Sunday, June 8, 2008

Derashah: Shavuot - The Unity of Yizkor

[This week's edition of Haveil Havalim is here.]

We usually think of Yizkor as a prayer of personal mourning, people reciting memorial paragraphs in memory of their loved ones - but when we look at Jewish history, we realize that Yizkor, since its inception, has not been about individual loss, but rather about national cohesion.

Yizkor’s original format was the Av haRachamim prayer which we say almost every Shabbos; it was designed to be recited in shul on Shabbos to mourn for the Jewish communities massacred during the Crusades of the 12th century. Shabbos was chosen because it was a day when everyone gathered together already.

The prayer quickly spread through France, Germany and Italy, and from there east to Poland and the Slavic countries. Rashi, Mordechai, Maharil, all of the major leaders of early Ashkenazic communities accepted this new institution. Eventually, it spread to Shavuot because this is the time of year when many massacres took place, and then from Shavuos to other Yamim Tovim.

Simultaneously, a Yizkor prayer developed for Yom Kippur. This was a combination of national mourning and a private prayer for the souls of those who had passed on, because we are taught that the deceased as well as the living are judged every year on Yom Kippur.

The history is interesting, but perplexing, because the result of these rabbinic enactments is that we recite a communal mourning prayer including lines like “May Gd… avenge the spilled blood of his servants,” on the happiest days of the year - Shabbos, Yom Tov, and Yom Kippur. Shabbos, with its mitzvah of oneg, enjoying the day! Yom Tov, with its mitzvah of simchah, celebrating with joy! Yom Kippur, which is described in the gemara as the greatest day on the Jewish calendar!

We never mourn on these days. Public mourning is forbidden on Shabbat; on Friday afternoon a mourner interrupts shivah to wash and change into celebratory clothing, goes to shul and wishes people a good Shabbos! Yom Tov and Yom Kippur actually cut off shivah altogether; one who buries a relative an hour before Yom Tov or before Yom Kippur sits shivah for a few moments and then it’s over!

Granted that there is some precedent for Yizkor in earlier halachah , still, how is it that we devote a premiere part of our davening on Shabbos, on Yom Tov, on Yom Kippur, to calling the deceased to mind?

Let’s take it a step further: The Torah goes out of its way, in general, to limit all mourning!
• The Torah says, “You are children of HaShem; you shall not cut your skin in grief,” and we understand from this that the Torah rejects overdone or extended mourning because we are taught that life goes on in the next world!
• The gemara says, “One who mourns too much over one loss will end up mourning another loss.”
• The Shulchan Aruch rules that on almost all issues of mourning, הלכה כדברי המיקל, we follow the most lenient authorities.
So how is it that the sages instituted this Yizkor act to generate extra mourning - and on Shabbos, Yom Tov, and Yom Kippur of all days?

One answer lies in the two Torah portions named for life - Chayyei Sarah, about the life of Sarah, and Vayechi, about the life of her grandson Yaakov. There are many parallels between the portions, and of course both portions record the death and burial of their protagonists, Sarah and Yaakov - but these two burial stories are actually very different:

In the former portion, חיי שרה, we find Avraham searching for a place to bury his beloved wife. ויבא אברהם לספוד לשרה ולבכותה, Avraham eulogizes Sarah and weeps for her, apparently without company. He then rises from his wife’s deathbed, forlorn, without even his son Yitzchak to join him, to go bargain with the Canaanites for a plot. Avraham, who had welcomed everyone into his home, who had been so involved with the nations around him! The sudden loneliness of the scene is inescapable, and it is after this story that Avraham is described in the Torah, for the first time, as elderly.

In contrast, Yaakov dies with his children gathered around his bed, and he is buried with full honors. Listen to the Torah’s description: “And Yosef ascended to bury his father, and all of the servants of Paroh, and the elders of his house and the elders of Egypt ascended with him. And the entire house of Yosef and his brothers and his father’s house came as well; they only left their young children and cattle in Goshen. Carriages and charioteers ascended with him, and the camp was very large. And they came to Goren ha’Atad by the side of the Jordan, and they eulogized him a great and mighty eulogy, and Yosef observed a seven day mourning period for his father. And the Canaanites saw the mourning in Goren ha’Atad, and they declared, ‘This is a great mourning for Egypt.’” The gemara even amplifies further, introducing the children of Keturah and Yishmael and even Esav into the picture; there is much more said about the pomp and circumstance and community of Yaakov’s burial.

Avraham mourns Sarah pathetically alone, and emerges aged, diminished. Everyone turns out with Yosef and company to mourn for Yaakov, and although solidarity cannot restore a loss, it can, eventually, cushion the blow.

