Theodor H. Gaster has, in recent years, contributed a series of articles to COMMENTARY contrasting the ancient and contemporary significance of the great Jewish festivals. Here he does the same for a prayer in the Jewish liturgy that today looms larger in Jewish consciousness than ever it did in the past. Indeed, Yizkor (the memorial prayer for the dead which is recited four times a year—on the eighth day of Passover and of Succoth, on the second day of Shavuoth, and on Yom Kippur) is very often the only religious observance that will draw a Jew to the synagogue or temple. 

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Increasingly, the traditional Yizkor or Memorial Service tends to cast a spell upon the minds and sentiments of Jews in Western countries. A dubious gain, some consider it: for example, Israel Lévi, Chief Rabbi of France and one of the foremost Jewish scholars of his day, had occasion to observe as far back as sixty years ago, “The cult of the dead gains in fervor what real piety loses, faithfulness to the memory of parents becoming a kind of religion which tends to eclipse the other kind.”

The Yizkor service—so called because the memorial prayer begins with the Hebrew word yizkor, which means “may [God] remember”—forms a statutory part of the public devotions in the synagogue on the eighth day of Passover and Succoth (Booths), the second day of Shavuoth (the Feast of Weeks), and on the Day of Atonement. It is recited by the cantor—usually attired in a long white robe (kittel)—after the reading of the lessons from the Law and the Prophets. The prayer consists of a petition to God for the repose of the souls of the departed—especially of those who have died during the current year—“under the wings of the Divine Presence, in the exalted height reserved for the holy and pure.” It is accompanied by an enumeration of the names of the recently deceased and by a pledge on the part of their living descendants to make appropriate contributions to charity. While the prayer is being recited, those whose parents are still living usually withdraw from the body of the worshipers.

Yizkor is observed in this form, however, only in congregations which follow the socalled Polish rite. Other Ashkenazic communities recite the prayer only on the Sabbaths preceding the Feast of Weeks and the Fast of Ab; while the Sephardim, or Spanish and Portuguese Jews, content themselves with a collective enumeration of the year’s dead on the eve of Atonement,1 and the requiem prayer does not begin with the word yizkor but is the same as is recited throughout a year of mourning or on the anniversary of a death. Reform Jews also have their own version of the ceremony, incorporated into the morning service of Yom Kippur.

Yizkor, it should be observed, is quite distinct from Kaddish, the more familiar Hebrew prayer recited by mourners. For Kaddish is in no sense a prayer for the dead; it is simply a doxology expressing adoration of the Holy Name and belief in the ultimate establishment of God’s kingdom upon earth. The formula was originally recited after a session of study or at the conclusion of a religious discourse, its purpose being to dismiss the attendant company with a comforting assurance of the coming of the Messiah. It was only because the week of mourning usually ended in such a session of study or in the delivery of such a discourse that Kaddish came to be associated with mourners. Popular belief then attached to it the property of securing the release of the dead from Gehenna, and for this reason it became customary for the near relatives of a person deceased to recite it for twelve—later for eleven—months after his death and on each anniversary of it. As a matter of fact, even today, Kaddish is by no means confined to mourners, but forms a regular element of the synagogue service.

Yizkor, on the other hand, was from the beginning a prayer for the repose of the dead, and it was also, from the beginning, a communal ceremony, not an act of individual devotion.

Nor has the Yizkor service anything in common with the custom of “sitting shiva”—that is, of remaining at home, in a state of strict mourning, for seven days after the death of a close relative. “Sitting shiva”—a practice which has worldwide parallels—is intended primarily to express the idea that when death visits a family, it touches or contaminates all the members of it. For a certain period of time, therefore, they are, so to speak, under its taint, and until the immediate contagion wears off, they cannot participate in the regular life of the community. Shiva is thus a quarantine; it begins only after the interment, and is designed to protect the living rather than show piety towards the dead. It is in no sense a rite of commemoration; rather it is a symbolic participation in the miasma of death. Moreover, what distinguishes it from the Yizkor service is its emphasis on the temporary discomfiture of death rather than on the ultimate triumph of the larger life.

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During recent years, the appeal of the Yizkor service has come, especially in the United States, to exceed any other element of the traditional liturgy in its hold, except, perhaps, the Seder on Passover. Jews who are otherwise remote from the synagogue or any other affiliation with their ancestral faith make a point of closing their places of business on “Yizkor days” and of attending divine service. For this there are several reasons.

