Fasting and Feasting on a Yahrtzeit
In honor of Aharon HaKohen’s yahrtzeit:
Question #1: “My father’s yahrtzeit falls during the week of sheva brachos for my grandson. May I attend the sheva brachos?”
Question #2: “My yahrtzeit falls on Shabbos this year. Do I fast on Friday or Sunday instead?”
Question #3: “I usually fast on my father’s yahrtzeit, 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 yahrtzeit 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 yahrtzeit, but have fallen into disuse. Specifically, they refer to the practices of commemorating a yahrtzeit by fasting from morning until nightfall and by refraining from attending or celebrating weddings and similar semachos.
Although fasting on a yahrtzeit is not a required practice, it was apparently widely accepted, as we see from the way the rishonim and the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 568:1, 7) refer to it. 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.
Celebrations on a Yahrtzeit
The Rama also cites a ruling prohibiting eating at a celebration on the evening of one’s yahrtzeit (Darkei Moshe, Yoreh Deah 391:3, quoting Maharyo; and in his notes to Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah, at the end of Chapter 391 and at the end of Chapter 402). The assumption is that the Rama specifically forbids celebrating on the eve of the yahrtzeit, because the commemorator was presumably fasting on the day of the yahrtzeit itself.
The Levush (Yoreh Deah 391) disagrees that there is a prohibition to eat at a simcha on a yahrtzeit, 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 yahrtzeit, not in future years. However, both the Shach (Yoreh Deah 391:8 and 395:3) and the Taz (Yoreh Deah 395:3) agree with the Rama’s view that this prohibition exists at future yahrtzeits, as well.
What types of celebrations are prohibited?
The prohibition includes 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 288:18). However, the Chachmas Adam (171:11) prohibits eating at a bris milah seudah, although he permits 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 yahrtzeit 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 yahrtzeit, whereas his description of the daytime fast implies that, although it is a recommended observance, it is not required. The presumable explanation for the difference is that everyone is physically able to refrain from a celebration; therefore, this custom was accepted by Klal Yisroel. Fasting, which depends on an individual’s health and stamina, was never accepted as a requirement, only a recommendation.
How strict is this fast?
From several authorities, we see that fasting on a yahrtzeit was viewed very seriously. For example, the Taz (Orach Chayim 568:5) treats the fast on a yahrtzeit more strictly than the fasts that were universally observed on Behab, (Monday, Thursday and Monday following Rosh Chodesh Marcheshvan 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 they are assuming that the entire community is, otherwise, fasting. The Taz rules that someone making a bris on the day that he has yahrtzeit does not fast, but that someone attending this bris who has a yahrtzeit on that day should fast. Thus, he treats the fast on a yahrtzeit stricter than that 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 yahrtzeit 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. He contends that someone who is fasting because he is observing a yahrtzeit, 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 yahrtzeit fastis stricter than the fast of Tisha B’av nidcheh, 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 when observing a yahrtzeit, but someone honored with being sandek or mohel on a day that he is observing a yahrtzeit is required to observe the fast that he would usually keep. The Pri Megadim suggests that if he is the only mohel in town, he can consider this his personal Yom Tov, also, and eat, although he is inconclusive about it. He does not explain what difference it makes whether there are other mohalim in town.
Accept the day before
Several distinctions result from the fact that fasting on a yahrtzeit is recommended but not required. Whenever someone decides 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,reciting a text that is printed in many siddurim. Since fasting on a yahrtzeit is not required, the individual must accept it from the day before.
However, someone who usually fasts on his parent’s yahrtzeit is required to fast that day anyway, unless he specified on the first year that he does not intend to fast every year (Chachmas Adam 171:11). Such a person is required to fast whether or not he remembered to accept the fast at Mincha the day before. 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 he should do if the yahrtzeit falls on Shabbos.
The authorities dispute whether someone who took ill on the yahrtzeit requires hataras nedarim. 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 fasting on yahrtzeits under these circumstances. However, the Shach (Yoreh Deah, 214:2) rules that he is required to perform hataras nedarim. The Chachmas Adam (171:11) concludes that he should do hataras nedarim in this situation.
Why fast on a yahrtzeit?
The earliest source that I discovered who records this custom is the Sefer Chassidim (#231, 232), who notes that, throughout Jewish history, people have fasted in memory of the passing of a great individual. Thus, we find that Dovid Hamelech fasted upon hearing that Shaul had died, and also when he heard of Avner’s assassination (Shemuel 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 this practice in Yoreh Deah 378:4.
