QUESTION: The family has traditionally lit a Yahrzeit candle to commemorate the death of their father. A recent divorce has divided the family and so husband and wife have continued to light the Yahrzeit candle. The husband wishes to prohibit his former wife from doing so as it was his father who died. Does he have the right to do so? Can the wife continue to light a memorial candle for her former father-in-law? (Arnold Friedman, Trenton NJ)
ANSWER: Commemoration of the dead on the anniversary of their death is a custom which grew more important through the centuries. The custom is of German origin therefore the German name; it was first mentioned by Isaac of Tyrnau in the sixteenth century. It spread to Sephardic Jewry over considerable opposition due to the influence of Isaac Luria, the Kabbalist of Safed. Among Sephardim it is called Nahalah. It has been the practice for the male children to recite a memorial prayer on the anniversary of the death (Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayim 568.8 Yoreh Deah 402.12).
From the Middle Ages onward Yahrzeit candles were also lit. This is probably under the influence of the North German Catholic environment (M. Gudemann Geschichte III). Such a flame was usually lit and the fuel was designed in such a way that it would burn for twenty-four hours whether it was a wax candle or oil was used as in earlier periods. Strictly speaking it is not incumbent upon anyone to light such a candle. Generally the surviving children both sons and daughters did so even if the duty of reciting the qaddish is only incumbent upon the male children.
There would be no objection for a former daughter-in-law, grandchildren or for that matter anyone else who feels that they wish to honor this man to light a Yahrzeit candle. The observance is a fine custom. It is private, not done in the synagogue, and so is no one's specific prerogative. In fact it is commendable that the former daughter-in-law wishes to continue to honor her former father-in-law. She should be encouraged to do so.