Honoring the Dead on Yom Kippur
Jewish Day of Atonement offers a unique way of handling grief
My grandmother died in the fall of 2009. It had been a long time coming — she’d had a serious stroke some seven years before, and she’d spent the past month in a New York hospital, laid low by a number of maladies.
That fall was filled with a horrible tension, born from the knowledge that, at 83, she was unlikely to recover. I didn’t want the woman who had helped raise me to die — but I also very much wanted the waiting, and her suffering, to be over.
It always strikes me as a strange coincidence that she passed away on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement and probably the most emotionally wrought day of the Jewish calendar. Yom Kippur is, in its own way, a kind of death and rebirth. Like the dead, Jews do not eat or drink on Yom Kippur. We spend the day in prayer, asking God’s forgiveness for our sins against Him.
On Yom Kippur, we halt all the activities of regular life — washing, cleaning, eating, cooking, driving. We spend the day in a sort of suspended animation, reflecting on our lives and our relationship with God. Some people even wear white clothing resembling funeral shrouds. Between Rosh Hashanah, when we believe the Book of Life (the book that inscribes the names of everyone destined to go to heaven) is opened, and Yom Kippur, when we believe the Book of Life is closed, we spend 10 days in a kind of life-flashes-before-your-eyes limbo. We hope and pray we’ve done enough to make the cut.
If you look at the kosher section of your local supermarket around this time of year, you will probably see a short, round white candle encased in glass. These yahrzeit candles are traditionally lit only a few times a year — on the anniversary of someone’s death, and on the four specific holidays in which we also honor the dead in synagogue, a ritual called yizkor.
My grandmother’s death left a hole in my life and in the world that can only be filled by aspiring to be as unconditionally loving as she was.
History suggests yizkor was originally only performed on Yom Kippur, as part of the charity requirements of the holiday — an opportunity for the living to do good work on behalf of the deceased. It remains one of the major events of the Day of Atonement. One of my earliest memories is standing outside Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn on Yom Kippur, waiting for my mother to finish saying yizkor for my grandfather. The word itself means remembrance — and it is our duty to honor the dead and to ask God to remember them, as the Days of Awe draw to a close.
During the High Holy Days, we don’t aspire to put only ourselves in the Book of Life — we also atone and ask for that privilege for our deceased relatives. Since the dead can no longer affect the living world, we do good deeds on their behalf.
In this process we are reminded of all those who came before us, and how much we have left to do in service of Tikkun Olam (“repairing the world”).
My grandmother was a kind and compassionate woman. No matter what was going on in her life, she always had a smile for me and ample time to talk. Her death left a hole in my life and in the world that can only be filled by aspiring to be as unconditionally loving as she was. So, on this Yom Kippur, as I say the yizkor in her honor, I will look forward to the new year and to a future where I can do good work in her name.