In the first place, the American Jew is often but one generation removed from the more intensive Jewish atmosphere of an original East European home. The parents whom he commemorates in the Yizkor service represent a way of life which is frequently very vivid in his memory and from which, under the pressure of his new environment, he has steadily regressed. In calling them to mind, therefore, he is performing an act not only of filial piety but also—and perhaps more importantly—of nostalgic recollection. Moreover, for most Jews there is, besides, a sense of guilt towards the traditional pattern of life which they have abandoned. In their hearts they feel that the divorce from that life has been the result not of intellectual conviction or of genuine enlightenment but rather of a constant process of drifting, an easy assimilation of other mores, a consequence of pressure rather than of persuasion. No amount of participation in communal affairs, in community centers and Zionist drives and “defense” activities and UJA appeals, can appease this feeling or allay this unrest; albeit on a smaller, more individual scale, it is simply the age-long yearning of the Jewish exile for the dust of Zion. It is the same instinct that makes a Jew in a strange city halt automatically before Hebrew lettering in a shop window, even if it spells nothing more than “kosher meat.” In this sense, the Yizkor service is, indeed, an act in which the congregation remembers its own past rather than one in which God remembers the dead.

Secondly, the American Jew is, as a rule, far better off economically than were his immigrant parents, who came over steerage, toiled in sweatshops, and underwent endless poverty and privation in order to give their offspring their “chance.” The Yizkor services provide an outlet for the feeling of pity and compassion that the average successful American Jew must feel towards that earlier generation which, so to speak, died in the wilderness so that he and his children might enter and enjoy the Promised Land. Always at the back of his mind there is the sense, by no means so keen elsewhere in the world, that his present situation has been paid for in the blood, sweat, and tears of an older generation; always, behind the façade of his own expensive office lurks the specter of grandfather with his pekel and of father stitching pants under a dim swinging lamp or picking cucumbers out of a barrel of brine. The Yizkor services provide him with an opportunity of acknowledging this debt of his and of periodically “coming home.”

This mood was recently very well exemplified by S. T. Hecht in his charming piece “Mr. Big Moves to Greener Pastures,” which appeared in the September 1952 issue of COMMENTARY. Describing how a group of typical American Jews sat around in the little community of Reedville, New Jersey, counting up the take of the annual UJA appeal, he could not forebear, amid this unsentimental scene of rugged salesmanship and communal service, to hark back to the earlier days of his upbringing:

“. . . Throw that lousy check back in his face. What kind of a Jew is he? Only ten dollars! He just bought a sixteen-family unit in Jersey City!” “Colonel” Klein shouted.

(“Nu,” my father used to say on Saturday afternoons. “Fang’on—Begin!” and together we went through the portion of the week—the sedra, then a section of Avoth—“The Ethics of the Fathers”—and last of all, Gemorrah—Babba Basra, Babba Metzial. It still runs through me like an ancient rivulet, quietly through the wilderness that is me: Hoyoh roichev al gabey behaymoh vero’oh es hametzioh—Riding on the back of an animal and spying something lying on the ground. . . .)

In sum, what seems to give the Yizkor services their current appeal is not so much a desire specifically to remember one’s parents as a desire through such remembrance to recapture a part of one’s self—to hear above the traffic of the world the purling of that ancient rivulet. However it may have begun, the Yizkor service is today an intercession not for the souls of the dead but for those of the living.

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But while such all too human motivations as these are the dominant themes of the ceremony today, from the historical point of view Yizkor was informed by another, rather more religious idea—namely, that the living can “redeem” the dead or modify the judgment of God upon them. The sages gave an interesting justification for this belief. In the twenty-first chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy, which prescribes the procedure to be observed in the case of homicide by an unknown hand, it is said that if the corpse of the victim be discovered in an open field, the elders of the nearest town are to take a heifer, break its neck, and cast it into a neighboring stream. Then they are to wash their hands in the flowing waters and declare: “Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it. Forgive, O Lord, Thy people Israel whom Thou hast redeemed.” In this phrase, said the sages, the words “Thy people Israel” refer to the living community which performs the rite, while the words “whom Thou hast redeemed” refer to the corpse on whose behalf it is performed, thereby indicating that the dead may indeed be redeemed before God by the actions of the living.