Although these sources reflect fasting on the 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.
What is the reason for fasting on a yahrtzeit?
The Sefer Chassidim presents two reasons for fasting on a parent’s yahrtzeit:
(1) As a sign of respect. A similar idea is quoted by other authorities: fasting on the yahrtzeit provides atonement (kapparah)for the parent (Shu”t Mahari Mintz #9 at end; Shu”t Chasam Sofer, Orach Chayim 161).
(2) A person’s soul is linked to that of his parents, and, therefore, the son himself suffers on the day of the yahrtzeit. Later authorities explain that on the yahrtzeit day, the child’s mazel is not good, and he should fast to protect himself (Shu”t Mahari Mintz #9 at end; Shu”t Maharshal #9; Levush, Yoreh Deah 402:12; Shach, Yoreh Deah 402:10).
Some later authorities understand that these reasons are not complementary, but 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, it is dependent on the person’s concern. One who is unconcerned does not need to fast (Shu”t Chasam Sofer, Orach Chayim 161).
Fasting on the yahrtzeit 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 Shelah Hakadosh, says that one should fast also on the yahrtzeit of one’s rebbe muvhak, the person from whom he learned most of the Torah that he knows. The Shelah explains that one fasts this day because he owes more honor to his rebbe muvhak than to his parent, as is mentioned in several places in halachah. However, this reason requires one to fast only if we assume that fasting on a yahrtzeit 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 should not affect his mazel, and there is no reason for a disciple to fast on the yahrtzeit of his rebbe (Elyah Rabbah, Orach Chayim 288:18 and 568:15).
Why not feast?
Although I did not find any authorities who explain why it is prohibited to eat at a celebration on a yahrtzeit, it would seem that the basis for this prohibition is the same as the reasons for fasting: either it is considered disrespectful to one’s parent to be celebrating on such a day, or that since one’s mazel is not good on this day, one should refrain from celebration.
Someone who fasts on his yahrtzeit 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 yahrtzeit, there are many days that halachah prohibits fasting, because this desecrates the sanctity of the day. For example, the Levush says that one should not fast on any day that we do not recite 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 yahrtzeit (assuming that this is a day when it is permitted to fast), or whether since one is not fasting on the yahrtzeit itself, there is no reason to fast at all.
What happens if the yahrtzeit falls on Shabbos?
If the yahrtzeit falls on Shabbos, the Maharik ruled that one should fast on a different day instead. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 568:9) follows this approach and rules that one should fast on Sunday; and if the yahrtzeit 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 Shelah 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 should be before the yahrtzeit. They contend that the fast should be on Erev Shabbos or Erev Rosh Chodesh (Kaf Hachayim 568:94, quoting Kavod Chachamim and Penei Aharon).
On the other hand, other authorities (Shu”t Maharshal #9) dispute the Maharik’s conclusion, ruling that when a yahrtzeit 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 yahrtzeit 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 that is the prevalent custom among Ashkenazim.
If the yahrtzeit falls on Friday, the Maharshal rules that, on the first yahrtzeit, he should not complete the day’s fast, whereas if he already fasted in a previous year, he must complete the fast.
Those who do not fast
In the last centuries, we find many sources that do not encourage fasting when it might causesomeone to study Torah with less diligence. Instead, one should dedicate all his strength to the study of Torah on the yahrtzeit. For this reason, Rabbi Akiva Eiger, in his tzava’ah, instructed his descendants to study Torah assiduously on his yahrtzeit 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 yahrtzeit, but to study Torah through the night.
I have seen it recorded that the Chasam Sofer made a siyum when observing a yahrtzeit, but served a milchig meal, so that it not appear that he was celebrating on the day. This also accomplished the seudas mitzvah’s preempting the requirement to fast, and fulfilled chesed by providing a meal to the poor.
In most Chassidic circles, a practice developed of performing chesed on a yahrtzeit –specifically to make sure that the poor people in town had a proper meal on the day of the yahrtzeit. The brachos recited thereby created a tikun for the departed soul, and therefore, this practice became called tikun. This developed into a custom of serving schnapps and mezonos on the yahrtzeit.
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; 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; however, we will discuss that topic 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 which 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, 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 be conducted there.
However one observes a yahrtzeit, 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 yahrtzeit.