Yahrzeit (literally, “year time”) is the Yiddish word for “anniversary,” referring specifically to the anniversary (on the Hebrew calendar) of the date of a person’s passing. Observed from nightfall to nightfall (like all Jewish dates), the yahrtzeit is a special time to remember the departed and do good deeds for the merit of the soul, which ascends higher in heaven on this date.
How Is a Yahrzeit Observed?
- In times gone by, people would fast on the date of the yahrtzeit, but that practice is rare nowadays.
- On this day, make an effort to do mitzvahs in memory of the departed. This helps the soul ascend ever higher. The most common (but not the only) mitzvah is to lead the prayers and/or say Kaddish, a prayer of praise to G‑d, in memory of our loved one. Read why this prayer was chosen here. If you can use a little brushing up on the Aramaic words of the Kaddish, go here.
- Since Scripture compares the soul to a flame, there is a time-honored custom to light a candle on the eve of the yahrtzeit and allow it to burn for the next 24 hours. Long-lasting candles, called yahrzeit candles, can be purchased in the kosher aisle of many North American grocery stories, but any candle (besides those used for non-Jewish religious purposes) is really perfect. Read the reason for this custom here.
- There is a custom to provide tikkun: food and spirits to be served after morning services on the date of the yahrtzeit. Some people even sponsor a Kiddush, a Shabbat morning reception, on a Shabbat either before or after the yahrtzeit. Read why here.
- If possible, many people make the effort to visit the gravesites of their relatives on their yahrzeits. Read about when to go and what to do when there.
How to Pronounce Yahrzeit
There are many ways of spelling yahrzeit in English. The most common one, yahrzeit, really does not tell an English reader that the word should be pronounced “YOUR-t-sight,” a cross between “you’re tight” and “your sight.” When someone wants to say that today is the anniversary of the passing of his grandmother, he might say, “I have yahrzeit for my bubby today.”
How Do You Know When a Yahrzeit Is Coming Up?
A yahrzeit follows the Hebrew calendar, so if you are in tune with the cycle of the Jewish holidays it is simple enough. However, since the Jewish dates can drift away from their Gregorian counterparts by as much as a month before bouncing back, this can be challenging for some. The good news is that Chabad.org’s powerful yahrzeit calculator can figure out when you have yahrzeit, and even send you reminders every year.