Parsha Halacha

Parshat Chukas

Yohrtzeits: History and Reasons

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In the Torah portion of Chukat, we learn about the passing of the two righteous siblings of Moshe Rabeinu, Miriam, the prophetess, and Aharon, the Kohen.
The commentaries discuss why Miriam did not merit to enter the land of Israel since the decree that the Jewish people should die in the desert did not apply to women. In fact, according to the Midrash, Miriam was the only woman who died in the desert (besides the females of the families of Korach, Datan, and Aviram).[1]

The Sin of the Spies
Our sages say[2] that the reason the story of the spies comes after the story of Miriam criticizing Moshe is because the spies should have seen her punishment and taken a lesson. In fact, just the opposite happened. By speaking against Moshe, Miriam served as an example to the spies; they too felt that they did not necessarily have to follow Moshe’s opinion. Since G-d judges the righteous in an exacting manner, Miriam could not enter Israel because she (indirectly) caused that generation to die in the desert.[3]

No Sin at All
Our sages say[4] that the death of Miriam is placed after the mitzvah of Parah Adumah(Red Heifer) to teach us that just as sacrifices atone, so too the death of Tzaddikim (righteous) atones. As such, some say that Miriam’s death was to atone for that generation and was not due to any shortcoming of her own.
The reason her death was compared to the Parah Adumah as opposed to any other sacrifice is that the Parah Adumah did not atone for a specific sin. Rather, it brought taharah (ritual purity) to the people. Similarly, the passing of Miriam was not an atonement for a specific sin, but rather it brought about a general hitorerut teshuvah (awakening of repentance) and thus a spiritual cleansing to the people.
In addition, just as the laws of the Parah Adumahare beyond understanding, we cannot fully fathom why a righteous woman should die for the sins of the generation as, according to Rabeinu Asher,[5] women are not considered responsible (areivim) for other people’s sin.[6]

The Heads of the Nation
The reason that a Tzadik may pass away (or suffer) for the sins of the generation is that the Jewish people are one entity. As the heads of the generation, the tzaddikim are affected most by the sins of the people. This relates to the verse,[7] יָדִין בַּגּוֹיִם מָלֵא גְוִיּוֹת מָחַץ רֹאשׁ עַל אֶרֶץ רַבָּה – “He judges the nations, heaping up bodies, He crushed the head on a great land.” This can be interpreted to mean that when G-d judges the nations of the world, who are not considered one entity, He punishes each individual separately, “heaping up their bodies.” But when judging the Jewish people (referred to as אֶרֶץ רַבָּה) who are considered to be one entity, He (sometimes) only crushes (i.e., punishes) the head and does not need to punish the entire nation.[8]

Yohrtzeit of Miriam
According to our sages, Miriam passed away on the 10th of Nissan. Some tzaddikim fast on this day. [9] Some say that she passed away on the 1st of Nissan.[10]

Yohrtzeit of Ahron
Aharon passed away on the 1st day of the month of Av. This is the only yohrtzeit explicitly mentioned in the Chumash.[11]

History of Yohrtzeits
The practice of marking the day of someone’s passing (what we call a yohrtzeit) goes back many centuries. Here are some of the places it is mentioned:[12]
  • Yiftach’s Daughter
After the unfortunate incident where Yiftach sacrificed his daughter, the verse says “So it became a custom in Israel for the maidens of Israel to go every year, for four days in the year, and mourn for the daughter of Yiftach.”[13] According to the opinion that Yiftach actually killed his daughter,[14] it seems that her friends observed her yohrtzeit every year. It is not clear why they did this for four days.[15]
  • In The Talmud[16]
The Talmud indicates[17] that it was customary for people to refrain from eating meat and drinking wine on the day of the passing (yohrtzeit) of one’s parent or Torah teacher.
  • In the Era of the Amora’im
Rashi, citing the Ge’onim, writes[18] that in the era of the Amoraim (the sages of the Gemora), the yohrtzeit of an important person (i.e., a Torah scholar) was established as a day to honor him. Every year the Torah scholars from the entire area would gather on that day and come to his grave together with the local population and have a Torah study session (“yeshivah”) there.

