Can I mark my son's death on the anniversary of the English, rather than the Hebrew date?

March 22, 2012

Question: My son died several years ago on June 24, and although I know the Hebrew yahrzeit is Tammuz 9, this dates holds very little significance for me whereas June 24 always stays in my mind. Is it permissible to observe the English date instead?(Question)

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is the CEO of the Spiritual Capital Foundation.

Brawer`s answer

That very much depends on whether one understands yahrzeit as conferring intrinsic mystical significance on a date or whether one sees it as simply a mechanism for respecting and perpetuating the memory of a departed loved one.

Yahrzeit is Yiddish-German for "anniversary". While technically it could apply to the annual commemoration of any event, the word yahrzeit has become exclusively connected to the practice of annually commemorating the life of a departed loved one.

In the talmudic period this annual commemoration was associated exclusively with a deceased parent and only later on did it come to include other loved ones. It also originated with the practice of fasting on the day and only later in the Middle Ages did it come to encompass the recitation of Kaddish and the lighting of a candle. Since the purpose of these practices is to honour the memory of a loved one at a fixed time each year, provided one is consistent it would not appear to matter much which calendar one uses to chart the passage of time.

There is, however, a rich mystical tradition that sees the yahrzeit date has having intrinsic religious value. The soul of the departed is seen as on a continuous journey striving to draw closer to the divine. Each year on the Hebrew yahrzeit the soul is propelled higher on this journey. This is the source of the somewhat peculiar Yiddish phrase said to those commemorating a yahrzeit: "de neshamah zol haben an aliyah", the soul of your departed loved one should ascend higher in its celestial journey. According to this view, it is the Hebrew date that is central.

These two views are not mutually exclusive. In many areas of Judaism the historical or sociological explanation of a ritual does not necessarily negate its higher mystical rationale. This is particularly true in relation to a ritual that involves souls and the afterlife. No one knows what happens after we die but we do have very powerful traditions rooted in deep spirituality that, if observed, can bring a sense of comfort and connection with the memory of a loved one. By all means find a way of commemorating June 24 but not at the expense of a traditional yahrzeit observance on the Hebrew date of your son's passing. May you find comfort and meaning in this very old and beautiful Jewish ritual and only experience happiness and blessing in the future.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

Romain`s answer

Your question highlights a major problem which is rarely mentioned but does affect many Jews in this country: they no longer feel at home in the Jewish calendar. This may be a cause of regret, but it is a social reality.

It is partly a matter of geography. We are divorced from the seasonal associations of the Land of Israel. Thus, sleeping outside for several nights in a succah in Tishri/October is very pleasant in Israel but can be pneumonia-risking in Britain. An even greater difficulty is that many Jews simply do not have any awareness of what the Jewish month is at any moment. It is no longer our daily reference point.

Life is lived according to the near-universal secular calendar (which is based on Roman origins but is now adopted worldwide irrespective of them). Even in Israel the newspapers carry the secular date alongside the Hebrew one.

Most British Jews rely on synagogue newsletters - or the internet - to tell them when festivals occur, while the longstanding custom of shuls sending out reminder notes as to when a yahrzeit falls was adopted precisely because mourners would miss them otherwise.

Despite this unfamiliarity, the power of tradition is a good reason for maintaining the Hebrew dates of the festivals, both because they were fixed in the Bible and because they are communal events which we all share. However, in the case of intensely personal events, I see no reason why one should not observe the date that is the most meaningful to the individual concerned.

This already applies for most Jews to their wedding anniversary, why should it not apply to a yahrzeit? It is your own grief, it is your own memory, it is your own horror or sadness around that particular day - in this case, June 24 - why should you be obliged to change it to a different time each year to coincide with a Hebrew date that is a stranger to your emotions?

In my own synagogue, we still send out yahrzeit notes, but unless the Hebrew date has been specifically requested, they are according to the English date of the death.

Their purpose is no longer to act as a reminder, but as a letter of comfort and inviting the person to have a mitzvah that Shabbat and feel the warmth of communal camaraderie on the day they are hurting inside the most.

Last updated: 4:06pm, March 22 2012