Which Yahrzeit Should I Observe?
The anniversary of a person’s passing on the Jewish calendar is called a yahrzeit. In Yiddish, yahrzeit means ‘year time’, and is the time once a year when Jewish people acknowledge their loved ones by lighting a candle, saying Kaddish in synagogue, performing mitzvot, and studying Torah. A yahrzeit is very important for the departed because, during this time, the soul experiences an elevation, a greater revelation of G-dliness, in the Heavenly realms.
A yahrzeit usually occurs once a year. But sometimes, like this year, it can occur twice.
The Leap Year in the Jewish Calendar
It all has to do with the structure of the Jewish calendar which is based on a lunar year. This calendar has twelve months, but sometimes, an extra month is added, bringing the total number of months to thirteen. We call this a leap year, and occurs seven times in a nineteen year cycle.
Without a leap year once in a while, the Jewish holidays would rotate around the calendar occurring at different seasons, so it’s important that the holidays occur at the proper time. For example, without a leap year, Passover would eventually occur in the winter and the Torah does not want this:
‘…Keep the month of spring, and make the Passover offering to the Lord, your G-d.’ (Deuteronomy 16:1)
Of the twelve months in the Jewish calendar, the month of Adar was chosen to occur twice during a leap year. We call these months Adar 1 and Adar 2.
Observing the Yahrzeit in a Leap Year
When a person passes away in Adar of a leap year, choosing the month to observe the yahrzeit is pretty straightforward. If the person passed away in Adar 1, the yahrzeit is observed in Adar 1 in a leap year and in the ‘regular’ Adar of a non-leap year. If a person passed away in Adar 2, the yahrzeit is observed in Adar 2 in a leap year and the ‘regular’ Adar in a non-leap year.
But if a person passes away in the ‘regular’ Adar of a non-leap year, when is the yahrzeit observed in a leap year?
Opinions on When To Observe a Yahrzeit in a Leap Year
The Sages of the Gemara and great Rabbis of the past discussed this very question. One opinion is that yahrzeits should be observed in Adar 1 because of the concept that we should not delay doing a mitzvah. Another opinion is that a yahrzeit should be observed in Adar 2 because the mitzvot of Purim are observed in Adar 2. Different Jewish communities have different customs, some observing a yahrzeit in Adar 1 and some in Adar 2. In some communities, the yahrzeit is observed in both Adar 1 and Adar 2.
When Should I Observe My Son’s Yahrzeit?
It’s been almost two years since my son Jacob passed away. He died in Adar during a regular year of twelve months. This year is a leap year, so we have two months of Adar. Should I observe his yahrzeit in Adar 1, Adar 2, or both?
Which is the ‘Real’ Adar?
Rabbi Hershel Schachter in his article ‘Will the Real Adar Please Step Forward’ on torahweb.org, points out that custom alone does not determine when to observe a yahrzeit. Jacob passed away on a particular day and that day may still be a day of judgment for him and our family. Hence, we should do what we can to make sure his soul has an elevation in Heaven with mitzvot such as reciting of Kaddish, learning Torah, giving charity and so forth. The Gemara says the two Adars are the same except for the mitzvot of Purim:
‘…The difference between the first Adar and the second Adar with regard to mitzvot performed during those months is only that the reading of the Megillah and distributing gifts to the poor are performed in the second Adar and not in the first Adar.’ (Megillah 6b)
Hence, both months of Adar are really Adar and both days of a yahrzeit may be considered as days of judgement and elevation.
Two Months of Mourning
My Rabbi recommended observing Jacob’s yahrzeit in both Adars, so that’s what I’ll do. I feel that observing my son’s yahrzeit twice this year is more than just following a custom. It comes down to the meaning of a yahrzeit being the actual date on which my son’s soul ascended to Heaven. It’s not like he’s dying twice this year, but rather it’s just that the day on which he died comes up twice.
I’m not saying that my custom of observing the yahrzeit in both months is the ‘right’ one. The other customs are equally valid. It just depends how one defines the concept of a yahrzeit, and if one wishes to take a strict or more lenient view of things. After all, observing a yahrzeit two months in a row is not really fun. It’s an emotionally hard time for me. In fact, Jacob’s yahrzeit in Adar 1 falls out on Shabbat, which was the day of the week he passed away thus adding to my emotional distress. But I want to have comfort in my mind that I’m getting it as ‘right’ as I can, so I’m following the ‘stricter’ opinion of observing the yahrzeit in both months. It reminds me what Rabbi Eliezer Melamed says in his book The Laws of Shabbat, that if one wishes to be strict, it is commendable. If one wishes to be lenient, there are opinions upon which one can rely.
Twice the Elevation, Twice the Joy
I thought I might be doubly sad over observing Jacob’s yahrzeit twice. But first, I have to remember, it’s not about me but about my son. On a person’s yahrzeit, the soul has additional aliyot in Heaven in addition to the extra elevation experienced due to mitzvot performed by others on his behalf. Because his yahrzeit occurs twice, Jacob will receive multiple aliyot this year. That’s something for me to be happy about.
Also, our joy is increased by having two Adars in one year. The Gemara says: ‘Rav Yehuda, son of Rav Shmuel bar Sheilat, said in the name of Rav – …when the month of Adar begins, one’s rejoicing increases.’ (Taanit 29a)
Rav Yehuda was referring to the joy over the holiday of Purim. The miracle of Purim was hidden. In fact, G-d’s name isn’t even mentioned in the Megillah. Nonetheless, the miracle was there. As Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld points out in his article ‘Happiness and Adar’ on aish.com:
‘…When an open miracle occurs, we get a passing sense of God’s spectacular power. But when the excitement fades, we are left with little to carry us from day to day – and little to make us happy. But when we are given that glimpse that God is always with us, we can always be happy. Life may not always be easy or the way we’d like it to be, but it is always with God. And with God, nothing can go wrong.’
My life is not easy with Jacob not being here, and it’s not the way I’d like it to be. Rabbi Rosenfeld echos the voice of King David in Tehillim who says:
‘…to declare that G-d is just, my Rock in Whom there is no wrong.’ (Psalm 92:16)
G-d knows what He’s doing.