Yahrzeit is an important bereavement period in Jewish culture. While its observance may have some slight variations among different Jewish communities, the core principles remain the same. If you already have a Yahrzeit calendar, it can tell you when to hold this ceremony. If you do not have the calendar, you’ll need to calculate the exact date for the Yahrzeit. But not to worry, this guide explains how to do it.
Basic Terminology and Concepts
Several factors go into calculating the Yahrzeit date. Understanding some basic terms helps to give a full picture of how a particular Yahrzeit date comes about.
- i) Adar: This is the twelfth month in the Hebrew calendar, corresponding to March in the regular Gregorian calendar. Adar has 29 days.
- ii) Rosh Chodesh: This is a minor celebration to mark the beginning of each new month in the Hebrew calendar. It translates as “head of the month.” Depending on the recently ended month, this occasion may be observed for a day or two.
- iii) Nisan: In the Hebrew calendar, Nisan is the first month of spring. It contains 30 days, falling somewhere between March and April in the Gregorian calendar.
- iv) Shevat: This is the eleventh month of the Hebrew calendar, falling somewhere between January and February in the Gregorian calendar.
- v) Yizkor: This translates as “may God remember.” These are prayers recited for the dead only during important Jewish festivals like Yom Kippur, Passover, Shavuot, and Shemini Atzeret.
- vi) Shabbat: This is the seventh day of the week in the Jewish calendar, a day of rest.
- vii) Marcheshvan: Also known as Cheshvan, this is the eighth month of the Hebrew calendar. It has 29 days.
- viii) Kislev: This is the ninth month of the Hebrew calendar. It corresponds to a time somewhere between November and December.
The Jewish calendar year is founded on the principle of the Molad. The Molad, meaning “birth,” is a reference to the appearance of a new moon each month. The accepted length of a Molad (month) is 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes, and 3 and half seconds. This concept becomes crucial later on when calculating a Yahrzeit date involving months with an irregular number of days.
In Jewish culture, a day begins at sunset and not at midnight, as in the Gregorian calendar. Sunset, as the beginning of the day, has its roots in the Hebrew Bible from the verse, “And there was evening, and there was morning, one day.”
Yahrzeit: Anniversary of a Death
Practices involving the death of a family member or a relative are sacred in Jewish culture. Yahrzeit is one such practice. It is a ceremony to remember a deceased person on the anniversary of their death. Unlike yizkor, which is communal worship performed four times a year, Yahrzeit is only for family members. A key theme of the Yahrzeit is to light a candle. This candle is left to burn for the entirety of the day of the anniversary. For safety reasons, electric candles are now available for Yahrzeit for those that would rather avoid the regular ones.
In keeping with the Hebrew calendar, the Yahrzeit begins at sundown when a new day begins.
Determining the Yahrzeit Date
While calculating a Yahrzeit date may seem a simple matter, it is not always straightforward. This is because the number of months in the Hebrew calendar is not fixed; a Jewish leap year tends to have an extra month added to it—the Adar. Also, months like the Cheshvan tend to have a variable number of days depending on the year, much like February has a different number of days in the Gregorian calendar. A Cheshvan can have 29 or 30 days.
When a death occurs on the thirtieth day of Kislev or Cheshvan while the corresponding month of the following year has 29 days, marking Yahrzeit on the thirtieth day is not possible. In such cases, the Yahrzeit is pushed to the next day, the death having indeed occurred after the twenty-ninth day. Here, the day of Yahrzeit is akin to Rosh Chodesh, an occasion at the beginning of a new month. Some Jewish communities go about this differently; they observe the Yahrzeit on the twenty-ninth of the month regardless of the number of days in that month.
Deaths that occur on the thirtieth day of Adar I in a leap year also present some challenges. The thirtieth day of Adar is the Rosh Chodesh of the following month of Adar II. A regular Adar month has 29 days. Some rabbinical authorities choose to push such Yahrzeit to the next day, making it the Rosh Chodesh of Nisan. Other rabbis believe that Yahrzeit should always be on the first day of Rosh Chodesh in such situations, making it the thirtieth day of Shevat.
All the above ways of determining Yahrzeit were used in the old days. Nowadays, the internet has online tools that utilize the above rules and considerations to quickly come up with the right Yahrzeit date.
Rabbinical opinions carry a lot of weight in matters of Yahrzeit. For instance, if the deceased was buried two or more days after death, some rabbinical schools of thought believe it is acceptable for the first Yahrzeit to be observed on the date of burial. Subsequent Yahrzeit ceremonies can then be held on the date of death.
All in all, a respected rabbi can help clarify any Yahrzeit issues if there is ever any doubt about its date.