Childhood is that wondrous kingdom where nobody dies, where the family elders live forever and where reality tarries behind the next hill. And so, in many middle-class homes, young children are temporarily shielded from the very sad events that are the inevitable bumps in life’s road.
The death of a favored grandparent, to a 3-year-old, is understood first as an unexplained household mourning, then the absence of the loved one and, sometimes, the lighting of a solitary candle. Euphemisms help but only for a short interval until life’s fitful fever ends and the permanence of death supervenes. In a short while, this innocent child will reluctantly conclude that only he is immortal.
In time, memories will accumulate for this youngest, not in proportion to their significance but as selective recollections preserved from the outer margins of past remembrances. The custom of burning a candle on the anniversary of a parent’s death is not new; it probably dates back to biblical times. It is still observed in Jewish homes a year after the death of a loved relative.
And the fate of that commemorative candle originally housed in a small glass container? It was preserved as a drinking glass in thousands of tenement kitchens in America.
During this columnist’s later childhood – during a period known as the Great Depression – nothing except garbage was considered expendable. And so, as the years went by, these former candleholder glasses grew in number. Initially called yahrtzeit glasses, in time, they became known only as ordinary drinking glasses. For me, their presence in neighborhood kitchens readily distinguished Jewish households from non-Jewish homes.
Historians suggest the origins of the formal yahrtzeit ceremony can be traced to the writings of a renowned 14th century rabbinical scholar of Hungarian heritage, Isaac of Tyrnau. His commentary on pious acts of remembrance was translated into German and published in 1590. And so, while the yahrtzeit custom may have been observed during the Middle Ages, its widespread use arose in the Jewish congregations of 16th-century Germany.
By the 17th century, at least in western Ashkenazi congregations, the yahrtzeit observance had been defined as requiring a period of fasting, reciting the Kaddish prayer and burning the yahrtzeit candle for a 24-hour period.
Sephardic congregations were slower to adopt the formal one-year anniversary ritual observance of the German Jewish communities and, particularly, the recitation of Kaddish on such occasions. On the other hand, Isaac Luria of Safed – Isaac ben Solomon Luria Ashkenazi (1534-1572), a venerable rabbi and Kabbalist scholar living in the Galilee region of Ottoman Palestine, observed, “the anniversary Kaddish elevates the soul every year to a higher sphere in paradise.”
A succession of talmudic scholars then offered commentary on the symbolism of a lighted candle, often referring to a line in Proverbs (20:27): “The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord.”
It should be stressed that yahrtzeit observations had not been confined solely to departed parents. In many Jewish communities, great rabbinical teachers of the past were celebrated on the anniversary of their deaths.
For example, the anniversary date of the death of Simeon ben Yohai, a first-century sage and disciple of Rabbi Akiva, is recognized by many Jewish communities in the Middle East, most particularly, in Safed, Israel.
Moses Isserles (1520 – 1572) of Krakow, Poland, was a highly respected Jewish law scholar. The anniversary marking the date of his death was observed, even until the 20th century, with hymns and even dancing, by Ashkenazi communities in central Poland.
Why light candles? Perhaps as a hint of a divine presence or as a reminder of life’s fragility and frailty. Certainly, it is not that the dead will care.
Voltaire reminded us that we owe respect to the living, but to the dead we owe only truth.
Stanley M. Aronson, M.D., (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a resident of Providence.