Memorial Prayers

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The main prayer for the dead is known as Yizkor (‘May He remember the soul of …’). Memorial prayers originated in Germany in the form of martyrologies (see MARTYRDOM) for victims of the Crusades and from these Yizkor developed as a prayer for departed parents on Yom Kippur. Later still it became the practice to recite Yizkor on the last days of the festivals. This practice, otherwise incongruous for a festive occasion, derives from the fact that on these days the portion read from the Torah concludes with the words: ‘each with his own gift, according to the blessing that the Lord your God has bestowed upon you’ (Deuteronomy 16: 17), on the basis of which donations to charity were promised, offered for the repose of the souls of the departed.

Another individual memorial prayer of seventeenth-century origin is the ‘El Male Rahamin’ (‘O God full of compassion’) recited at a funeral or when visiting a grave and by the Cantor in the synagogue on behalf of those who are observing the anniversary of the death of a near relative, the Yahrzeit. These memorial prayers of German origin were recited until fairly recently only by Ashkenazi Jews but are now recited also by the majority of Sephardi Jews as well, though often in a slightly different form. Despite the remarks of some of the Geonim that it is futile to offer prayers on behalf of the dead since a man can only gain merit by his deeds while he is alive, these memorial prayers are now exceedingly popular among all sections of Jewry (and see KADDISH).

Subjects: Judaism and Jewish Studies.

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