Fasting and Feasting on a Yahrtzeit
In memory of Sarah Imeinu, I bring you:
Fasting and Feasting on a Yahrzeit
Question #1: “My father’s yahrzeit falls during the week of sheva brachos for my grandson. May I attend the sheva brachos?”
Question #2: “My yahrzeit falls on Shabbos this year. Do I fast on Friday or Sunday instead?”
Question #3: “I usually fast on my father’s yahrzeit, but someone is honoring me with sandaka’us on that day. Do I fast, and do I need to be matir neder in the event that it is permitted to eat?”
We are all aware that one commemorates a yahrzeit by kindling a 24-hour candle, by visiting the gravesite (if possible), and that men recite kaddish and lead the services in shul. The questions asked above center on observances that were at one time very common on a yahrzeit, but have fallen into disuse. Specifically, they refer to the practices of commemorating a yahrzeit by fasting from morning until nightfall and by refraining from celebrating weddings and similar smachos.
The earliest source I discovered that records the custom of fasting on one’s yahrzeit is the Sefer Chassidim (#231, 232). He bases himself on the fast that, throughout Jewish history, people have fasted upon the passing of a great individual. For example, we find that Dovid Hamelech fasted upon hearing that Shaul fell in battle, and also when he heard of Avner’s assassination (Shmuel II, 1, 12; 3:35). Similarly, the Yerushalmi (Moed Katan 3:7) reports that Rabbi Avahu fasted on the day that he saw a talmid chacham die, and that when Rabbi Yonah heard of the passing of the son of Rabbi Eliezer, he fasted the rest of the day. The Shulchan Aruch records these practices in Yoreh Deah 378:4.
Although these sources reflect fasting only on the actual day of the death only, the Sefer Chassidim cites Scriptural basis that there is halachic reason to be sad when the date of a sad event recurs in a future year. We see from the Rishonim and the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 568:1, 7) that fasting on a yahrzeit became a widely practiced custom. The words of the Rama are: It is a mitzvah to fast on the day that his father or mother died (Yoreh Deah 376:5; 402:12), meaning that although not technically required, it is a strongly recommended practice.
What is the reason for fasting on a yahrzeit?
The Sefer Chassidim presents two reasons for fasting on a parent’s yahrzeit:
(1) As a sign of respect. An extension of this idea is that fasting on the yahrzeit provides atonement (kapparah) for the parent (Shu’t Mahari Mintz #9 at end; Shu’t Chasam Sofer, Orach Chayim 161).
(2) The Sefer Chassidim explains that a person’s soul is linked to that of his parents and that the son, himself, suffers on this day.
Later authorities explain that on the yahrzeit day, the child’s mazel is not good, and that he should fast as a protection against danger (Shu’t Mahari Mintz #9 at end; Shu’t Maharshal #9; Levush 402:12; Shach 402:10).
Some later authorities understand that these reasons are not complementary, but are conflicting reasons for the fast, and that there are resultant differences in halachah (Shu’t Chasam Sofer, Orach Chayim 161). For example, if the reason is to protect oneself because one’s mazel is not good, one need fast only if he is concerned about this problem. One who is unconcerned does not need to fast (Shu’t Chasam Sofer, Orach Chayim 161).
Fasting on the yahrzeit of one’s rebbe muvhak
Here is another situation in which the decision as to whether to fast or not is dependent upon the reason for the fast. The Mishnah Berurah (568:46), quoting the Shlah Hakadosh, says that one should fast also on the yahrzeit of one’s rebbe muvhak, the person from whom he learned most of the Torah that he knows. The Shlah explains that one fasts on this day because he owes more honor to his rebbe muvhak then to his parent, as is expressed in several places in halachah. However, this reason requires one to fast only if we assume that fasting on a yahrzeit is because of honor or as a kapparah for the departed. If the observance is to protect the one fasting, the requirement to show respect to one’s teacher does not affect his mazel, and there is no reason for a disciple to fast on the yahrzeit of his rebbe (Elyah Rabbah, Orach Chayim 288:18 and 568:15).
