Judaism provides several rituals to guide families through the difficult days and months after a loved one’s death. During shiva, the first seven days after a funeral, mourners gather in their homes with friends and family. For the next thirty days, a period known as sheloshim, they avoid parties and public entertainment. Even after these periods of official mourning have ended, Jews can remember loved ones through the practice of lighting Yahrzeit candles, which commemorate the anniversary of a death. Read on to find out where to find them, how to light them, and why we do it.
What is a Yahrzeit candle, why do you light them, and where can you get one?
A Yahrzeit candle is a special candle that burns for 24 hours to mark the anniversary of a loved one’s passing. Lighting a Yahrzeit candle is not mentioned in Jewish law, or halakha, but has been part of Jewish tradition for centuries. Some people attribute the practice to a comparison of flames to human souls that appears in the book of Proverbs: “The soul of man is the candle of God” (Proverbs 20.27). Traditionally, people light Yahrzeit candles for members of their immediate family, but you can also use this ritual to mourn the death of a more distant relative or a friend. Yahrzeit candles can be purchased at Judaica stores or in the kosher section of most supermarkets.
When exactly should you light the Yahrzeit candles?
Yahrzeit means “a year’s time” in Yiddish, because it commemorates the anniversary of a death. But the anniversary isn’t the only time to light them.
Mourners light the Yahrzeit candle on each day of the shiva, the week following a funeral. After that, mourners light the candle once a year, on the evening before the anniversary of the death. Some people calculate the Yahrzeit date according to the Hebrew calendar (there are many online tools to do so, like this one from the official Reform Judaism website). Others prefer to observe the secular calendar anniversary.
You can also light Yahrzeit candles on the evening before any holiday during which a Yizkor, or mourning service is recited in synagogues: Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot.
Should you say a prayer over the Yahrzeit candle?
There are no specific prayers mandated for the Yahrzeit candles, but some people choose to recite the mourner’s Kaddish, the text of which you can find below.
Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba b’alma di-v’ra chirutei, v’yamlich malchutei b’chayeichon uvyomeichon uvchayei d’chol beit yisrael, ba’agala uvizman kariv, v’im’ru: amen. Y’hei sh’mei raba m’varach l’alam ul’almei almaya. Yitbarach v’yishtabach, v’yitpa’ar v’yitromam v’yitnaseh, v’yithadar v’yit’aleh v’yit’halal sh’mei d’kud’sha, b’rich hu, l’eila min-kol-birchata v’shirata, tushb’chata v’nechemata da’amiran b’alma, v’im’ru: amen. Y’hei shlama raba min-sh’maya v’chayim aleinu v’al-kol-yisrael, v’im’ru: amen. Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu v’al kol-yisrael, v’imru: amen.
Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world which He has created according to His will. May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days, and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon; and say, Amen. May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity. Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen. May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen. He who creates peace in His celestial heights, may He create peace for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.
How to light a Yahrzeit Candle
Irene Katz Connelly is an intern at the Forward. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.