To our modern tastes, this may seem no more than primitive, outmoded superstition. But the sages were careful to point out that they were speaking in figurative terms and that what they really had in mind was not so much the idea of intercession before a heavenly tribunal as the “redemption” of a man’s good name after his death. Those, they explained, who have wasted or abused their lives and left nothing of value behind them may yet be “redeemed” by the piety or learning which they have inculcated in their children or by the gifts and talents which they have fostered and developed in them. In this sense, they observed, a son may vindicate or acquit his father in the final judgment; for when the merits or good deeds of a son reflect the upbringing which his deceased father gave him, death is defied, and it is the father who actually deserves and performs them. That, they added, is why the commemoration of the dead must be accompanied by gifts to charity. Such gifts are not mere ransoms, for “no man can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him” (Ps. 49:8); they are gifts made, albeit through their descendants, by the dead themselves, and this is what is really meant by the words of Scripture that “Charity delivereth from death” (Prov. 11:4).2

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The Yizkor ceremony is informed also, if only subconsciously, by two other ideas which play a prominent part in the thinking of ancient peoples. The first of these is the idea that something has to be done by the living in order to insure the dead their repose; in all civilizations, an unquiet spirit is regarded as a menace, for it is apt to roam the earth and torment the living until it is “laid.” This notion was extremely common in Semitic antiquity. Among the Babylonians, for example, the heir of the deceased was expected to discharge three principal duties towards him: he had to “pronounce his name,” thus keeping it alive and in remembrance; he had to “pour out water” to slake the thirst of the departed in the netherworld; and he had to “offer food” so that, although physically withdrawn from the company of the living, the deceased might, so to speak, retain his place at the family board and thereby continue as a member of the family group. The same duties are likewise mentioned in an inscription set up by a king of Sama’l, in North Syria, in the 8th century B.C.E.; while a recently discovered Canaanite epic poem, some six hundred years earlier in date, specifies the “setting up of statues for departed ancestors” as a duty (besides that of laundering his clothes, repairing leaking roofs, and helping him home when he is in his cups!) which a dutiful son owes to his father. Similarly, too, we are told in the Second Book of Samuel (18:18) that because he had no son to keep his name in remembrance, Absalom set up a pillar to himself in his own lifetime, “and it is called the monument of Absalom unto this day.”

Behind this idea lies something more than a mere fear of the poltergeist. The notion that the untended dead haunt the living in the form of spooks or specters is simply a symbolic way of saying that if the past be forgotten or ignored and the connection with it negligently dismissed, it will nevertheless rise up of its own accord and obtrude itself upon the present. Indeed, it is to be noted especially in this connection that in the thought of primitive peoples it is not merely the lack of burial that renders a spirit unquiet but the neglect of those rites which insure its continued incorporation in the family. If the past be interred and forgotten, its grave will be unquiet; only when it is fully integrated with the present will it cease to behave like a restless ghost.

The other ancient idea which comes into play in the Yizkor service is that the renewal of life which takes place at seasonal festivals involves not only the living generation but the whole continuity of which that generation is but the present and immediate phase; to use modern terms, it is not only the community of New Yorkers but also New York per se, as a continuous and ideal entity, that is then revived and renewed. In this wider continuity the past is also embraced. The primitive way of expressing this idea is to say that at seasonal festivals the dead return and rejoin the living. Instances of this belief are legion. In Babylon, for example, it was thought that the dead came up from the netherworld in connection with the annual wailing for Tammuz, the ousted God of fertility, in high summer, while in Egypt it was the custom at Siut to kindle lamps on the first and last days of the year in order to lead the dead back to their homes—a practice which survives in the Christian Halloween on October 31, the eve of what was originally the New Year and what is now celebrated as All Saints’ Day.3 Similarly, the Romans prefaced their cycle of spring festivals with the Parentalia, or Feast of the Ancestral Dead; while at the present time the Zuñi of western New Mexico will not begin their summer dances until they have visited the sacred lake of the dead, just as Jews make a point of visiting cemeteries during the last month of the Hebrew year. The Siamese hold that the dead return at their New Year feast in April; while the ancient Celtic winter festival of Samhain included a feast of the dead; and among the Huzul of the Ukraine, honey is provided for deceased ancestors at Easter and Christmas, and God is besought to “let all the dead and lost return and drink with us.”

To this time-honored idea the Jewish Yizkor service gives a new and arresting turn: by the very act of remembrance, oblivion and the limitations of the present are defied, death is made irrelevant, and a plane is established on which the dead do indeed meet and mingle with the living. The ceremony is transformed from a memorial of death into an affirmation of life.

