The Meaning of the Yahrzeit Candle and Flame
A yahrzeit candle, also spelled yahrzeit candle or called a memorial candle, (Hebrew: meaning “soul candle”; Yiddish: meaning “anniversary candle”) is a type of candle that is lit in memory of the dead in Judaism.
This kind of candle, that burns up to 26 hours, is also lit on the eve of Yom Kippur or of the Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony to burn through the entire occasion.
In Jewish tradition the candle flame is often thought to symbolize the human soul, and lighting candles is an important part of many Jewish religious occasions, from Shabbat to Passover Seders. The connection between candle flames and souls derives originally from the Book of Proverbs (chapter 20 verse 27): “The soul of man is the candle of God.” Like a human soul, flames must breath, change, grow, strive against the darkness and, ultimately, fade away. Thus, the flickering flame of the Yahrzeit candle helps to remind us of the departed soul of our loved one and of the precious fragility of our life and the lives of our loved ones, life that must be embraced and cherished always.
The use of a yahrzeit candle is a widely practiced custom, where mourners light a yahrzeit candle that burns for 24 hours, on the anniversary of the death on the Hebrew calendar. The word “yahrzeit” in Yiddish means “anniversary” or more specifically “anniversary of a person’s death”. It is customary to light the candle inside one’s home, or near the grave of the deceased. The candle is also lit on Yom Kippur and there are also customs to light a yahrzeit candle on the dates when yizkor is said (Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, final day of Pesach, and Shavuot). It is also customary to light the candle during the shiva, usually a larger one that lasts the entire seven days.
The custom of lighting a yahrzeit candle for the deceased is very widespread and deeply ingrained in Jewish life. Many Jews who are otherwise unobservant follow this custom. Today, some people use an electric yahrzeit candle that plugs into the wall instead of an actual candle for safety reasons.
Traditionally, Yahrzeit candles are lit for the same deceased relatives for whom one would recite the Mourner’s Kaddish (parents, spouses, siblings, and children), but there is no reason one could not light a Yahrzeit candle to honor the anniversary of the death of someone who doesn’t fall into one of these categories (i.e. a friend, grandparent, boyfriend/girlfriend, etc.). Jewish religious law (halachah) does not require lighting Yahrzeit candles, but the tradition has become an important part of Jewish life and mourning.
When to Light a Yahrzeit (Memorial) Candle
Special Yahrzeit candles that burn for 24 hours are generally used for the Yahrzeit but any candle that will burn for 24 hours may be used. The candle is lit at sundown when the Yahrzeit date begins (in the Hebrew calendar, days begin at sunset). Only one Yahrzeit candle is generally lit per household, but individual family members may each light their own candle as well. If you will be leaving the candle unattended be sure to place it on a safe surface. Some families use a special Yahrzeit electric lamp instead of a candle today for safety reasons, since the candle will be burning for 24 hours.
A Yahrzeit Candle is lit traditionally on the following days:
Each day during the week of Shiva (mourning) immediately following a death.
Every year at sundown on the eve of the Yahrzeit (anniversary of the death).
Every year at sundown preceding the start of Yom Kippur and at sundown preceding the last day of the holidays of Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot. These are times when the Yizkor Memorial Prayer Service usually occurs in synagogues.
Calculating a Yahrzeit Hebrew Date
The date of a Yahrzeit is traditionally calculated according to the Hebrew calendar and is the anniversary of the death, not the burial. Sagel Bloomfield Danzansky Goldberg Funeral Care, Inc. has a reminder service. Given the secular calendar date when an individual passed away, the Yahrzeit Calendar at HebCal.com may be used to generate a list of corresponding Yahrzeit dates for the next 10 years. While the Yahrzeit date is usually calculated based on the Hebrew calendar, this is only a custom (minhag), so if someone would prefer to use the secular calendar anniversary of the death rather than the Hebrew date this is permissible.
Prayers to Recite
There are no special prayers or blessings that must be recited while lighting a Yahrzeit candle. Lighting the candle presents a moment to remember the deceased or to spend some time in introspection. Families may choose to use the candle lighting as an opportunity to share memories of the deceased with one another. Others recite appropriate Psalms, such as Psalms 23, 121, 130 or 142.