Reasons for Yohrtzeit Observance
Several reasons are given for marking the yohrtzeits of family members and teachers:[19]
1)     To Honor one’s Parents and Teachers
Rabbi Moshe Isserlish writes[20] that saying kaddish after one’s parents (as is done on the Yohrtzeit) is to show honor to the parent. The Zohar writes[21] that the best way one can honor one’s parent is by leading a proper Torah life and behaving in an upright manner.
2)     To Protect from Punishment and Help the Aliyah
According to our sages, every year on the Yohrtzeit, the neshama (soul) is elevated to a higher position in Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden).[22] Before this takes place, that person is judged whether or not he or she is worthy of this elevation. Although the person was already judged after he passed away (and in previous years), there may be actions that were not considered sins in the lower levels of Gan Eden but might be considered sins in the higher levels of Gan Eden.[23]
This is similar to the judgment of a Tzadik compared to that of a regular person. The Tzadik is judged in a more exacting manner since more is expected of him.[24] By saying kaddish, learning Mishnayot, and observing the other customs of the yohrtzeit, we assist in that judgment and elevation.[25] As our sages say,[26] “A son (child) can bring merit to his father (parent).”
3)     Protection
The day of person’s passing is a day with bad mazal for their family and especially for their children. As such, one needs protection on that day more than on other days. The extra mitzvot observed on the yohrtzeit serve as protection to the children and family members so that no harm should befall them.[27]\

We will, G-d willing, learn about the customs of a Yohrtzeit in a future article.
[1] Midrash Esfa, quoted in Torah Shleima on the Numbers 20:1
[2] Rashi on Numbers 13:2 citing the Midrash Tanchumah
[3] See Si’ach Esh by Rabbi Nissim Dayan, page 61
[5] Brachot 3:13 on page 20a According to Rabbi Akiva Eiger (O.C. 271:1) the Rosh means that women aren’t responsible to ensure men fulfill mitzvot in which women aren’t obligated (time-bound positive mitzvot).
[6] Knesset Yechezkel by Rabbi Yechezkel Panet, the Dezher Rebbe, Parshat Chukat. See Divrei Menachem by Rabbi Dov Menachem Regensburg of Zambrov, Poland (published in 1936), Parshat Parah, Palgei Mayim by Rabbi Nissan Tzviebel (Benei Berak 2016), page 235 and Yisa Midabrotecha by Rabbi Shamaya Aryeh Shenrab (Petach Tikvah 1999). Pg. 385
[8] The Yismach Moshe (Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum of Uhel, 1759 – 1841), quoted by Maaglei Tzedek by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Panet, the second Dezher Rebbe (1818-1884), end of Parshat Re’eh, who was a student of the Yismach Moshe
[10] Seder Olam Rabbah 9:2 See Kaf HaChaim 580:8 that it is better not to fast on the 10th of Nissan since some say that the yohrtzeit is on the first (and generally one should not fast in the month of Nissan).
[11] Numbers 33:38 Pardes Yosef on the verse.
[12] These sources are gathered in Kol Bo LeYohrtzeit by Rabbi Aharon Levin (Toronto 2006), pg. 10
[13] Shoftim 11:40 see Responsa VaYa’an Avraham by Rabbi Avraham Meir Israel (Brooklyn 1986) O.C. 21:8
[14] See Ta’anit 4a. Some say that Yiftach kept his daughter cloistered away from society but did not kill her (see Radak and others). According to that opinion, her friends would visit her for four days a year.
[15] See Kaf Hachaim 55:23 that some start saying kadish from the Motzei Shabbat before the Yohrtzeit. See also Mishnah Berurah 581:6 that Ashkenazim say Selichot for at least four days before Rosh HaShanah.
[16] Responsa Vay’an Avraham ibid
[17] Nedarim 12a talks about a person who swears not to eat meat or drink wine on a random day just as on the day of the passing of his father or his teacher he does not partake of meat or wine.
[19] Gathered in Kol Bo LeYohrtzeit pg. 11 and on
[20] Responsa 118
[23] Panim Yafot by Rabbi Pinchas Horowitz, student of the Maggid of Mezritch, Parshat Beha’alotecha, D.H. Kach et HaLeviyim.
[24] Yevamot 121b based on Tehillim 50:3
[25] Lechem HaPanim by Rabbi Moshe Yekutiel Coifman of Kutno,Poland (1691 – 150 approx), Y.D. 389. Rabbi Coifman was the son-in-law of Rabbi Avraham Abele Gumbiner, author of the Magen Avraham.
[27] Levush Y.D. end of Siman 376 and Noheg KaTzon Yosef by Rabbi Yosef Yuzpa Kashman page 169

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom UMevorach!

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