It is in line with this more advanced conception that there is no reference in the Yizkor service to the resurrection of the dead. A sound Jewish instinct is aware that this doctrine is really superfluous; for what needs to be affirmed is not that the dead will some day arise from their graves but that even now they are indeed alive.4

From this it follows in turn that the Yizkor ceremony is in no sense a cult or worship of the dead, as Israel Lévi so perversely assumed. Indeed, it is highly doubtful whether worship of the dead really bulks so largely in any religion as former generations of students supposed; for what has been taken as evidence of this practice may be far better explained on a different basis. When, for example, food and drink are set out for the deceased, this is not—as usually thought—a sacrifice to them; it is simply a means of cementing their ties with the living by the convention of commensality—that is, of breaking bread together. Similarly, where it is held that the dead have an influence on the crops and must therefore be given the first portion of them (a custom prevalent in many parts of the world), this does not imply, as is frequently supposed, that they are regarded as active agents of vegetation, fertility, and increase; it means only that the periodic and seasonal renewal of life is considered to be something in which they too are involved and in the celebration of which they must therefore take part. What animates these ceremonies is, in a word, not an approach to the dead, far less a submissive attitude towards them—the essence of worship—but a feeling of wanting to be with them, of being part of a larger life in which death has finally no meaning and imposes no division.

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The history of the Yizkor service is profoundly interesting. It appears to have originated in western Germany in the 12th century,5 and its primary purpose was to commemorate the Jewish martyrs slain during the First and Second Crusades. The earliest reference that we have to it occurs in the celebrated Memorbuch of Nuremberg which, though begun only in 1296, contains a roster not only of the local dead of the 13th and 14th centuries, but also of those who met death “for the sanctification of God” and whose names were therefore recited weekly in the Sabbath services. The list is prefaced by reference to such general Jewish worthies as Gershon ben Judah, the “Light of the Exile,” and Rashi, and it is introduced by a prayer which runs as follows: “May God remember [yizkor] the soul of N.N. along with the souls of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. By virtue of this vow to charity may his soul be bound up in the bond of the living, together with the rest of the righteous who are in Paradise, amen.” This prayer, we are informed, might also be recited in the vernacular, and it is carefully distinguished from the ordinary requiem (hashkabah) repeated by near relatives throughout a year of mourning or on the anniversary of a death.

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Originally, it would seem, the recitation of the Yizkor prayer was not accompanied, as it is today, by vows to charity. The latter were, to be sure, commonly made by individual mourners who wished to commemorate departed ancestors, and the Midrashic work Peskita Rabbati, compiled by a Western writer in the 9th century, even goes so far as to say that they have the power of releasing the dead from hell (Gehenna). Such vows, however, had nothing to do with the collective Yizkor ceremony, and the two practices are kept sharply apart by the early authorities on the liturgy. The combination arose only at a later date in consequence of the fact that the commemoration of the year’s dead, with the accompaniment of vows, happened to coincide, on the Day of Atonement, with the Yizkor service proper.

The custom of commemorating martyrs by reciting their names and praying for their repose was borrowed directly from the Christian Church. From the 4th century onwards it was the practice of the Church, during the celebration of the Mass, to offer a special prayer for local martyrs and deceased dignitaries, their names being read out from a diptych—that is, from two wooden boards folded together like the pages of a book. The prayer, which followed the recitation of the names (oratio post nominal), originally ran as follows: “To the souls of all these give rest, O sovereign Lord our God, in Thine holy tabernacle.” Later this was developed into a longer petition which is still part of the service and which is known from its opening word as the Memento, viz.: “Remember also, O Lord, thy servants male and female who have preceded us with a token of their faith; and may they sleep in the sleep of peace. To ourselves, O Lord, and to [the souls of] all who are at rest in Christ we beseech Thee to grant a place of repose and peace, through that same Christ our Lord, amen.”

