My friends and I were admiring a new yahrzeit candle holder from our sisterhood gift shop the other day, and the question came up about when one is supposed to light a yahrzeit candle. Some thought it had to be on the anniversary of the family member’s death by the Hebrew calendar, some thought the secular date was okay, and someone at the table thought that we should also light it on certain holidays! What does tradition say?
Burning with Desire to Know
Such a learned group you dine with, Talmudic scholars beware! But you asked a serious question.
First, yahrzeit is Yiddish for “anniversary (of a person’s death)”. The reason given for the lighting of a candle to mark this comes from the book of Proverbs 20:27 where it states, “The soul of man is the candle of God.” So, the flame of the candle helps us honor our departed’s soul. Yahrzeit candles
Tradition would have it that the candle is lit on the anniversary as reckoned by the Hebrew calendar. If you are not sure what the Hebrew date is you can go to: http://www.hebcal.com and click the on ‘yahrzeit, birthday, and anniversary calendar’. You’ll be asked to enter the Gregorian date of your loved one’s death (that’s our current secular calendar) and it will calculate the yahrzeit dates for the next ten years. Now remember my desirous one that in the Hebrew calendar system a new ‘day’ starts at sundown, so you’ll actually light the candle the evening before. (“There was evening, there was morning, day one.”) If you forget the night before, it is okay to light the candle in the morning.
Among the Reform, it has become common practice to honor a person’s yahrzeit on the anniversary of the secular date. e.g. June 7th. So Tanta Golda would advise that you follow the practice that feels most respectful to you.
As for other dates, your friend was correct! Yahrzeit candles are also supposed to be lit whenever a Yiskor (remembrance) service is said in synagogue. This would be, Yom Kippur, and the last day of the three pilgrimage holidays: Shemini Atzeret (the 8th day of Sukkot), Passover, and Shavuot. Oye, that’s a lot of candles! *Candles are lit in the evening
Some people also use the yahrzeit as a time to visit the gravesite, give tzedakah, perform acts of kindness, study Torah, and even fasting.
Burning, I hope that you and your friends continue to hold such thoughtful discussions and come up with more questions for Tanta Golda!