Contemporary American Reform Responsa

125. Yahrzeit for a Brother

QUESTION: An uncle has asked a young lady to recite qaddish upon the occasion of the yahrzeit of her deceased brother. The brother died before the young lady was born. Is the woman, according to tradition, required to observe this yahrzeit? (Rabbi H. Greenstein, Jacksonville, FL)

ANSWER: We must make a distinction here between mourning and yahrzeit. Mourning is obligatory for eight relatives, father, mother, sister, brother, son, daughter, husband and wife (Lev. 21.2; M. K. 20b; Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 374.4 ff). This obligation does not, however, carry over to yahrzeit. Hazkarat neshamah originally began as a way of honoring deceased teachers and was used only to commemorate them. Eventually the memorial date was also used to recall parents (Ned. 12a; Sheb. 14a) and this was usually connected with a fast.

Yahrzeit, as we now know it with the lighting of a candle, the recital of qaddish and fasting, was first mentioned by Isaac of Tyrnau in the sixteenth century (Mordechai Jaffe, Levush Hatekhelet #133). It has eventually become a very widespread custom (Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 402.12). The order of precedence among mourners for the recital of the qaddish at services has been much discussed in Ashkenazic circles. When yahrzeit is included, it is always mentioned as commemorating a mother or father. The obligation of reciting qaddish exists for parents and not other members of the family. As with all matters connected with mourning and yahrzeit, there has been a slow movement to include other members of the family, especially through local customs. I am sure that the uncle in this family is thinking along those lines.

Although there is no obligation to recite qaddish on the yahrzeit date for a brother or sister whom one knew, nor for a sibling who died before one's birth, it is, however, a worthy custom. It will continue the memory of the deceased and honor that memory.

September 1985

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