Yahrzeit Candles – Observances and Symbolism of Remembrance

by M-Gillies
six candles lit on Holocaust Remembrance Day .

These memorial candles are lit in remembrance of the six million Jews who were lost during the Holocaust. Any candle that can remain alight for 24 hours can be used as a yahrzeit candle.

Throughout many cultures, fire has represented many things to many people. From its illumination and enlightenment, destruction and renewal, spirituality and damnation it has been seen as a purifier, a destroyer, a generative power of life, energy and change, and an instrument of terror. In fact, the presence of fire has long been held to have deeply religious symbolism for thousands of years, such as acting as the representations of God as both a creator and destroyer.

And like fire, candles have long held symbolic significances throughout many cultures. Across all religious denominations candles have been used during weddings, masses, baptisms and funerals as a emblematic function to produce light and dispel darkness.

Because of this significance, the Yahrzeit Candle in Jewish cultures has long been a widely practiced custom since the early middle ages.

But what is the Yahrzeit?

According to Jewish customs, the only relatives for whom one observes rites of mourning for 12 months are parents, both father and mother. When the year of mourning is over, the mourner(s) are expected to return to a fully normal life.

In fact, as the 16th century code of Jewish Law, Shulhan Arukh reads, “One should not grieve too much for the dead, and whoever grieves excessively is really grieving for someone else.”

Though, grieving is an important process in mourning the loss of a loved one, the Jewish culture does allow for several occasions each year when the dead are memorialized, with yahrzeit being the most significant.

The word ‘yahrzeit’ is Yiddish for yortsayt, meaning anniversary, but more specifically, the anniversary of a person’s death.

To observe yahrzeit, it is important to follow the traditions of the day as commemorative of both the enormous tragedy of death and the abiding glory of parental heritage. This day is to be set aside to contemplate the quality and life-style of the deceased. In order to do so, it is important to avoid eating meat and drinking wine, symbols of festivity and joy.

Most importantly, the kindling of the yahrzeit candle is a custom, which dates back to early times. This candle will burn for 24 hours with its origins coming from the Book of Proverbs 20:27 which states, “The soul of man is a candle of the Lord.”

The custom of lighting a yahrzeit candle for the deceased is very widespread and deeply ingrained in Jewish culture. To that degree, the yahrzeit candle is symbolic as a gesture of truth, whereby the candle provides guidance in the darkness, and further conveys the truth of the Word of God as the light from the candle guides the path of the mourner.

Over the years, the yahrzeit candle is lit during the week of Shiva, lit at sundown on the eve of the yahrzeit, and at sundown preceding the start of Yom Kippur. It is further lit at sundown preceding the last day of Succot, Passover and Shavuot.

Photo Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James E. Foehl

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