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What is the Yizkor?

The complex history of the Jewish faith offers mourners countless traditions to grieve the death of loved ones. In essence, the ultimate goal of these traditions is to honor and respect the memory of the deceased individual. However, the Jewish stages of mourning play a critical role in helping survivors process and overcome their grief.

Like the Jewish headstone unveiling ceremony, the Yizkor prayer service also inspires a highly therapeutic mourning process. Below, you’ll find information regarding the Yizkor prayer tradition and its pivotal role in Jewish mourning.

The Yizkor Prayer Service

The Yizkor prayer service is a way for families to honor their lost relatives and friends after passing away. Synonymous with Jewish burial traditions, there are many ways that families pay their respects to relatives immediately after their death. The Yizkor prayer service allows families to show lingering support and appreciation to relatives, long after their death.

The Yizkor prayer service is a public ceremony, often drawing participation from the entire synagogue. Essentially, it’s also a way for family members to show their respects.With the additional support of other participants, the family can honor their loved one, after burial. Lighting a Yahrzeit candle is another common aspect of a Yizkor prayer service.

Origins of the Yizkor Prayer Service

While not a direct translation, the word Yizkor roughly means “may God remember.” It stems from the root word zakhor, which means to remember.

Throughout its origins, the Yizkor prayer service was spoken only on Yom Kippur. As the day when Jews atone for sins, Yom Kippur was a perfect occasion to honor relatives.

Originally, the Yizkor prayer service was also an occasion on which to donate to those in need. For many members of the community, charity on the occasion of a Yizkor prayer service was an additional way to atone, while benefitting the welfare of those less fortunate. Additionally, another sentiment within this tradition was that positive deeds of the living would help the dead rest peacefully.

When Do People Say the Yizkor?

Though visiting the site of the Jewish headstone is one way to pay respects, the Yizkor prayer is another. Since the Yizkor prayer has become a prominent aspect of Jewish burial traditions, mourners now recite this prayer more frequently.

There are four times per year that synagogues recite the Yizkor:

  • Yom Kippur: In keeping with the traditions of the Yizkor, Yom Kippur is one of the notable occasions of recitation.
  • Shemini Atzeret: Taking place at the conclusion of the Sukkot Festival, the Shemini Atzeret offers another opportunity to pay respects to relatives.
  • Eighth Day of Passover: During the final day of this holy week, Jews recite the Yizkor.
  • Second Day of Shavuot: In addition to other festivities relating to the giving of the Torah, Jews recite the Yizkor on this day.

Who Can Say the Yizkor?

During the origins of the Yizkor prayer, it was generally limited to close family members. Because of this, there was a requirement for those with living parents to leave. Now, though, like with other readings, many synagogues do not view this practice negatively. In fact, most modern schools of thought reflect the idea that it’s better to have as many participants as possible.


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