I Missed my Father’s Yahrzeit, and I Feel Horribly Guilty

Dear Yenta,


My father passed away a little over a year ago. Since I’d grown up seeing my mother light yahrzeit candles for her own parents on every anniversary of their deaths, and found it an enormously comforting way to remember my grandparents, I was hoping to continue the tradition for my own dad.

Well, I’m not the most organized person, and time got away from me. Before I realized it, it was the afternoon of my dad’s yahrzeit (which happened to be a Friday), and I still hadn’t gotten a candle for him. I live in a small town, and the only place nearby to find a candle was at my synagogue. So, right after work, I rushed down to the synagogue a little early before services, hoping to catch someone who would be able to open up the gift shop long enough to sell me a candle. But when I got there, I was told that the person who could open the shop wouldn’t be there until after sundown, Shabbat would have already started, and we couldn’t buy or sell anything on Shabbat. 

I ended up going home that night after services, lighting a tea light for dad, and telling myself he’d understand. But I still feel really guilty, and I really miss my dad. 

I know it’s only Jewish tradition that we light yahrzeit candles, and it’s Jewish law that we not buy or sell anything on Shabbat. But I can’t help wondering if the gift shop ladies could have found a way to observe Halakah, and still show compassion for my dilemma. What do you think they or I could do to avoid this situation in the future? (Other than keeping 10 year’s worth of yahrzeit candles stockpiled, which I now do.)

Thanks. - Still Grieving

Dear Grieving,

I'm so sorry about your father. Having lost my own father, I can say that the sadness never goes away, but it does get easier to manage as time goes on. Please don't beat yourself up too much about forgetting your father's yahrzeit. You are only human, and even with the best intentions, we all forget things sometimes.

Now, to answer your question. What could the "gift shop ladies" (who, I'm guessing, were most likely members of your congregation's Sisterhood) have done to be respectful of halakah, but still show compassion for your grief? It's a tricky one, so I brought in the big guns and asked an expert from our congregation -- Rabbi Rebecca Epstein --  to weigh in. Here's her take on the situation:

"In my opinion, the Sisterhood should give the mourner a yahrzeit candle on Shabbat as a gift, and then the person could always make a donation to the sisterhood at a later time. Now, of course, according to halacha, you wouldn’t light the candle once Shabbat had started, so that is another issue. I guess my opinion is that it is preferable not to buy and light on Shabbat, but if it is something that brings comfort and is of great personal significance to the mourner, I don’t think that person should avoid using the yahrzeit candle (nor should the sisterhood avoid providing it.) 

My guess is that a more halachically-minded rabbi might advise the letter-writer to mourn in another way, perhaps by attending shul and saying kaddish in a minyan, and plan to light the yahrzeit candle the next year. I think that is also a nice answer, and some people might find comfort in mourning in a more halachic manner. 

But the bottom line is, the Sisterhood should provide the candle gratis as a gesture of compassion to the mourner and leave it up the mourner as to whether they light on Shabbat and/or provide recompense to the Sisterhood in the form of a donation. In my opinion, they shouldn’t add insult to injury by making a halachic judgement on the mourner, and they don’t have to engage in sale on Shabbat. Although the Sisterhood might be concerned about word getting out that there are free yahrzeit candles, I would not think the community would abuse the goodwill here, and in fact I think more goodwill would probably be generated by the act of kindness.

Anyway, thanks for asking!  Interesting case to think about, for sure." - Rabbi Epstein