In My Dear Rabbi Column for May I Give Talmudic Advice about Yizkor on Yom Tov.
Your Talmudic Advice Column
A liturgical conflict has bothered me for years. How is it possible to say Hallel and Yizkor in the same service? I note that except on Yom Kippur, on three occasions of Yom Tov we say Hallel and shortly after that we say Yizkor. I do not understand how the organizers of our prayer expected us to be capable of a rapid mood swing from the joyous praise of Hallel to the sad remembrance of Yizkor. I find it impossible to go from one extreme of emotion to another on demand in public in a single service. I’m not able to engage in bipolar liturgy. Am I right about this?
Tranquil in Teaneck
You are right to take our prayer services seriously. Those of us who attend during the holidays invest a lot of our time in shuls. We ought to be rewarded with meaningful, logical and aesthetically pleasing recitations, chants and sermons.
You put your finger on the pulse of an important issue. I did a quick survey of our local rabbinic speeches this past Passover and found that just this year the rabbis in several local synagogues made efforts to explain the propriety and consistency of reciting Hallel and Yizkor in the Yom Tov morning services on the last day of Passover. Although their justifications were learned and informative, they likely would not change the feeling of dissonance that you have regarding this issue.
I remind you that our prayers often take us in a single service through many dramatic visualizations that ought to move a thoughtful supplicant’s moods from petition to awe to thanksgiving, or from humble compassion to haughty triumph.
That said, I agree that the incongruence that you raise between Hallel and Yizkor is basic and troubling to me too. The “El Male Rahamim” for a departed relative that we say at Yizkor is also said at funerals. So here is some of my thinking about this discordant matter. This review may not resolve the problem for you, but it might make you feel better about the supplication oscillation that you detect.
The solemn Yizkor remembrances for our deceased martyrs and close personal relatives were recited at first in the middle ages and only on Yom Kippur. That seems right and proper because of the solemnity of the Day of Judgment when God examines our lives and decides the eternal rewards for our souls and the souls of our departed relatives. Yom Kippur is not a holiday of joyous thanks. Solemnity dominates the day. Because of that our synagogues are full on Yom Kippur and especially packed with worshippers at the time of Yizkor.
Some local synagogues in Bergen County have published special internal booklets for Yizkor. And the national movement of Reform Judaism is in the process of further recognizing the popularity of Yizkor with innovative and resourceful plans for a new Mahzor for the service.
So then how did Yizkor get beyond Yom Kippur and into the festival prayer book? I have at times imagined fancifully that at some occasion in medieval Europe the leading rabbis gathered to discuss a pressing issue. It seemed that by the time the last day of Passover and Sukkot came around, synagogue worshippers suffered from shul fatigue and attendance was sparse.
After much discussion at my imagined synagogue synod a suggestion was put on the table. A clever rabbi argued that if we instituted Yizkor for the last day of the holiday, we could draw even the most fatigued people into the shul. Other rabbis may have objected that it will compromise the festivity of the holiday to add this serious section to the liturgy. But the proposal carried the day and the controversial addition was made to the services. And once you augmented prayers for Pesach and Sukkot, then for consistency, the services Shavuot had to be modified as well.
Indeed this means that we sacrifice the thematic congruence of our davening for the sake of filling the pews.
Now due to the professed intent of this column, I need to Talmudically swing back to argue the other side of this issue. It appears to me that most worshippers do not detect or are not troubled by the Yizkor-propriety issue that you and I and others see. For many people Yizkor, without any reservations or questions, is warmly welcomed as a mightily meaningful part of the services, on all of the four occasions that we say it in our temples, synagogues and shuls.
The Dear Rabbi column offers timely advice based on timeless Talmudic wisdom. It aspires to be equally respectful and meaningful to all varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find it here on the first Friday of the month. Send your questions to DearRabbi@jewishmediagroup.com
Rabbi Dr. Tzvee Zahavy was ordained at Yeshiva University and earned his Ph.D. in religious studies at Brown University.