Question: In order to minimize unsafe socializing, should everyone, including people whose parents are still alive, remain inside shul for Yizkor?
Short Answer: People whose parents are still alive should ideally leave shul during Yizkor and socially distance appropriately. If that is not possible, they may remain in shul, and should either recite Yizkor for their grandparents or say T’hilim during this time.
I. What is Yizkor?
The Sifrei (D’varim 21) explains the pasuk “Kaper l’amcha Yisrael asher padisa...,” where we beseech Hashem to forgive us for our sins, as referring to the sins of those alive (“Kaper l’amcha Yisrael”) and those who have already died (“asher padisa”). The Sifrei adds that you see from this explanation that even those who are already deceased require a kaparah. The Mordechai (cited in the Beis Yosef, Orach Chayim 621) notes that this is the source for the Yom Kippur appeal, where we donate funds as a z’chus for the neshamos of our deceased relatives. [Note that the reason why the deceased need a kaparah is complex and outside the scope of this article.]
The Darchei Moshe (ibid) cites the Mahari Weill who adds that, based on the Sifrei, we understand why Yom Kippur is referred to as “Yom Kippurim” in the plural, as both the living and the dead are judged on this day. The Darchei Moshe also cites the Kol Bo who mentions our minhag to “mention the names of the deceased” (i.e., Yizkor) on Yom Kippur, as doing so “breaks and humbles” the reciter’s heart.
The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 621:6) cites the Mordechai’s minhag of pledging funds in memory of the deceased on Yom Kippur, while the Rama (ibid) adds that we also mention the names of the deceased, as they, too, need a kaparah on Yom Kippur.
The Mishnah B’rurah (19) clarifies the words of the Rama: that the pledging of tz’dakah is the act that gives a kaparah to the deceased. Mentioning the names of the deceased is a minhag as well, but presumably does not give kaparah to the deceased; rather it humbles the reciter and encourages him/her to do t’shuvah.
II. Walking Out
The Shaarei Ephraim [Rav Ephraim Zalman Margulies, d. 1832] (10:32) cites the minhag that all people whose parents are still alive leave shul during Yizkor and the subsequent recitation of Keil Malei Rachamim.
Numerous reasons are suggested for this minhag:
(1) The Shaarei Rachamim (Rav Shabsai Lifshitz, 19th century commentary on Shaarei Ephraim) cites the Lechem Chamudos who suggests that perhaps people with parents who are still alive walk out during Yizkor so that they do not come to accidentally recite Yizkor, thereby causing their parents to perish. This is based on the concept of “bris k’rusah li’sfasayim” (see Moed Katan 18a), that a person’s words can affect reality.
(2) The Pischei Sh’arim (on Shaarei Ephraim, ibid) suggests that the reason is based on ayin ha’ra, that the people whose parents are deceased will somehow cast the evil eye on those whose parents are still alive, and this will cause the parents to perish, chas v’shalom. The source of this is the Gemara (Y’vamos 106a) where Abayei and Rav Papa are disagreeing about a certain halachah, and when Rav Papa wins the argument, Abayei (who was an orphan) asks Rav Papa if his parents are still alive (and thus that is why he is so smart, because his parents take care of his physical needs). After Rav Papa responds affirmatively, Abayei is “yahiv b’hu einei” (lit. gives them a look) and Rav Papa’s parents perish. (See also K’tzei HaMateh on Matei Ephraim, 621).
[As an aside, a similar idea is expressed in Nit’ei Gavriel (cited in Y’shuas Daniel, siman 201) about reciting the HaRachaman in bentching of “osi v’es ishti” – that it should be recited silently so as not to invoke any ayin ha’ra.]
Notably, the Shaarei Chayim (on Shaarei Ephraim, ibid) comments that according to the reason of the Pischei Sh’arim, the people whose parents are still alive should return for the Keil Malei after the recitation of Yizkor. Since only the chazan is reciting a communal Keil Malei, and everyone else is quiet, there is no longer an ayin ha’ra. However, the Shaarei Chayim says that this is incorrect, as the Shaarei Ephraim rules explicitly that people whose parents are still alive stay outside until after the Keil Malei.
(3) Rav M. M. Epstein zt”l (cited in the Tzitz Eliezer 12:39) suggests that the reason people whose parents are alive walk out is so as not to disturb and ruin their simchas Yom Tov. While a person is permitted to cry on Yom Tov if necessary (i.e., he is remembering his deceased parents), there is no need (and in fact it is improper) to cause others (whose parents are still alive) to cry and ruin their simchas Yom Tov.
The Tzitz Eliezer notes that while this reason explains walking out on Yizkor on Yom Tov, it does not explain Yom Kippur, which was the context of the Shaarei Ephraim. However, the Tzitz Eliezer suggests, perhaps it is a lo plug that we don’t want to confuse people, so we allow and encourage people whose parents are still alive to walk out by all recitations of Yizkor, even Yom Kippur. Alternatively, since Yom Kippur sometimes falls out on Shabbos, this reason will sometimes be applicable even for Yom Kippur, so as not to ruin oneg Shabbos.