Celebrations on a yahrzeit
The Rama also cites a law that prohibits eating at a celebration on the evening of one’s yahrzeit (Darkei Moshe, Yoreh Deah 391:3, quoting Maharyo; notes to Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah, end of Chapter 391 and end of Chapter 402). The assumption is that the Rama specifically forbids celebrating on the eve of the yahrzeit, because the commemorator was presumably fasting on the day of the yahrzeit itself.
The Levush (391) disagrees that there is a prohibition to eat at a simcha on one’s yahrzeit, noting that he never saw such a custom. The Shach retorts that since this is a relatively infrequent occurrence, the fact that the Levush never saw this practice does not demonstrate that such a prohibition does not exist.
Other authorities quote, in the name of the Ari, that the prohibition against eating at a wedding applies only on the first yahrzeit, not in later years. However, both the Shach (391:8 and 395:3) and the Taz (395:3) agree with the Rama’s view that this prohibition exists at later yahrzeits, as well.
What types of celebrations are prohibited?
The prohibition includes eating at weddings, sheva brachos and other celebrations where music usually accompanies the occasion; but one is permitted to participate in a seudah celebrating a bris milah, pidyon haben or siyum mesechta (Pischei Teshuvah, Yoreh Deah 391:8, quoting Shu’t Makom Shemuel #80; see also Elyah Rabbah, Orach Chayim 288:18). However, the Chachmas Adam (171:11) has a compromise position, prohibiting eating at a bris milah seudah, yet permitting eating at a siyum.
What type of participation is prohibited?
The Rama discusses this proscription in three different places, and in all three places he records simply that it is forbidden to eat at the celebration, and not that there is a prohibition to attend, if one does not eat. This is different from the laws that a mourner must observe, which forbid him from attending a simcha. Thus, it appears that the reason for these yahrzeit observances is not because there is a requirement to mourn, but for other reasons, which I will explain shortly.
It is interesting to note that the Rama prohibits eating at a simcha on the yahrzeit, whereas his description of the daytime fast implies that although it is a recommended observance, it is not required. The presumed explanation for the different status is that since everyone is physically able to refrain from attending or participating in a celebration, this custom was accepted by Klal Yisroel, whereas fasting, which depends on an individual’s health and stamina, was never accepted as a requirement, but only as a recommendation.
How strict is this fast?
We see from several authorities that observing the fast on a yahrzeit was viewed very seriously. For example, the Taz (568:5) treats the fast on a yahrzeit more strictly than the fasts that were, traditionally, universally observed on Behab, the first Monday, Thursday and Monday following Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan and Rosh Chodesh Iyar. The Hagahos Maimoniyos and the Rama rule that one who attends a bris seudah on Behab is not required to fast, even though the entire community is, otherwise, expected to fast. The Taz rules that someone making a bris on the day that he has yahrzeit does not fast, but that someone attending this bris who has a yahrzeit on that day should fast. Thus, he treats the yahrzeit fast stricter than the fast of Behab.
The Pri Megadim (Orach Chayim, Mishbetzos Zahav 444:9) notes that, based on the comments of the Taz, the fast observed on a yahrzeit is stricter than that which the firstborn observe on Erev Pesach, which we customarily set aside after attending a siyum, bris or other seudas mitzvah. However, someone fasting because of a yahrzeit should not break his fast to join a siyum, bris or other seudas mitzvah.
Furthermore, the Pri Megadim (Mishbetzos Zahav 568:5) rules that the yahrzeit fast is stricter than the fast of Tisha B’av nidcheh, that is, when the Ninth of Av falls on Shabbos and is postponed to Sunday. In the event of a bris, the Tur and the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 559:9) rule that the parents of the baby, the mohel, and the sandak daven Mincha as early as one can, make havdalah and then eat in honor of the fact that this day is a Yom Tov for them. However, the Pri Megadim rules that only the father has this leniency on his yahrzeit, but should someone be honored with being sandek or mohel on their yahrzeit, they are required to observe the fast that they would usually keep. The Pri Megadim suggests that someone who is the only mohel in town can consider this his personal Yom Tov and eat, although he is inconclusive about it.
