Rabbinic Responsa

Rabbi Paul Moses Strasko
Congregation Kol Shalom

Yahrzeit Announcements at Services

Date: February 3, 2017

Responsum: Timing of the reading of the memorial list (Yoreh Deah 376.4 / Gates of Mitzvah p. 62/CCAR Responsa 127.)

Question: Should the names of those in the community with a yahrzeit be read on the Shabbat before or following the date of the yahrzeit (should the yahrzeit itself not fall on a Shabbat)?

Answer: There are several elements in this that need to be differentiated, most importantly the mitzvah of saying Kaddish Yatom for a yahrzeit (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 376.4) and the minhag of reading a memorial list as part of Shabbat services in the synagogue.

It is important to understand that there is very little actual law around these questions. Yahrzeit observation is a relatively late addition to Jewish tradition, dating from the Middle Ages. One of the tools we use in making decisions (or suggestions) based on tradition is noting when the minhag/halakhah arose. We use the dictum “kol sefeka de-oraita le-humera, kol sefeka de-rabbanan le-kula” or “any matter of doubt which arises concerning an issue that is Torah-derived should be resolved strictly whereas any issue that is derived from the sages make be resolved leniently.” If the minhag of yahrzeit arose in the Middle Ages, then kal v’chomer (how much more so) do we have the ability to leniently derive our congregational minhag.

Regarding the actual recitation of Kaddish Yatom for a yahrzeit, the halakhah (based on the above cited passage from the Shulkhan Aruch) is to recite Kaddish on the Hebrew day corresponding to the actual date of death on the Hebrew calendar. (This is complicated at Congregation Kol Shalom based on the minhagim in the community: that of saying Kaddish based on the Hebrew calendar for some, and the secular calendar for others. This forces us to use a mixed system of tracking and communicating a yahrzeit. The issue was discussed thoroughly and decided upon in the January 2016 Religious Practices Committee meeting.) There is no halakhah regarding the timing of the reading of a memorial list. In CCAR Responsa 127, Rabbi Walter Jacob writes “…. the recitation of Kaddish is … held on the date of the yahrzeit or on the Shabbat nearest the date (emphasis added), if no service is available on the date itself.” This is as well suggested by the gloss to Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 376.4. Obviously “nearest” is not the practice of most communities, as one chooses the minhag of before or after nearly universally.

The main difference between communities that read a memorial list on the week before (nearly a universal practice in Conservative congregations) and on the week after (the most common practice in Reform communities) is based on the simple practicality of the availability of weekday minyanim. In most Conservative synagogues, there is a weekday minyan where the mitzvah of Kaddish may be fulfilled on the correct date. When viewed through the lense of Conservative vs. Reform practice regarding daily minyanim, the entire purpose for a memorial list read on Shabbat changes. For Conservative congregations, it is a reminder of the upcoming yahrzeit, whereas in Reform congregations, the memorial list becomes the de facto reading of Kaddish.

Temple Beth Ahm in Detroit summarizes the typical Conservative view (emphasis added):

In our congregation, we have an additional custom. At the conclusion of Shabbat morning services, we announce all of the yahrzeits for the coming week. Though I don’t know the exact origin of this custom at Beth Ahm, clearly this is a widespread custom. Many people take the opportunity to come to services that Shabbat prior to a yahrzeit to hear the name of their loved one and to recite kaddish. Though our sources don’t mention a custom like this, I happen to think that it is a nice one. It links people with the community at an important time in the life of our community—Shabbat. We should understand, however, that coming on Shabbat is an additional opportunity, not a substitute for saying kaddish on the actual day of a yahrzeit. It is still important to plan to say kaddish with a minyan on the day of the yahrzeit.

In a synagogue where there is no customary weekday minyan, as is the case with the vast majority of Reform communities, the purpose of the minhag is then to provide the actual opportunity for the family to recite Kaddish and fulfill the mitzvah b’di’avad (a technical but not ideal fulfillment of a mitzvah.) The reasoning for having the name read following the actual yahrzeit comes from the Shabbat’s “ownership” of a week.

In the Jewish calendar, a week is always referred to by the parashah read in the Synagogue. Starting at minchah on Shabbat, the reading for the next week begins, which is then traditionally is read as well on Monday, Thursday and then Shabbat shacharit of that week. That means that each day of a week leading up to Shabbat is all referred to by the parashah of the Shabbat that ends that week. This is not new reasoning, as this is the required reasoning for determining the date of a B’nei Mitzvah, which is counted on the Shabbat following the Hebrew date of birth.

The setting of any policy in a community as diverse as Kol Shalom will never be able to in and of itself satisfy the needs and minhagim of every individual family. The very act of setting this policy to begin with is based on the reality that the vast majority of the families at Congregation Kol Shalom practice their Judaism outside of normative halakhah.

Summary: Recognizing that the reading of the memorial list and the recitation of Kaddish Yatom are two different elements of Jewish practice, and that in a Reform community, the ideal (l’chatchilah) fulfillment of the mitzvah of the recitation of Kaddish for a yahrzeit is not possible without a daily minyan, the decision to have the memorial list read on the Shabbat after the yahrzeit date is based on the precedent of determining the date of a B’nei Mitzvah and on the acknowledgement that the reading of the memorial list in a Reform community becomes a b’di’avad fulfillment of the mitzvah of reciting Kaddish.