Rabbi Carla Freedman
September 2021 QUESTION:
Question: Why do we have Yizkor (memorial) services on our holy days? It seems to me to be contrary to the spirit of the occasions.
A case can be made for this thinking. Certainly Pesakh is joyful, Shavuot and Sukkot are each in their own way also joyful, and the High Holy Days, while serious, are also uplifting. Yom Kippur is very somber, but there is great joy when that final shofar call occurs.
But that has nothing to do with our Yizkor services. It seems that when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 CE by the Romans, our sages began to replace all the observances mandated by Torah that centered upon the bringing of ritual sacrifices to the Temple. Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur were not the “high holy days” at that time…Pesakh, Shavuot, and Sukkot were far more important, because they were “pilgrimage festivals”, requiring all adult Jewish males to bring offering to the Temple.
When the Temple fell, our sages replaced the sacrificial rituals with spoken prayers (this was undoubtedly a slow process, as the prayers evolved and various locations developed their own patterns and styles). It seems that, as the prominence of the pilgrimage festival declined, the prominence of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur grew.
Our sages took note that it is natural, on the major festivals of the year [(the High Holy Days = Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, and the 10 days between them), Pesakh and Sukkot are each 8 days in length, and Shavuot is traditionally 2 days in length], for people to miss their deceased relatives. But, they probably wanted to keep the various festivals true to their own characters, and not become identified with grief and sorrow.
The Yizkor prayer is first mentioned in the prayerbook, Machzor Vitry, written by Simcha ben Shmuel of Vitry, who died in 1105 CE (the same year as Rashi died). Some authorities believe it goes back to the time of Judah Maccabee, who said prayers for the dead Maccabee soldiers (approximately 167 BCE). At first, it was apparently only said on Yom Kippur, but, possibly as the result of the ongoing experience of pogroms and exiles, it was added to the above-mentioned festivals.
So now we have the opportunity, as each major festival period draws to an end, to remember our deceased loved ones, the victims of the Holocaust and other Jewish tragedies, as well as those who died to protect and preserve the State of Israel.
There is some comfort in being in synagogue and reading these prayers along with other congregants. But the Yizkor prayers can be read at home, alone, if necessary (a minyan is not required for the Yizkor prayers per se, as it is for Mourners’ Kaddish). So if it turns out that you cannot get to Temple this year (and for many, that may be true), you can use our Yom Kippur prayerbook and Beth Israel’s Book of Remembrance, and follow the service via livestream. The prayer books will be available for “rental” again before the High Holy Days, and the Book of Remembrance will be available as well.