Grieving over the loss of a beloved is natural and healthy. So is moving forward with one’s life after the loss. Therefore, Jewish law mandates a schedule of mourning that lasts for a year after a parent’s death.
While the grief for losing someone usually diminishes with time, it never fully disappears. The yahrtzeit (Yiddish for anniversary) or nachala (as it is referred to in the Sephardi/Eydot Mizrach communities) is the anniversary of the death and the annual date set aside for remembering the departed loved one.
The yahrtzeit/nachala begins, as all Jewish days do, at sunset, when a yahrtzeit candle or a ner neshama (“soul candle”) is lit in honor of the departed. This tradition stems from Proverbs 20:27: “The candle of God is the soul of man.”
The yahrtzeit/nachala is not meant to be a day of grief–rather it is a day of reflection, both about the deceased and about life and death. On the day of the yahrtzeit/nachala, mourners observing a yahrtzeit/nachala recite the mourners’ kaddish in the synagogue and often lead the synagogue service that day.
There are different customs for observing a yahrtzeit/nachala depending on one’s community. In many communities, the bereaved either fasts or celebrates a siyyum (a party marking the completion of a predetermined amount of Torah study) or both. Many will study Mishnah (first compilation of the oral law) in memory of the departed because the word mishna is an anagram of neshama, the Hebrew word for soul.
In honor of the departed, it is customary to go out of one’s way to do mitzvot, give tzedakah (charity) and study Torah, which serve as a merit for the soul of the departed. While these customs are most often done for the yahrtzeit/nachala of close relatives, many will observe them in honor of the yahrtzeit/nachala of a religious leader whom they admire.
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