QUESTION: A family of a Holocaust victim does not know the precise day of his death and now wishes to choose a date for the Yahrzeit. Is there any guidance which tradition may provide? Can they select any date of the year? Should it be Yom Hashoah or another date? (Rabbi Arnold Fink, Alexandria VA)
ANSWER: The desire to honor the memory of the deceased has been expressed in different ways during various periods of our past. In the Talmudic period no wine was drunk or meat consumed on that day (Ned 12a). In the Middle Ages it seems to have been customary to fast as a way of commemorating on the anniversary of a father's death (Bet Yosef quoting Hagohot Asheri to Tur Orah Hayim 568; Caro to Tur Yoreh Deah 376; Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayim 568.7 ff). The Yahrzeit as we now commemorate it arose as a German Jewish custom which slowly spread throughout the Jewish world (Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 376.4 and Isserles).
The day for Yahrzeit is set by the date of death (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayim 568.8; Yoreh Deah 402.12). There is some controversy about the observance during the first year. Should Yahrzeit be observed to commemorate the day of death or the day of burial. The latter was suggested by Maharil (Responsa #7; Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 402.12 and commentaries for a discussion).
If the date of death was not known then a date was simply chosen (Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayim 568.7 and commentaries). For that purpose any date might be chosen. In this instance one
could make a good case for and against the selection of Yom Hashoah. It is certainly appropriate as it combines the memory of an individual with all the other dead. On the other hand, as this is a general day of mourning, it may not provide enough specific honor for a particular individual. Tradition provides us with no guidance and my personal inclination would be to choose another date and to set that aside specifically for this victim of the Holocaust.