Accept the day before
Several distinctions result from the fact that fasting on a yahrzeit is recommended and not required. Whenever someone decides in advance to keep a fast that halachah does not require, he must accept the fast during Mincha of the day before. This “acceptance” is usually done at the conclusion of the Elokai Netzor requests by using a standard text that is printed in many siddurim. Therefore, since fasting on a yahrzeit is not required, the individual must accept it from the day before.
However, someone who usually fasts on his parent’s yahrzeit is required to fast that day whether or not he remembered to accept the fast at Mincha the day before, unless he specified in the first year that he does not intend to fast every year (Chachmas Adam 171:11). Should he decide one year that he does not want to fast, he must perform hataras nedarim to release himself from the custom he has accepted. We will soon discuss what someone should do if his yahrzeit falls on Shabbos.
The authorities dispute whether someone who took ill on his yahrzeit requires hataras nedarim before he breaks his fast. The Mishnah Berurah (581:19) notes that the Magen Avraham (581:12) does not require hatarah, explaining that we can assume that he never accepted that he would fast on yahrzeits when ill. However, the Shach (Yoreh Deah, 214:2) rules that he is required to perform hataras nedarim as does the Chachmas Adam (171:11).
Why not feast?
Although I did not find any authorities who explain why one may not eat at a celebration on a yahrzeit, it would seem that it is considered disrespectful to one’s parent to celebrate on the yahrzeit. Alternatively, since one’s mazel is not good on the day of one’s parent’s yahrzeit, it is inappropriate to join a celebration that day.
Someone who fasts on his yahrzeit should recite Aneinu in his private Shemoneh Esrei, but not in the repetition of Shemoneh Esrei, unless coincidentally there is a minyan of people fasting.
When does one not fast?
Notwithstanding the importance attached to the fast on a yahrzeit, there are many days that halachah prohibits fasting, because this would desecrate the sanctity of the day. For example, the Levush says that one should not fast if one’s yahrzeit falls on a day that we omit tachanun. As we will soon see, there is a dispute among authorities whether one should fast in this instance on the day or two before or after the yahrzeit (assuming that this is a day when it is permitted to fast), or whether once one cannot fast on the day of the yahrzeit itself, there is no reason to fast at all.
What happens if the yahrzeit falls on Shabbos?
When a yahrzeit falls on Shabbos, the Maharik rules that one should fast on a different day instead. The Shulchan Aruch (568:9) follows this approach and rules that one should fast on Sunday; and if the yahrzeit falls on Rosh Chodesh, that one should fast on the second of the month. When the second of the month falls on Shabbos, some authorities contend that one should fast on Sunday, the third of the month (Kaf Hachayim 568:93, 96, quoting Shlah and Elyah Rabbah 568:15).
Others follow the approach of the Maharik, but disagree with the Shulchan Aruch’s decision to postpone the fast, contending, instead, that the fast must be before the yahrzeit. They contend that the fast should be on Erev Shabbos or Erev Rosh Chodesh (Kaf Hachayim 568:94, quoting Kavod Chachamim and Pnei Aharon).
On the other hand, other authorities (Shu’t Maharshal #9) dispute the Maharik’s conclusion, ruling that when a yahrzeit falls on a day that one cannot fast, the custom is not to fast at all. The Rama follows this ruling. Some Sefardic poskim also follow this ruling, unlike the conclusion of the Shulchan Aruch (Kaf Hachayim 568:94, quoting Leket Hakemach.)
