Judæo-German term denoting the anniversary of a death, commemorated by mourning and by reciting the Ḳaddish. The custom of commemorating the death of the beloved and honored is of ancient origin ( see Hazkarat Neshamot). In theTalmudic period the anniversary of a father's or teacher's death was often devoted to fasting. In taking a vow to abstain from eating meat and drinking wine there was sometimes added the phrase "as on the death-day of a father or teacher, or on the Fast of Gedaliah" (Ned. 12a). From the discussion in the Gemara (Sheb. 14a) it appears that abstinence on the day of one's father's death, unlike that on the Fast of Gedaliah, was a voluntary act, conforming to the injunction to honor one's father "while alive and after his death" (Ḳid. 31b); while the anniversary of the death of Gedaliah (II Kings xxv. 25) was generally observed as a fast-day. Rashi on Yeb. 122a states that it was customary for the disciples and the general public to sit around the grave of a great man and otherwise honor him, on the anniversary of his death (B. Ḳ. 16b). The memory of a great teacher was even more honored than that of a father.
The anniversary of Moses' death is observed on the 7th of Adar I. (For fasting on the anniversary of a death compare "Sefer Ḥasidim," §§ 231-232; Isserles' gloss to Shulḥan 'Aruk, Yoreh De'ah, 376, 4.) If the fast-day occurs on Sabbath or New Moon, the commemoration should be postponed to the following day (R. Joseph Colon, Responsa, No. 31, 1). Where there is an interval of three days or more between the days of death and burial the fast-day should be observed on the latter day on the first anniversary, and on the former on all following anniversaries (ShaK to Yoreh De'ah, 402).Origin of Jahrzeit.
Isaac of Tyrnau was probably the first writer to call the anniversary by the German name "jahrzeit"; thus, the term "jahrzeit" can be traced to the sixteenth century. Mordecai Jafe (d. 1612), in his "Lebush ha-Tekelet" (§ 133), was the second writer to use it. The observance of the jahrzeit for parents originated probably in the Middle Ages with the Jews of Germany, where the term itself was used by the Church to denote the occasion of honoring the memory of the dead.
In the Orient, especially in Palestine, the Sephardim were opposed to the Ḳaddish, holding that during the first eleven months it is a prayer for the departed, to assist their souls to enter paradise, and to continue the Ḳaddish after that time would be a reflection upon the dead. But Isaac Luria, the celebrated cabalist of Safed and a native of Germany, explains that "while the orphan's Ḳaddish within the eleven months helps the soul to pass from Gehinnom to Gan 'Eden, the jahrzeit Ḳaddish elevates the soul every year to a higher sphere in paradise" (quoted by Lewysohn, "Meḳore Minhagim," § 98, Berlin, 1846). Manasseh ben Israel similarly says: "Every ascent is like a new departure [death]; hence the popular custom of saying Ḳaddish on the anniversaries, year by year, which custom, however, is strange" ("Nishmat Ḥayyim," ii. 27, Amsterdam, 1652). As a Sephardi but a cabalist he was reluctant to adopt this "strange" custom. The Sephardim finally adopted the jahrzeit custom, which they call "naḥalah" (inheritance).Jahrzeit Candle.
As to the observance of the jahrzeit of a mother's death while the father is still alive, some authorities claim that the father may object on the ground that people might think the jahrzeit intended for him; but this objection has been overruled. The jahrzeit is distinguished by three rites: (1) fasting, which has been relaxed in modern times; (2) the Ḳaddish prayer; (3) the jahrzeit candle, which is kept burning for twenty-four hours. Some authorities pronounce this light to be of Christian origin (Güdemann, "Gesch." iii. 132). Aaron Berechiah of Modena explains that the burning wick in the candle is like the soul in the body, and "man's soul is the candle of God" (comp. Prov. xx. 27); the numerical value of ("burning candle") = 390, and is therefore equal to that of ("the Shekinah"), which likewise = 390 ("Ma'abar Yabboḳ"; "Sefat Emet," xv. 94b, Amsterdam, 1732).
The jahrzeit of Simeon ben Yoḥai, the supposed author of the Zohar, on Lag be-'Omer, is yearly observed at Meron, near Safed, by about 20,000 Oriental Jews with hymns and night illuminations that may be seen miles away. A similar jahrzeit celebration has been lately introduced in honor of R. Meïr Ba'al ha-Nes at Tiberias on the 15th of Iyyar. The jahrzeit of Moses Isserles at Cracow, on the 18th of Iyyar, is observed by the Jews of that vicinity. The Ḥasidim celebrate the jahrzeit of their respective rabbis with accompanying hymns, religious dances, and general rejoicing. This has had a tendency to turn an originally mournful celebration into an occasion of joyous festivity (Bolechower, "Shem Aryeh," § 14; "Publications Am. Jew. Hist. Soc." ix. 68). The Mitnaggedim, the opponents of the Ḥasidim, strenuously objected to this innovation, and even protested against excessive cost in celebrating the jahrzeit of Simeon b. Yoḥai. See Ḳaddish.
- Zunz, Monatstage des Kalenderjahrs, Berlin, 1872;
- Kayserling, Sterbetage aus Alter und Neuer Zeit, Prague, 1891;
- idem, Gedenkblätter, Leipsic, 1892;
- Straschun Catalogue, Liḳḳuṭe Shoshannim, No. 1244, Berlin, 1889;
- The Jewish Year Book, 5663 (1902-3), London (jahrzeit tables 1864-1905);
- Dembitz, Services in Synagogue and Home, pp. 329, 433;
- Ha-Meliẓ, 1884, No. 84;
- Eisenstein, Mourner's Almanac, New York, 1900.