My Son’s First Yahrzeit

The Meaning of a Year Gone By Without Jacob

My son, Jacob, just had his first yahrzeit.

This was the day I’d been dreading. Thankfully, it wasn’t the miserable crying fest I thought it would be. My husband and I were around other people during the morning, and in the afternoon, Jacob’s older brother Adam arrived. It was comforting to have him with us. My pangs of grief were considerably lessened.

In Yiddish, yahrzeit literally means ‘year time’, and is the anniversary of a person’s passing on the Hebrew calendar. Although every year a person who has passed away has a yahrzeit, the first anniversary is very meaningful. It was a very important day for Jacob. His soul, now totally purified, ascends higher in the Heavenly realms to be even closer to G-d than it was before.

Since Jacob can no longer perform physical mitzvos, everything we do for him gives his soul pleasure and helps him ascend even higher. There are various customs surrounding the observance of a yahrzeit. Heres’s what we did to mark Jacob’s special day.

The Yahrzeit Candle

Spiritual Symbolism and Physical Benefit

At sundown the previous day, we lit a memorial candle. The light of the candle has a symbolic as well as a physical purpose. From the Mishlei, the Book of Proverbs, we read:

‘The soul of man is the candle of G-d.’ (Mishlei 20:27)

The candle represents Jacob’s connection to G-d. The lamp and the wick represent his body. The flame is symbolic of his soul. When Jacob left this world, it was like a candle that was extinguished, leaving behind darkness. The memorial candle symbolically restores this light to the world he left behind.

In a physical sense, the candlelight also brings happiness to Jacob’s soul. Rabbi Bechayei ben Asher (1255–1340) teaches that the soul actually has joy from the physical flame. Similar to the soul, the flame is etherial, and it’s natural for the soul to be happy because it can relate to something similar. Although the candle’s light is physical and the soul’s light is spiritual, the similarity is there.

The Kaddish Prayer

Praising the Almighty

The Kaddish prayer is typically said during the first eleven months after burial and yearly after that. My husband and sons recited Kaddish today. Although traditionally called the ‘Mourner’s Kaddish’, there is no mention of death or mourning in this prayer. The Kaddish essentially praises G-d. When we recite Kaddish, G-d asks ‘Why are these people praising me?’ When He sees that the person who passed away was a catalyst for this, it’s as if the departed is praising G-d as well. Hence the soul gets reward. 

In the Kaddish prayer, we ask for Moshiach, peace in the world, and a good life for everyone. We pray that the time will come when there will be no such thing as death, no more mourning and crying, and no more suffering in the world. We recite this prayer and take comfort that these things will happen, hopefully very soon.

The Meal

Providing Food and Drink For Others

On a yahrzeit, we have a custom to provide food for those attending the morning prayer service. Usually this consists of a light repast with some liquor such as whiskey or vodka. Due to the Covid situation, our shul did not allow indoor gatherings for meals. Our neighbor graciously allowed us to use their empty garage as a space with which to host this meal. It was comforting to see people gather together in honor of my son.

I always wondered why we set out food and alcoholic beverages to commemorate the memory of a loved one. It looks like we’re throwing a party. The answer is that even though Jacob cannot receive physical benefit from the meal, our providing food for others is a kindness which is a credit for him in Heaven. The people who eat say the appropriate blessings over the food, and this also brings merit for him. 

But why the booze? The Kabbalah teaches that there are spiritual forces in the world which affect one’s mazal. Mazal, usually translated as ‘fortune’, can better be described as an influx of G-d’s spiritual bounty. On a yahrzeit, the mazal of the family members are decreased. However, guests raise the glass of whiskey and wish the mourners life and health. They also wish an aliyah for the departed. The mazal then returns to its full strength.

Torah Study on a Yahrzeit

On a yahrzeit it is also traditional to study sections from the Mishnah, a compilation of the Oral Law. In Hebrew, the word Mishnah has the same letters as the word Neshamah, which means soul. The soul thus acquires merit through those that study Mishnah for its sake. We selected sections from Pirkie Avot, a tractate of the Mishnah, to read during the meal.

Our Visit to the Cemetery

Our Rabbi had instructed us not to visit the grave for a year after the burial so this was our first visit since then. Although I knew it is customary to visit the grave on a yahrzeit, I really didn’t want to go. For weeks I’d been thinking how hard this was going to be. Seeing my son’s name on a headstone is heartbreaking. But I knew it was something I should do, something I had to do. Besides, how would Jacob feel if I didn’t come to visit on his yahrzeit? After all, this whole yahrzeit thing is not about me, but about him.

Thank G-d it didn’t rain or snow the day of our visit so it was easy to drive to the cemetery. The gray headstones stood out in stark contrast to the beautiful blanket of white snow which had fallen a few days earlier. 

It’s a custom to place small rocks at the grave and when we arrived there, I noticed some were already atop the headstone. I don’t know who put them there. We placed our own stones on the headstone, then recited psalms. I poured out my heart to my son. I told him how much I love him and how much I miss him. I said the only thing I wish for him now is to be happy. I asked him to pray that Moshiach should come now, and that G-d should bring Techiat HaMeitim, the Resurrection of the Dead, so he can return in a physical body, healthy and strong. I so much want to hug and kiss him.

What Does This All Mean?

This past year has gone by so fast. People say that a yahrzeit is like ‘turning a corner’, and once one gets past that, the grief lessens. For me, I’m not so sure. Each day, I think about Jacob. I think about him multiple times a day. I think about my other children too, but not as often as I think about Jacob.

Recently, I spoke with Rabbi Asher Resnick, a senior lecturer at Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem. Eighteen years ago, his daughter passed away at age fourteen. He said to me, that even now, a day doesn’t go by that he doesn’t think constantly about his daughter. He explained that losing a child is like losing a limb. We find a way to live life without that limb. However, looking at where the limb should be, it’s painfully clear it’s no longer there.

That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to live my life without Jacob, but everywhere I look, I see that something is missing. Of course, what’s missing is him.

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