The authorities dispute whether one whose yahrzeit falls either on Rosh Chodesh Nisan or on Rosh Chodesh Av should fast on those days, even though they are days when we recite Musaf and do not say tachanun (Kaf Hachayim 568:97). The reason that these two days are exceptions is because they are mentioned as days when it is permitted to fast. The Chachmas Adam (171:11), however, rules that the accepted custom is to refrain from fasting on any Rosh Chodesh, and this is the prevalent practice among Ashkenazim.
If the fast falls on Friday, the Maharshal rules that if it is the first year, he should not complete the day’s fast, so that he does not end up fasting on Shabbos. However, if he already fasted in a previous year, he must complete the fast, since this has already become his practice.
Those who do not fast
In the last centuries, we find many sources that do not encourage fasting when it might cause someone to study Torah with less diligence. Instead, one should dedicate all his strength to the study of Torah on the yahrzeit. For this reason, Rabbi Akiva Eiger, in his tzavaah, instructed his descendants to study Torah assiduously on his yahrzeit and not fast, and this is recorded to have been the practice of the Chasam Sofer, the Kesav Sofer, the Chazon Ish and the Steipler. Rabbi Akiva Eiger instructed his descendants not to sleep at all on his yahrzeit, but to study Torah through the night.
I have seen it recorded that the Chasam Sofer made a siyum on his yahrzeit, but served a milchig meal, so that it not appear that he was observing a celebration on the day. This also accomplished the seudas mitzvah’s preempting the requirement to fast (according to those who ruled this way, see above), and fulfilled chesed by providing a meal to the poor.
In most Chassidic circles, a practice developed of performing chesed on a yahrzeit –specifically to make sure that the poor people in town had a proper meal on the day of the yahrzeit. The brochos recited thereby created a tikun for the departed soul, and therefore, this practice became known as tikun. This developed into a custom of serving schnapps and mezonos on the yahrzeit.
With time, some had concerns about this practice, particularly the kashrus of the foods and beverages served. Rav Avraham Meir Israel, a rosh yeshiva in Yeshivas Chasan Sofer in Brooklyn, wrote to Dayan Yitzchak Weiss, saying that he would like to stop the custom of tikun that had developed, primarily because of concern that the whiskey was often chometz she’avar alav hapesach; that is, it had been owned by Jewish storekeepers, distributors or manufacturers on Pesach and had not been sold, thus rendering it prohibited. In his response, Dayan Weiss agrees with Rabbi Israel’s concerns, particularly since this custom of tikun has extremely weak halachic foundations. Nevertheless, Dayan Weiss quotes numerous Chassidic sources that support this custom. In conclusion, he feels that one should not change the custom where it is practiced. However, where there are kashrus concerns, he suggests providing very detailed instructions as to where one may purchase the products being served. (This author is aware that many kashrus concerns have been raised recently on liquor. We will need to leave that topic for a different time.)
The Sedei Chemed (Volume 5 page 241 #40) voices strong opposition to the minhag of tikun for a different reason: that people celebrate the tikun in the shul or Beis Medrash, and it is prohibited to eat or drink in shul, except for talmidei chachamim who are permitted to eat in a Beis Medrash while they are in the middle of their studying. This problem can be avoided by celebrating the tikun in a room adjacent to the shul that is not used regularly for prayer. In a later edition, included now in the current editions of Sedei Chemed (Volume 5, page 335 #4), he quotes subsequent correspondence from the Brezhaner Rav, Rav Shalom Mordechai Schvadron (the grandfather of the late Rav Shalom Schvadron, the magid of Yerushalayim), who wrote him that it is permitted to conduct any seudas mitzvah in a shul, and therefore it is permitted to have tikun there. The Sedei Chemed further quotes the Spinker Rebbe, who wrote him that all the admorim conduct their tishin in the Beis Medrash on the basis that our shullen are built with the understanding that these activities may and will be conducted there.
However one observes a yahrzeit, one should always remember that the day be used for reflection, introspection and teshuvah. Ultimately, this is the best tool to use, both as a tikun neshamah for the departed and as a protection for the person commemorating the yahrzeit.