(4) The Ishei Yisrael (41:80:163) suggests that the reason why they should walk out is because otherwise it will appear as if there is “hisgodedus,” or different factions following different rules within one shul, which is improper under the pasuk “lo sisgodedu.” See also the P’nei Baruch (38:15).
(5) Otzar Kol Minhagei Yeshurun (cited in Tzitz Eliezer, ibid) states that they should walk out because often children are named after deceased grandparents whose names will be called out during Yizkor. We don’t want it to appear as if we are reciting Yizkor on the living person in the room who has the same name as the deceased.
(6) The Otzar Kol Minhagei Yeshurun gives a second reason. People whose parents are still alive should leave before the gabbai announces “Zugt Yizkor” (i.e., say Yizkor now) so as not to “disobey” this command of the gabbai who seemingly doesn’t distinguish between people who have parents alive and those who don’t.
(7) Rav Aryeh Lebowitz (2015 shiur on YUTorah) says that Rav Hershel Schachter shlita often cites Rav Y. D. Soloveitchik (the “Rav”) who suggested that the minhag of leaving shul stems from the idea that it is improper to remain in shul silently when the tzibur is davening, particularly by k’rias Sh’ma. Thus, the minhag developed that anyone who is not reciting Yizkor leaves the shul.
(8) Chayim She’yeish Bahem (1:635) suggests a homiletical reason for the minhag. By leaving the shul, the people whose parents are still alive show that they are running to go fulfill the special mitzvah of kibud av va’eim while their parents are still alive. They thus run out of the shul to go contemplate how they can better fulfill this mitzvah.
III. Seriousness of this Minhag
Are there any exceptions to this minhag? In other words, is it ever okay for someone whose parents are still alive to remain in shul during Yizkor?
The questioner to the Tzitz Eliezer (ibid) suggested that perhaps it makes more sense for people whose parents are still alive to remain in shul during Yizkor in order to soak in the seriousness in which the tzibur recites Yizkor. The Tzitz Eliezer disagreed and thought that this would have the opposite effect; it would degrade minhag Yisrael (of leaving shul during Yizkor) and teach younger people that minhagim can easily be disposed of. Indeed, the Tzitz Eliezer also rejects the questioner’s idea that we follow the Tosefes Chayim’s idea that those with parents still alive remain inside and instead daven Yizkor for their deceased grandparents or great-grandparents. The Tzitz Eliezer notes that first, this is not the minhag, and second, even the Tosefes Chayim only suggests this idea where the people were not able to congregate outside because it was dirty or there was no room for the large crowd. Otherwise, concludes the Tzitz Eliezer, the minhag for leaving shul during Yizkor has “strong foundation” and should be followed.
Similarly, the Avnei Derech (9:77) asked Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl shlita whether a newly opened yeshivah where most of the students’ parents are still alive may institute a rule that all students must remain inside for Yizkor, thereby preventing a large tumult and disturbance outside during Yizkor. Rav Nebenzahl responded that this is not a good idea, and the students whose parents are still alive should follow the standard minhag of leaving during Yizkor.
However, Rav Lebowitz notes that Rav Schachter remarked that any minhag that has six-to-seven reasons for the minhag clearly shows that the basis for the minhag is unknown. Nevertheless, the minhag should be observed unless there is a compelling reason otherwise.
IV. Yizkor For Those Who Were Killed Al Kiddush Hashem
A common mistake, however, is for those people whose parents are alive to remain outside for the Yizkor that is said for the k’doshim, rabbanim, or Tzahal. The Avnei Derech (ibid) rules that certainly those people whose parents are alive should return to shul for this part, as it is not unique to those whose parents are deceased. Similarly, Rav Schachter (as cited by Rav Lebowitz) also rules that people whose parents are alive should return for this part of Yizkor.
V. This Year
Putting this all together, it would appear to this author that even the Tzitz Eliezer would agree, based on the Tosefes Chayim, that this year people whose parents are alive should remain in shul during the entire Yizkor if the alternative is to be outside in an unsafe, non-socially distanced setting. Of course, the ideal is for people whose parents are still alive to leave shul and distance appropriately.
To conclude, it would be wise for people whose parents are still alive to heed the words of my father, Rabbi Dr. Aaron Glatt shlita in his September 3, 2020 COVID update email to the Five Towns community. My father writes as follows: “If you are ‘going out of shul’ because, baruch Hashem, both your parents are alive (for many years to come!), please do not congregate in the lobby. In fact, there is nothing halachically wrong with even staying inside and saying T’hilim or learning, although I know that many will feel uncomfortable being inside for Yizkor. For those who ‘need a break’ during davening for whatever the reason, take a walk outside and please do not congregate in the shul.”
Next Week’s Topic: In light of social distancing, how should everyone get an aliyah on Simchas Torah?