My mother passed away last year and now it is coming up to her yahrtzeit. Are there special things I should be doing on that day? What about the yahrtzeit of a grandparent or cousin, etc.?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
On the anniversary of death, perhaps the best-known custom is to light a candle that will burn for 24 hours. The lighting of the candle recalls the scriptural verse that says, "The candle of God is the soul of man" (Proverbs 20:27). Lighting the candle reminds us that the soul is eternal. Although a candle is extinguishable, this is only because it runs out of resources to use. Had there been more wax and wick, the flame would still be burning.
The same can be said about the soul: Even though the physical part of the person has retired, the soul continues to burn brightly. The commentary “Elef HaMagen” writes that the lighting of the candle actually gives the deceased person's soul enjoyment, as that is the one time of the year that it is able to leave its resting place and travel around the world. When it sees the candle burning for it, it receives spiritual satisfaction.
The yahrtzeit candle is lit at sunset, since the Jewish day begins at sunset.
Mourners’ Kaddish should be recited on the day of the yahrtzeit. The Kaddish does not mention the dead, but is rather a praise of God. We declare that even though we have suffered a loss, we acknowledge that God knows best, and we place our trust in Him. It is a merit for the deceased to be the cause, so to speak, of having this praise of God expressed publicly.
In addition to saying Kaddish, you should try to lead the prayer service and also say "Borchu" during the morning and evening service. Also, the Shabbat before the yahrtzeit, the mourner is entitled to an aliyah during the Torah Reading. He should also lead the Mussaf prayer if he knows how.
The story is told of Rabbi Mordechai Gifter who was flying from Cleveland to New York City for a wedding, accompanied by some of his students. Due to extreme weather conditions, the flight was repeatedly delayed, and in the end Rabbi Gifter arrived in New York too late to make the wedding.
As they were pondering why God had caused their plans to go awry, the group decided to pray the evening Maariv service, right there in the airport. At that minute, a stranger walked up to Rabbi Gifter and asked sheepishly, "May I join your minyan to say Mourners’ Kaddish?" The man explained that his father had died recently, and had come to him in a dream requesting that the son say Kaddish. "But I don't know where to find a minyan!" the man protested to his father in the dream.
"Don't worry," said the father. "I'll arrange for you a minyan!"
On the day of the yahrtzeit, the study of Mishnah is an important way to help elevate the soul. Upon its departure from the body, a person’s soul finds that it is not able to function to its maximum extent, since that it was not perfected. The word itself, MiSHNah, can be rearranged to spell the word NeSHaMa, which means soul. Studying Mishnah helps perfect the soul.
The custom of learning Mishnah on the yahrtzeit involves studying the chapters whose initials letter spell out the name of the deceased. The seventh chapter of tractate Mikva’ot is also learned since that word Neshama can found in the initials.
Another custom is to give tzedakah, money to charity, on the day of the yahrtzeit.
The Sages say that on Rosh Hashanah, both the living and the dead are judged. This is difficult to understand, since only the living perform deeds in this world. The answer is that this judgment of the dead is based on the influence that a person continues to have – for the good or for the bad. So if those who knew the deceased use his legacy for inspiration to help others, serve God, etc., then that is accrued merit that can benefit the deceased in the eternal world of souls. In that way the soul receives the help it needs, and the living are able to do an incredible act of kindness for their dearly departed.
Therefore, the most important part of the raising the spiritual level of a soul, iluy neshama, is that the children proceed in the path of righteousness. In this manner they bring merit to their parents (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 26:22). Of course, this can be done not only by the children of the deceased, but even by grandchildren, distant relatives, and even friends.
To learn more, read the book "Mourning in Halachah" (artscroll.com).