What Do We Do With Yizkor?
What childhood images do the High Holidays stir in your memory? I remember my impatience over the seemingly endless synagogue services balanced with the excitement of knowing something special was happening. Then there was the unusual sight of Jews in uniform, piling in from a nearby naval base to worship with us. They helped pack out our synagogue on Rosh Hashanah. After the Ten Days of Awe came Yom Kippur, and I remember my dad fasting all day. More to the point, I remember the twinge of guilt I felt as I enjoyed my kosher hot dog, knowing the familiar aroma had probably escaped from the kitchen to make his fast just a little more difficult.
As I reminisce about the holiest day of the year, I recall one part of the synagogue service that confused me. Many of us had to leave the sanctuary while the others continued reading from the machzor. Later I learned that this mysterious practice is called the Yizkor service. The living remember loved ones who have died and pledge charity in their memory. Those whose parents are alive exit the room to prevent them from accidentally uttering the prayer for the dead on behalf of the living.
Yizkor is an unusual prayer, unfamiliar to many Jews today. It expresses a belief that might shock many people who recite it without much regard for its meaning.
An orthodox Jewish organization called the Kaddish Foundation explains it this way:
[Yizkor] is rooted in the fundamental Jewish belief in the eternity of the soul. When physical life ends, only the body dies, but the soul ascends to the realm of the spirit where it regularly attains higher levels of purity and holiness. When life is over, the soul can no longer perform good deeds…But there is a way that the disembodied soul can derive new sources of merit…If we, the living, give charity or do good deeds due to the lasting influence or in memory of a departed parent or other loved one, the merit is truly that of the soul in its spiritual realm.”1
It’s doubtful that the majority of Jews actually believe that praying and giving charity on behalf of the dead can “elevate their souls” in the afterlife. Yet that is precisely the focus of Yizkor prayers:
“May God remember the soul of my respected mother [father, husband, wife] who has passed into her eternal rest. I pledge charity in her behalf and pray that her soul be kept among the immortal souls of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Rebekah, Rachel, Leah, and the righteous men and women in paradise. Amen.”
As believers in the Messiah, what do we do when we’re confronted with traditions such as Yizkor? Whether it be during the High Holidays or at the funeral of a friend or family member, what meaning do these prayers hold for us? Is it an appropriate vehicle to express our love for departed friends or relatives? Is it a time when we can join our unbelieving loved ones in Jewish tradition?
We can affirm much of the Yizkor service, which begins with a recitation of selections from Psalms, including 139, 90, 23, 144, 37, 49 and 73. It is always appropriate to turn to Scripture for comfort, whether individually or as part of corporate worship. Any time we have an opportunity to read God’s Word along with unbelieving family and friends, we should take it!
However, when the scriptural portion concludes and the prayers for the dead begin, I feel we should remain silent. We should not pretend to ask God for that which we know is contrary to His Word. The writer to the Hebrews tells us that “man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). It would be comforting to think that we can do something to alter a person’s destiny after he or she passes over, but it would be false comfort. When a person dies, he or she is in the hands of God. We must dwell on the mercy and justice of God at these times and affirm His perfect judgment. As we think about our departed family members, let’s put our trust in God.2
Perhaps you would feel awkward reciting the scriptural portion of the Yizkor service, then keeping silent for the actual prayers for the dead. But stop and think: if one of your unbelieving relatives came to a worship service—be it at a messianic congregation or a traditional church—wouldn’t there be parts of the service that he or she could not say aloud? How would you feel about that? You would understand that it would be wrong for that relative to join in making statements he or she didn’t believe. Why not allow yourself the same consideration as a believer that you would allow someone else as an unbeliever? You can stand with someone, affirming those things you have in common and stating, by your silence, those areas where you disagree.
Of course, not all Jews view the Yizkor as described by the Kaddish Society. Non-Orthodox tend to see the service as a way to honor the memory of the departed and so continue their legacy. Yizkor can be a sad time, a time for people to mourn the loss of those whose lives shaped their own. It can also be a time to express gratitude for all the positive qualities of those who are gone, qualities that have guided and enriched the lives of those who remain.
Even as we remain silent for the portion of the prayers supposed to affect the souls of the departed, we can remember those souls with gratitude for all they contributed to our lives. We can tenderly relate the stories of their lives to others and put into practice those life lessons we learned from them. Of course, in the case of those who have received eternal life in Messiah, we can rejoice in the certain and blessed hope that we will see them in heaven.
Some might wish to create their own Yizkor service for a messianic context. Along with the portions of the Psalms mentioned, perhaps we might add prayers of repentance (along the lines of s’lichot) for any missed opportunities to share the gospel. Our prayer can also affirm that even in the midst of our grief, we will praise God, for though “Weeping may endure for a night,” we know that “joy comes in the morning.” (Psalm 30:5). Finally, our prayer can call on God to help us trust Him and be bold to proclaim His gospel to the living.
After all, this time of year is a challenge for us to involve ourselves in the lives of family members who are still with us. May these holy days remind us to reach out to our family and friends in love with the saving message of Messiah. Yom Kippur provides especially good opportunities for us to do so, with its focus on sin and forgiveness as well as the fate of the dead. May God give us all the courage and compassion to love our families enough to tell them about Yeshua. And this year, may more of our loved ones be sealed in the Lamb’s Book of Life!
- One of the most difficult challenges that faces us as Jewish believers in Jesus is to prepare for, or to mourn, the death of an unbelieving loved one. Three years ago, David Brickner wrote an article for The Mishpochah Message titled “The Facts of Death” dealing in depth with this and related issues.
North American Director
Stephen's grandparents immigrated to America from Eastern Europe in the early 20th century, ultimately settling in the Chicago area. As a boy, Stephen enjoyed sports and excelled in school. In his high school years he began to question the values he had been raised with, and instead of focusing on academics, began to spend all his time playing guitar and harmonica. Over the next few years he searched for answers to his many questions about life, eventually becoming a follower of Yeshua. Three weeks after receiving his bachelor's degree in social work from the University of Illinois, he got married and began to work with abused and neglected youth in a residential treatment center in Chicago, which he did for 10 years (taking one year out to live on a kibbutz in Israel). He received his master's degree in social work from the University of Illinois in 1984. He and his young family attended a messianic congregation for 13 years, where Stephen served as the worship leader. In 1989, Stephen began missionary training with Jews for Jesus and now serves as North American Director. For 12 years he oversaw our work in Israel and still continues to be involved with our work there. Laura and he have four children, three of whom are married. He received a master's degree in intercultural and Jewish studies from Fuller Theological Seminary in 1997. Stephen is known to be a warm-hearted and engaging teacher and a good listener.