Yizkor – A Deeper Form of Joy
BY RABBI HERSHEL SCHACHTER
Many believe that the custom to recite yizkor during the holidays represents a solemn few moments of sadness in the midst of our joy. It is also commonly believed that those whose parents are still alive leave the sanctuary before yizkor in order to avoid “opening one’s mouth to the Satan” (al tiftach peh lasatan). As the recitation of yizkor is an act of mourning, those whose parents are alive should not be present during yizkor, as it would imply, G-d forbid, that they too are in mourning. Finally, many believe that the reason many shuls have the custom to make a “yizkor appeal” on behalf of a charity is because many more people show up for yizkor than on other days of the year, providing a large and captive audience, and a better opportunity for a successful fundraiser.
Though widespread, all three of these assumptions are incorrect! We always recite yizkor on yom tov, when there is a mitzvah of simchah – an obligation to be joyous! Mourning and joy are mutually exclusive, and so it is forbidden to observe any forms of mourning on yom tov.
Why, then, did the custom develop to recite yizkor on yom tov?
In the times of the Tosafists, when the yizkor prayer was originally instituted, the same number of people would attend shul on the weekdays as on Shabbat and yom tov. The yizkor appeal was not instituted “after the fact”, because so many people were reciting the yizkor prayer. Rather, the yizkor appeal was established as an expression of the “joy of yom tov” (simchat yom tov), a way to bring joy to the poor on yamim tovim.
Maimonides writes: “When a person eats and drinks [in celebration of a holiday], he is obligated to feed converts, orphans, widows, and others who are destitute and poor. In contrast, a person who locks the gates of his courtyard and eats and drinks with his children and his wife, without feeding the poor and the embittered, is [not indulging in] rejoicing associated with a mitzvah, but rather the rejoicing of his stomach.” (Laws of Yom Tov 6:18)
The Torah defines true simchah as one who brings joy to others who are less fortunate, such as orphans, widows, and converts. And so the yom tov appeal was established to support and bring joy to the poor and needy, to fulfill the mitzvah of simchah on yom tov. Only later on was the yizkor prayer introduced; once people were already giving charity, it was proper to do so as a merit for their parents, who had raised them to be kind and giving people who fulfill the mitzvah of tzedakah.
Why do those whose parents are alive walk out of the sanctuary during yizkor? The Talmud explains that it doesn’t look right when everyone in shul is praying and one individual abstains, as it suggests the individual does not believe in the efficacy of prayer.
Only last month we celebrated Purim, when we fulfilled the special mitzvot of mishloach manot and matanot l’evyonim. Maimonides writes that if one can afford to go above and beyond the basic obligation of these two mitzvot, “it is preferable for a person to be more liberal with his donations to the poor than to be lavish in his preparation of the Purim feast or in sending portions to his friends. For there is no greater form of simchah than to gladden the hearts of the poor, the orphans, the widows, and the converts. One who brings happiness to the hearts of these unfortunate individuals resembles G-d himself…” (Laws of Megillah 2:17)
In recent years, some have started a new and most meaningful custom: when spending a lot of money on their family bar mitzvah or wedding, they enhance the simchah by sponsoring a bar mitzvah or wedding on behalf of those who can not afford to make one on their own. This is the most glorious way to experience simchah. Chag sameach!
● A version of this essay was originally published at TorahWeb.org
Rabbi Hershel Schachter is Rosh Yeshivah and Rosh Kollel at Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University.