What is the Yahrzeit?

The word ‘Yahrzeit’ is Yiddish and is translated to mean “time of year.” In Judaism, there is a focus on carrying on the memory of those before us from generation to generation. Based on Jewish law, the Yahrzeit is the day one year following the death of a loved one as calculated in accordance with the Hebrew calendar. This remembrance is performed annually by reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish and burning a Yahrzeit candle for 24 hours. Traditionally, the observance begins on the anniversary of the Hebrew date of death and the candle is lit at sunset. When a death occurs after sunset, the following day is used to observe the Yahrzeit.

How to Calculate and Remember the Yahrzeit?

Remembering and commemorating the Yahrzeit for loved ones is one of the most meaningful and time-honored Jewish traditions. However, knowing the proper Yahrzeit date each year following the initial anniversary of the passing of a loved one can be quite a challenge. There are a couple of important items to keep in mind when determining the Yahrzeit date. Most noteworthy is that the Yahrzeit is traditionally honored in accordance with the Hebrew calendar, which differs from the English (Gregorian) calendar. The corresponding day for a Yahrzeit is also dependent on the time in the day (before or after sunset) of the passing for your loved one.

How Do I Find Out the Correct Hebrew Yahrzeit Date?

There are many reliable and free date converters available that can help make it easy to obtain the English/Gregorian to Hebrew calendar conversion. Calculating the Yahrzeit date is one part of the process; the next and possibly most essential step is properly remembering and honoring the date. It is common for individuals who are affiliated with a Jewish organization to receive a letter or notice in the mail that serves as a Yahrzeit Reminder, which provides the Yahrzeit date. Individuals that are unaffiliated may not receive this notification. In addition, those who receive letters may prefer an alternative method of notification/communication. Similar to the reliable date converters available online, individuals can sign up for free email Yahrzeit Reminders.

Honoring the Yahrzeit - The Lighting of Candles

On the Yahrzeit, a Yahrzeit candle is lit at sundown. This custom takes place every year. Mourners use a special ‘Yahrzeit Candle’ that is designed to burn for 24 hours. These candles, similar to Shabbat candles, should burn during the entire Yahrzeit and extinguish on their own. Although traditionally this ritual involves burning an actual candle, it is also permitted to use an electric Yahrzeit lamp due to potential safety issues.

While lighting of a Yarhzeit candle is not prescribed by Jewish law, it is considered an essential minhag or “custom” that honors the loved one and his or her memory.

During the initial structured period of mourning, the shiva, which begins upon arriving at the Mourner’s home immediately following the funeral it is customary to burn a candle each day.

In addition to lighting a candle on the anniversary of the death, the Yahrzeit candle is also lit on four other designated days of the year, called Yizkor dates.

What’s the Meaning of the Yahrzeit Candle?

In Chapter 20, verse 27 of the Book of Proverbs, it provides: "The soul of man is the candle of God." The Yahrzeit candle reminds people of the fragility of life and encourages them to embrace their life and that of their loved ones. A candle is often believed to be a symbol of the soul. This is one of the core reasons that candles are such an integral part of the Jewish religion.

Although Jewish law sets forth a structured period of mourning and traditionally provides that mourners not overly grieve the loss of a loved one, the Yahrzeit is one of the rituals each year when it is encouraged to remember, memorialize, honor and commemorate loved ones.

Who Can You Light Candles For?

Usually, people light Yahrzeit candles for close family members including parents, a spouse, children and siblings. Lighting candles for others, such as boyfriends and girlfriends or grandparents, is also acceptable. If there is a family in which the deceased falls into one of those categories for multiple members of the household, only one candle needs to be lit.

Yahrzeit Prayers - The Mourner's Kaddish

When the Yahrzeit candle is lit, the intent and focus for individuals is to take time out of the day to remember, honor and celebrate the life of the loved one. Traditionally, you will find that the Mourner’s Kaddish is recited on the Yahrzeit. It is customary and suggested that family and friends use this time to share stories and reflect upon the person who has passed and the legacy he or she has left behind.