Commemorating a Yartzeit [A Brief Insight]

yartzeit commemoration

A Yartzeit is the yearly anniversary (on the Hebrew calendar) of a person’s death.  The day is commemorated by the recitation of the Kaddish prayer by the children of the deceased, and by giving charity, performing good deeds and studying Torah. We commemorate the Yartzeits of parents, spouses, family members and great spiritual leaders.

As today, the 18th of Tammuz, is the Yartzeit of my mother (Yehudit bat Elimelech), I decided to share a personal insight into the idea of the Yartzeit.

Isn’t it interesting that Jewish tradition commemorates the day of a person’s passing while the secular world commemorates a person’s birthday?

In the US we commemorate the birthdays of great figures such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., to name a few. We don’t commemorate the day they died. Conversely, in Jewish tradition we never celebrate the birthday of a great personality, only the day of his passing — unless the birthday and day of death happen to be the same date, like in the case of Moses (the 7th of Adar). [1]There’s actually a tradition that dying on ones birthday is a sign of holiness. 

Why does Jewish tradition commemorate the day of death as opposed to the day of birth? Isn’t celebrating a birthday more uplifting (and fun) than commemorating the anniversary of someone’s death?

To answer to this question we need to analyze what a birthday and a Yartzeit really represent.

A birthday represents potential. When a baby is born, it has the potential to accomplish great things in life. But it also has the potential to do just the opposite. Imagine the joy that the parents of Adolf Hitler felt when they held their newborn baby in their arms for the first time. They saw a child with the potential to become a wonderful adult who would make the world a better place. At that moment they were absolutely correct. But they could never imagine, in their wildest dreams, the carnage, destruction, suffering and pure evil their little baby would thrust upon the world?

Birthdays represent potential, but that potential could develop into good or evil. There’s no way for us to know how that newborn will actualize his or her potential. Jewish tradition doesn’t commemorate the day of birth because we simply don’t know how that person will actualize their potential. We don’t know how their story will end.

The Yartzeit, however, represents the accomplishments of the deceased. It commemorates the good that the deceased brought into the world.

When we commemorate a Yartzeit we reflect upon, and celebrate, the accomplishments of a person — what they did, not what they might have done. [2]The distinction between potential and accomplishment is echoed in a Talmudic dispute between the students of Hillel and Shamai relating to how we light the Hanukah menorah. Shamai taught that we … Continue reading

Potential is wonderful, but it is only worthy of celebration if it is actualized in a positive manner. Judaism celebrates accomplishment, not potential. Judaism teaches us to live a life of kindness and meaning, even if it means overcoming challenges and hardships that we might be born with. A life of unfulfilled potential is a life of wasted opportunity.

Let’s pledge to make every day meaningful and filled with good deeds so that, after 120 years, our Yartzeit will be a commemoration of a meaningful and blessed life.

If you are interested in learning about Jewish mourning customs and dealing with a dying parent within the framework of Jewish tradition and spirituality, please read my book: Goodbye Mom: A Memoir of Prayer, Jewish Mourning and Healing.  [Amazon]

References

References
1 There’s actually a tradition that dying on ones birthday is a sign of holiness. 
2 The distinction between potential and accomplishment is echoed in a Talmudic dispute between the students of Hillel and Shamai relating to how we light the Hanukah menorah. Shamai taught that we light 8 candles on the first night and then one less each night until we are left with 1 on the final night. His reasoning was that the entire potential of the miracle of the oil was present on the first day, and then diminished as the days continued. Hillel taught that we light 1 candle on the first night and then increase each day until we light 8 on the final night. His reasoning was that we commemorate each days cumulative accomplishment until we actual the full potential and power of the miracle on the 8th night.

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