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    Out of the woodwork

    Yom Kippur always fills the synagogues, especially for Yizkor, the memorial prayer which the German minhag called Mazkir.

    If Yizkor did not exist it would need to be invented.

    It lets us think of those who are no longer with us: we see them in their accustomed places, we commend them to God.

    Memorial prayers have been part of Yom Kippur for centuries. Maybe it even originated in Moses’ lifetime when Caleb went to the graves of the patriarchs to seek their intercession (Sotah 34b).

    According to the Midrash, in the verse “Forgive Your people Israel whom You have redeemed” (Deut. 21:8), “Your people” are the living, and “whom You have redeemed” are the dead.

    Some ge’onim opposed these prayers, arguing that it is our own deeds, not other people’s prayers, that determine our fate, but folk feelings were sometimes stronger than rabbinical logic, and Yizkor became entrenched.

    At first it was limited to Yom Kippur, probably because the Torah reading is Acharei Mot, “after the death (of the sons of Aaron)” (Lev. 16:1). The Roke’ach (sec. 217) finds a hint of Yizkor in the words, “to atone for your sins” (Ex. 30:15-16). It is even suggested that on Yom HaKippurim – a plural name – there is one kippur (atonement) for the living and one for the dead.

    Yizkor was extended to three pilgrim festivals when the Torah readings about matt’nat yad, charitable offerings, recall the verse “Charity saves from death” (Prov. 10:2).

    Some communities omit Yizkor in the first year; the Kol Bo Al Avelut quotes a source which says that omitting Yizkor is like robbing the dead.

    In many places Yizkor brings an exodus from the synagogue by those with parents still living – strange, since nobody walks out when Kaddish is said. Surely those whose parents are alive should thank God and ask Him to prolong their parents’ years. Yizkor also prays for those who died as Jews and/or Israelis. How can anyone just chat outside whilst the kedoshim and gibborim are recalled?

    Yizkor used to bring people out of the woodwork. On Yom Kippur it wasn’t so evident because the day was always crowded. But on the Three Festivals, telepathy must have informed people that Yizkor was imminent. People – sometimes carrying shopping bags – appeared out of the blue, standing at the back or around the sides of the synagogue.

    White-jacketed doctors, dentists and nurses would take a few minutes away from their patients to come to the synagogue. Some doctors even came with stethoscopes around their necks.

    In many cases it was Holocaust survivors who specially came to pray for the martyrs. But now that the years have passed and few survivors are left, the influx is smaller.

    The Yizkor “remembrancers” (Isaiah 62:6-7) are mostly gone. The rest of us have to be their remembrancers, take their places, remembering on their behalf, pleading with God to sanctify their and the martyrs’ souls.

    Yizkor has a broad connotation. The thought of death should make everyone a better human being. As a liturgical poem says, “Moses died: who does not die?”

    Life is limited. Why continue the grudges and grievances that separate us from others, even our close relatives? Why not emerge from the shadows and look at ourselves?

    Why defer increasing the world’s store of goodness for another day, when we may lack the physical, mental and emotional energy?

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