Review by Israel Drazin
May God Remember
Memory and Memorializing in Judaism
Edited by Rabbi Dr. Lawrence A. Hoffman
Jewish Lights Publishing, 2013, 283 pages
This is the fourth volume in the very informative “Prayers of Awe Series” edited by Dr. Hoffman where he offers essays by some three dozen rabbis and scholars on the most noteworthy prayers of the Jewish High Holydays, Rosh Hashana (New Years) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). The three prior volumes addressed Kol Nidrei, Unetaneh Tokef, and the two prayers seeking repentance Ashamnu and Al Chet. The contributors told the history of the development of the prayers, how different communities had slightly different versions, and what the prayers mean. They also discussed the problems associated with each prayer. For example, the Yizkor prayer, which means “remember,” calls upon God to remember. Does it imply that God can forget and needs humans to remind God how to act properly? Does the Yizkor prayer affect the dead in any way? If so, how can the deeds of living descendants improve the after-life of a dead relative? Assuming that the dead are rewarded or punished, relatives should receive recompense based on their own deeds. In each volume the contributors gave information that very few people know.
This volume, as I said, addresses the Yizkor prayer that is recited on Yom Kippur as well as the last days of the three holidays Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. It contains 36 essays, including two classical ones by the late Rabbi Dr. Solomon B. Freehof, “How it all began,” and the late Rabbi Dr. Jakob J. Petuchowski, “Kaddish and memorial services.” Some of the other essays address such matters as their author’s view of what happens when people die, remembering the holocaust, remembering our past as a service directed toward the future, and the all-together different practice by Sephardic Jews called Hashkavah, literally, “Laying Down,” in the sense of laying down the dead for final repose.
What is the origin of Yizkor?
The custom of reciting Yizkor on the solemn holiday of Yom Kippur began in Germany in the eleventh century following the devastation of Rhineland Jewry during the Crusades, a trauma that was exacerbated in the fourteenth century when Jews were butchered because non-Jews were convinced that they caused the Black Plague. It was originally a personal family prayer recited to remember their dead, but it soon became a prayer recited within a community in synagogues on Yom Kippur.
The custom of reciting Yizkor spread eastward very quickly and Polish Jews supplemented it with a prayer remembering the Jewish victims of the 1648 Cossack massacre under the leadership of Bogdan Chmielnicki. The Polish Jews also extended the recital of Yizkor beyond the sole recitation on Yom Kippur to the last days of the three festivals Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot.
The additional recitals were made because of popular feelings, but it raised a problem that has not been satisfactorily answered: Yizkor can fit into the Yom Kippur services because Yom Kippur is a solemn day, but the three other holidays are happy days, why add a somber prayer to mar these holidays.
The volume also addresses the prayer El Malei Rachamim, “God full of mercy,” which is also recited in memory of deceased relatives and beseeches mercy for the dead. It is recited alone, frequently during the yartzeit, the anniversary of the death, as well as together with Yizkor. It is a late seventeenth century addition added because of the Chmielnicki massacres.
Some of the contributors to this volume also discuss a third memorial prayer Av Harachamim, “Father of Mercy,” which custom has placed for recital during most Sabbath services, and is not combined with Yizkor. While the two other memorial prayers changed from being a recollection of mass murders to a memorial for family dead, Av Harachamim remains a prayer that recalls the Chmielnicki massacres.
Today, Jews who rarely attend any other service come to synagogues to recite Yizkor and El Malei Rachamim, but since they do not come on ordinary Sabbaths, they do not recite or even know about Av Harachamim.