, and he will be in [a state of] repentance all his days”.

This is one of Hashem’s greatest kindnesses to us — that even if a man has failed and committed a sin, or transgressed a commandment, he can repair the damage. As the Rambam writes in the Laws of Repentance, when a sinner repents for his past wrongdoings, leaves his sin and takes upon himself never to transgress again and then verbally confesses his sins — he is considered fully repentant.

This is true for deeds that are committed between man and Hashem, but for transgressions that are committed by one man toward another, it won’t be sufficient until he appeases the victim.

Adapted from ‘Man and His Universe’ by Rabbi Zamir Cohen. Coming to you soon in English.

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