Perhaps this is the goal of our Yizkor - to generate a communal moment of bonding and consolation - and so we use specifically those days of greatest gathering, Shabbos and Yom Tov and Yom Kippur, for this purpose. Precisely on these days of sacred communal gathering, we bond in an act of ניחום, of consolation, which is viewed not as a negation of our joy but as a celebration of our community.

The Jew who mourns a victim of the Holocaust, the Jew who mourns an victim of terror in Israel, the Jew who mourns a grandmother or a child or a spouse or a friend - we are all part of the same nation, the same community, and if these are the days when our community comes together as one, then these shall be the days when we find communal comfort.

But, of course, all of this begs the question regarding those who, like me, walk out during Yizkor. Certainly, we step out because we, thank Gd, have not lost immediate relatives and don’t wish to inspire jealousy in those who have - but doesn’t that diminish the communal solidarity?

The answer, I think, is Yes. If I were creating the minhag, I would probably have everyone stay in. But פורץ גדר ישכנו נחש, one who breaks through a fence may find himself bitten by a snake from the other side. Before changing a communal minhag, one had better make sure he understands all facets of that minhag, all of the reasons behind it - and I am not that confident in my own judgment.

Still, because the communal strength of Yizkor is weakened by having people walk out, I would urge those of us who do step outside to spend their time in the lobby thinking about those who are still inside, and the losses they have suffered. There are Tehillim in the siddur. There are books from our library, and many dvar torah sheets, available in the lobby. One can even stand quietly. Yizkor in the hallway shouldn’t be a time for joking around or, Gd-forbid, lashon hara; the atmosphere should be as solemn outside the doors as inside them.

And when you do return, please don’t start davening with Ashrei, but rather say Av haRachamim, that original form of Yizkor which is still its closing prayer, with the rest of the tzibbur.

On Shavuos, of all days, when we commemorate ויחן שם ישראל נגד ההר, how we camped as a unified nation at Sinai, we certainly understand that we are one. More than that, we understand why we are one.

I’ve heard it said that all Jews should stick together because, after all, the Nazis ימח שמם attacked all of us and did not discriminate between religious and non-religious, or between types of observance. I can’t accept that logic; that morbid argument identifies a communality of victimhood, not a commonality of Judaism.

Our commonality of Judaism began not with the Nazis 70 years ago but in a desert some 3400 years ago, on Shavuot, and continued through the pact of ערבות we sealed by the Jordan river, through the wealth of the period of Dovid and Shlomo and the Beis haMikdash and through the intense suffering of the period of the Crusades, and is commemorated by the celebratory joy of the Seder and the Succah as well as the sadness of Yizkor.

Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch wrote, “Even though the individual fades away, the Jewish people as a whole eternally rejuvenates itself; it is eternal like the eternal Will of Him Who called it into being.” Despite the sadness of Yizkor, and specifically because of this national bond of Yizkor, Hirsch’s vision will prove correct: Our nation will be eternally rejuvenated.

1. There are sefarim which suggest we recite Yizkor on Shabbos because that is the day when neshamos are freed from Gehennom, but that is noted by various poskim as a problematic explanation. One problem, for example, is that then Yizkor should only be recited for those who have died in the past year!

2. One halachic basis for the idea of public mourning on Shabbat is the status of Shabbat Chazon in halachah.

3. The link/contrast of ויחי and חיי שרה came from here.

4. Yitzchak is not at Sarah's funeral because he did not return home after the Akeidah.

5. One mefaresh links Avraham's aging purely to the loss of Sarah, but I forget at the moment where I saw that.

6. Sotah 13a is the gemara that elaborates on the pomp of Yaakov's funeral.


  1. Thank you for talking about Yizkor. I like the idea of Jewish unity in remembering our loved ones.

    We attend a Sephardi shul (both my husband and I are Ashkenazi); even though Yizkor was not originally said in Sephardi communities, it has now been adopted by our synagogue.

  2. have not lost immediate relatives and don’t wish to inspire jealousy in those who have

    I was under the impression that this custom came from a superstition about bringing bad luck down upon oneself (or, rather, one's family), by calling attention to the fact that one hasn't lost immediate relatives.

    Whatever the original reason for it, it seems like leaving for Yizkor draws attention to yourself and could incite that jealousy that you're so keen to avoid far more than remaining would do.

  3. Leora-
    Thanks for commenting. The spread of Yizkor to sephardic communities (as well as edot mizrach) is fascinating; it is a great case study for cross-fertilization of minhag.

    I think we're talking about two sides of the same coin, when I talk about jealousy and you talk about superstition. We are both "translating" the term "ayin hara." I understand it to be a quite rational concern, consisting with the classic Talmudic use of "ayin hara" to refer to the rational concern for jealousy.