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I. Learning, Mitzvot and Charity "In Merit Of" the Soul

  1. There is nothing greater we can do for the soul of those who have departed this world than to accept upon ourselves an increase in good deeds and positive achievements to be done lizchut--"in merit of"--and l'ilui nishmat, "for the elevation of the soul". The children, relatives and friends should undertake to do additional Torah learning (particularly, the study of Mishnah), to give to charity, and to increase their good deeds.

  2. A common practice is to accept upon oneself an improvement in the observance of a particular mitzvah. Of particular merit is to establish a charitable fund or an institution devoted to a positive goal, in merit of the departed.

II. Kaddish

  1. Reciting Kaddish. One of the most sacred rituals observed by all Jews throughout the generations is the practice of reciting the Kaddish prayer for the merit of the departed soul of one's father or mother.
    Click here for the text of Kaddish — in Hebrew, transliteration and translation.
    Click here for an Interactive Kaddish Trainer.

  2. The first eleven months. The Kaddish is recited for the first time in the cemetery, immediately following the burial. Henceforth, it is recited every day, in the designated places in the three daily prayer services, for eleven months.

  3. On the yahrtzeit. Kaddish is also recited every year on the yahrtzeit — the anniversary, on the Jewish calendar, of the person's passing. (See "Yahrtzeit" below.)

  4. Who recites Kaddish. The duty to recite Kaddish rests upon the children of the deceased. If a person dies without children, then another relative should assume the task. If that is not possible, then another person can be assigned or hired to recite Kaddish in the merit of the deceased.

  5. The Minyan. Kaddish can only be recited at a minyan — a communal regular prayer service held with the participation of at least ten adult (age 13 or older) Jewish men.

  6. Leading the service. If the mourner is able to lead the prayer service for the congregation, it is a particular merit for the soul of the departed for him to do so.

III. Grave Marker and Unveiling

  1. Rachel's memorial. The custom of memorializing the dead with a grave marker is a time-honored Jewish tradition dating back to biblical times. In Genesis 35:20, the Torah mentions the matzeivah (memorial stone) which Jacob erected over the grave of his wife, Rachel.

  2. When should the gravestone be erected? Immediately upon the burial, a temporary marker with the deceased's name is placed upon the grave. The gravestone may be put up any time after the Shivah (seven days of mourning). It is best to do so as soon as possible — preferably on the very day that the mourners "get up" from the Shivah.

  3. The inscription. At a minimum, the gravestone should include the Hebrew name and father's name of the deceased, and the Hebrew date of his or her passing. In addition, it is customary to write about the virtues and achievements of the deceased. In this, one should follow the common practice of the markers on the other graves in the vicinity, so as not to markedly exceed (thereby insulting those interred nearby) nor diminish (thereby being disrespectful towards the deceased) from the norm.

  4. The "Unveiling." A brief ceremony is usually held at the graveside upon the erection of the memorial stone, which includes the recitation of Psalms and the Kaddish.

IV. The Yahrtzeit

  1. Annual day of memorial. The anniversary, on the Jewish calendar, of a person's passing, is his or her "Yahrtzeit." On this day we remember and memorialize the life and accomplishments of the departed soul, and rededicate ourselves to perpetuate his or her legacy and undertake additional good deeds for the elevation of the soul.

  2. Kaddish and prayer. On the Jewish calendar, the day begins at nightfall of the previous evening and ends at nightfall. During this 24 hour period, Kaddish is recited by the children of the deceased (or by whoever is observing the yahrtzeit) in the three daily services—evening, morning and afternoon. If possible, the one observing the yahrtzeit should also lead the prayer service.

  3. Learning and charity. Torah should be studied in the merit of the soul; a time-honored custom is to study Mishnah (the compilation of Torah law that forms the crux of the Talmud), the word mishnah having the same Hebrew letters as neshamah, "soul." Extra charity should be given on the yahrtzeit for the merit of the soul's elevation.

  4. Kiddush and l'chaim. It is customary to serve a kiddush in the synagogue on the Shabbat preceding the yahrtzeit and a small repast on the day of the yahrtzeit itself. The saying of the blessing L'chaim ("To Life!") and saying words of Torah on these occasions is considered to be of particular merit to the soul.

  5. Visiting the grave. It is customary to visit the graves of loved ones around the time of their Yahrtzeit (see "Visiting the Gravesite" below).

  6. Yahrtzeit Calculator. Click here to calculate a yahrtzeit based on the secular date of the passing.

V. Visiting the Gravesite

  1. It is customary to visit the graves of loved ones around the time of their Yahrtzeit as well as each year before the High Holidays.
    The premise this custom is based on is two-fold:
    There is always a trace of the soul present at the body's resting place. Just as the site of the Temple in Jerusalem remains holy, as "holiness never goes away" so, too, the repository of the soul retains a trace of the soul's holiness. Hence we are in contact with the presence of our loved one—which inspires our prayers to G‑d we offer at the grave site.
    The soul —who is aware of our deeds— sees that we continue to respect and love it. This arouses the soul to stand before G‑d and join us in our prayers, eliciting a divine response.

  2. The cemetery is holy ground and demands respect. One should observe proper decorum when visiting graves, avoiding talk of mundane matters and remaining involved in prayer and meditation the entire time one is there.

VI. Yizkor

  1. Memorial prayer. Four times a year — on Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret (the eighth day of Sukkot), the last day of Passover, and the 2nd day of Shavuot — a special memorial prayer, called "Yizkor," is said in the synagogue in remembrance of the soul of a departed father or mother, which also includes a pledge for charity in their merit.

  2. Private moment. Only those who have a father or mother no longer among the living remain in the synagogue during the Yizkor service. Everyone else leaves the room, allowing the children of the departed a solemn private moment to unite with the memory of their parents.

  3. Yizkor text. Click here for the text of Yizkor — in Hebrew, transliteration and translation.