Pesah – Last Day

By Simcha Raphael, PhD

Yizkor – Remembrance of Souls on the Eighth Day of Passover

On the eighth day of Passover we recite Yizkor prayers in memory of deceased family members. In our contemporary society, we think of Yizkor as an efficacious bereavement ritual honoring and remembering deceased loved ones. However, underlying the origins of Yizkor was a different worldview, one that assumed consciousness survives bodily death, and that through prayer and charity one could have a beneficent impact on the soul of the deceased. Understanding this view more fully, and exploring the historical evolution of Yizkor, can add a depth of meaning to our Yizkor prayers this year.

Earliest references to prayers for the dead date back to Hasmonean times. Judah Maccabee and cohorts offered prayers and sacrifices on behalf of fallen comrades “that they might be set free from their sins” (II Macc. 12:45). In Rabbinic teachings, the living are responsible to help cleanse sins of the dead, and redeem souls from the postmortem realm of Gehenna. A mutual benefit system existed: the living redeemed the dead through prayer and charity, in turn, the dead interceded benevolently in human affairs.

In medieval death literature we find prayers asking the dead to help women find spouses and have children. Similarly in Eastern European folk tradition, deceased relatives frequently appeared – like Fruma-Sarah and Tzeitel in Fiddler on the Roof – to recommend specific marriage partners.

This point of view, assuming ongoing contact between the living and the dead, was foundational in the creation of medieval Yizkor traditions. The first formal liturgy of Hazkarat Neshamot – remembrance of souls – emerged in the late 11th century CE. Following the First Crusade in the Rhineland (1096 CE), a practice developed memorializing those who died “in sanctification of the Name” (al Kiddush HaShem). Special liturgies were created, and as we do now at 9/11 commemorations, extensive name lists of martyrs were recited.

Over time, the process of remembering the dead expanded: not only the martyred dead, also synagogue “makhers” were remembered, with Yizkor prayers offered on behalf of deceased community leaders, and their names added to memorial books. This, however, presented a slight dilemma. Whereas martyrs who died in sanctification of G!d’s Name did not need redemption from sin – Kiddush HaShem itself was the atonement, community leaders and benefactors required postmortem atonement. And the best time for such atonement? Yom Kippur!

The Torah reading for Yom Kippur begins with words Aharei Mot, “after the death.” As well, Rabbinic tradition asserted that the dead could be redeemed through giving of charity – tzedakah – and fasting, two practices central to Yom Kippur. Soon Yom Kippur emerged as the ideal day for Yizkor prayers honoring deceased community leaders.

And if martyrs and makhers could be memorialized – what about ordinary balebatim – Joe and Jane Jew? Over time, it was natural that families wanted to memorialize their deceased relatives. By the 1600s, Yizkor evolved into what think of today as a “family memorial liturgy.” This practice, four centuries after the Crusades, became the paradigm of our present-day tradition of saying Yizkor remembering deceased loved ones.

So where do the shalosh regalim fit into this slice of liturgical history? What is the connection between Yizkor and Pesah?

In the early 17th century recitation of Yizkor was extended to Sukkot, Pesah and Shavuot. How did that happen? Since the pilgrimage Festivals are described as zeman simhateinu, our time of joy, it seems anomalous to be deemed a time for memorializing the dead.

It is true that in choosing to say Yizkor on the shalosh regalim, Judaism affirms the inter-woven juxtaposition of life and death. It is exactly in the midst of our celebration that we take time to remember those with whom we once shared the “oys” and joys of life. Unlike our Westernized American culture, traditional Jewish values do not attempt to deny, ignore or sanitize the reality of death. As Pesah ends, we remember we were once slaves in Egypt. We also respectfully remember deceased loved ones, and martyrs of the Jewish people.

However, one possible explanation for reciting Yizkor at the end of Sukkot, Pesah and Shavuot – a proof text for liturgical innovation – is found in the Torah reading for those days. Deut. 16:17 describes the bringing of offerings to the ancient Temple: “each of you must bring a gift in proportion to the way Adonai your G!d has blessed you”. The Hebrew phrase here is ish ke’matnat yado – literally “according to the gifts of his hand.” The term Matnat Yad, “gift of the hand” came to be understood as the tithing, gifts of tzedakah, made on Festivals and Yom Kippur. What was the function of Matnat Yad? For the upkeep of the congregation, and more importantly, to redeem souls of the dead.

The early history of Yizkor teaches us that recitation of memorial prayers was about negotiating a relationship between the living and the souls of the dead. For our ancestors, between the world of the living and the world of the dead was a window not a wall. With modernity the window of connection to the world beyond was sealed. But this year, by attuning to the deeper layers inherent in Yizkor practices, perhaps we can open the window to our loves ones in the world beyond.

This Pesah let us remember that Yizkor provides each of us a rich opportunity to attune to the soul and spirit of those beloved ones we are remembering. We remember that we were slaves in Egypt. But we also remember that we are sons and daughters of parents, siblings and spouses who, although no longer alive, are still deeply connected with our souls and life destiny. And our Yizkor prayers allows us to feel the guiding presence of loved ones as intercessors and spiritual guides, and to invite their ongoing participation in our hearts, homes, and family life.


Simcha Raphael, Ph.D., is in the Rabbinical Program at the Academy for Jewish Religion, and works as an Adjunct Associate Professor in the Jewish Studies Program of Temple University, and as a Rabbinic Intern in the Jewish Hospice Network of Philadelphia. He is author of the book Jewish Views of the Afterlife.