If you visit a cathedral or a large Catholic church, you may see rows of candles that people light to represent prayers. Candles are also a common feature at makeshift memorials after tragedies such as the death of a public figure, school shootings, and the 9/11 attacks. Lighting candles is a part of many Jewish traditions, including kindling a special menorah at Hannukah and lighting candles to welcome the Sabbath. Likewise, lighting yahrzeit candles is one way that Jewish people grieve after someone dies.
Yahrzeit comes from the Yiddish word for “anniversary” and marks the anniversary of a loved one’s death. In Jewish tradition, one lights a candle on this day to remember the departed. The yahrzeit candle is usually lit for a close relative—a parent, spouse, child, or sibling. However, one may light a yahrzeit candle for anyone they knew, including a friend or neighbor. Families or groups grieving over the same person may opt to light a single candle together instead of lighting several separately.
Yahrzeit candles are also lit during shivah—the seven-day period of mourning immediately following burial—and on certain holidays. The mourner lights a candle at home and in the synagogue, allowing each to burn for twenty-four hours. Certain companies manufacture candles specifically for this practice, but any candle that can burn for an entire day may serve as a yahrzeit candle. Some people even use an electric lamp instead to avoid the risk of fire.
The burning light symbolizes immortality. This notion comes from Proverbs 20:27, which some see as connecting a flame with a person’s soul: “The spirit of man is the lamp of the Lord, searching all the innermost parts of his being.” Thus, lighting a candle communicates that although the person in question has died, their soul goes on. Some more religious interpretations of Judaism view the yahrzeit candle in mystical terms, such as a symbol of the three main components of one’s soul. However, most people who light a yahrzeit candle do so as a tangible way to remember and honor the person who died.
Reciting a prayer is not an essential part of this tradition, but it is common to read some psalms or say Kaddish, a worshipful prayer that is part of Jewish mourning customs. The practice of saying prayers on the anniversary of someone’s death probably originated during Israel’s exile in Persia. Lighting candles for the dead has also been part of Jewish tradition for many centuries. Indeed, the Mishnah, a collection of rabbinic teaching compiled around ad 200, refers to candles honoring the deceased (Berakhot 51b:17).
Jewish mourning practices can teach valuable lessons on the importance of remembrance and lament. That is why, at our conference, 9/11 and the New Middle East, we lit a yahrzeit candle to remember the nearly three thousand people who died in the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. On the twentieth anniversary, or yahrzeit, of this tragedy, it was crucial to come together to grieve and stand as one against terrorism—wherever it takes place.
In addition, biblical scholars and Middle East experts helped us better understand how 9/11 has changed the Middle East and what the Bible says about the region. As the current events in Afghanistan demonstrate, the Middle East is a strategic and rapidly changing area. Our speakers shed light on these and other recent developments in the Middle East and explained how we can support the church there. Click here to watch the conference!