The correspondence of this formula—apart, of course, from its purely Christian elements—with that of the Yizkor prayer and, in even more marked degree, with the requiem for the dead (hashkabah) used in the Sephardic liturgy, is indeed remarkable. First: the names “Memento” and “Yizkor,” both derived from the opening words of the prayer, are in fact identical. Second: just as the diptych lists begin with the names of generally venerated worthies of the Church, so too, as we have seen, does the Jewish Memorbuch. (Indeed, it is still customary in England to recite a second Yizkor commemorating deceased Chief Rabbis.) Third: the expressions used are virtually the same. In the Christian prayer, God is besought to grant to the souls of the deceased a place in His “holy tabernacle”; in the Jewish prayer, He is asked to grant them “abiding rest under the wings of the Divine Presence in the exalted place of the holy and pure”—where the word rendered “exalted place” really refers to a particular degree or level of heaven, and “the holy” (kedoshim `) is the regular Hebrew term for “martyrs.” In the Christian formula, God is entreated to grant that the martyrs “sleep in the sleep of peace”; while the Jewish requiem used by the Sephardim asks that the dead “may rest in peace upon their beds” and that “peace may accompany them.” Finally, the Christian formula invokes on the departed the blessing of eternal repose “alongside all who are at rest in Christ”; while the Jewish version entreats that they abide “with all the righteous who are in Paradise.”

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Moreover, it is difficult to resist the suspicion that some of the phrases used in the Jewish versions may have been designed deliberately to provide a kind of counterpart to Christian beliefs. Thus, for example, in the Sephardic formula God is besought to grant the deceased a “keeping-afar of transgression and a bringing-near of salvation,” words which have a curiously un-Jewish ring and sound like an adaptation of the Christian doctrine of absolution and salvation at death. Similarly, when it is entreated that the dead may rest in peace “along with all the righteous of His people Israel, who lie with him in the plenitude of mercy and forgiveness,” one can perhaps detect a clever modification of the Christian doctrine of the communion of the saints, seeing that the word rendered “plenitude”—a somewhat curious expression in the Hebrew—may also mean “communion, totality.” In one point, on the other hand, the Jewish formula is unique—namely, in its reference to the binding up of the soul “in the bond of the living.” The phrase is taken from the passage in the First Book of Samuel (25:29) where Abigail says to David: “An a man rise up to pursue thee and to seek thy soul, the soul of my lord shall be bound up before Jehovah thy God in the bundle of life.” These words have been variously interpreted. The late Sir James Frazer, who devoted an entire essay to the subject, suggested that they might be explained in the light of the common primitive belief that the “soul” or life-force of a man can be temporarily detached from his body and lodged in an inanimate object. In that case, the meaning would be, of course, that in moments of peril God will snatch the soul of his servant from its corporeal frame and thereby deliver it from harm. There is, however, no clear evidence of this belief among the ancient Hebrews. It is therefore far more probable that the expression is purely metaphorical and that all it really implies is that God will keep the soul of His servant like a treasure wrapped in a bundle or wallet; and as a matter of fact, a comparable expression occurs in an old Babylonian letter in which the writer says to the addressee: “May thy god and thy goddess keep thee like the wallet in their hands.”

Nevertheless, whatever the Biblical writer may have intended, Jewish fancy has read into these words the more profound concept of an eternal, timeless community in which the living and the dead are alike embraced. The “bundle of life” is an immortal community of souls held like a treasure in the hand of God and it is in that sense that the expression is used both in the Yizkor prayer and as a favorite text upon Jewish tombstones.

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Reform Judaism has given a new direction to the traditional Yizkor service, altering not only its form but also its meaning. In Reform Jewish congregations, Yizkor is recited only on the Day of Atonement, and the emphasis is placed not on the actual commemoration of the dead, or on the evocation of the past, but on the transience of human life and the vanity of earthly wishes. Although the Yizkor prayer is itself retained and the roster of the year’s dead usually recited, the principal element of the service is the chanting of Scriptural verses dealing with the evanescent character of earthly existence as contrasted with the eternal mercy of God. These verses are worked into a kind of cento, beginning with Psalm 144: 3-4 (“Lord, what is man that Thou regardest him, or the son of man that Thou takest account of him?”), proceeding to Psalm 90:6 (“In the morning he flourisheth and groweth up; in the evening he is cut down and withereth”), and leading up finally to the theme that since “when he dieth he shall carry nothing away” (Psalm 49:18), his proper duty is “to mark the perfect man and behold the upright” in the assurance that “the Lord redeemeth the soul of His servants, and none of them that take refuge in Him shall be desolate” (Psalm 34:23). The recital of these verses is followed by various responsive readings and by the twenty-third psalm (“The Lord is my shepherd. . . . Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for Thou art with me: Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me”). Then, after sundry meditations, in prose and verse, expressing and exhorting resignation to the inevitability of death, the service passes to the actual commemoration of relatives and of the martyrs of Israel throughout the ages. Finally, the entire congregation recites the Kaddish in unison.

It may be questioned, however, whether this revision of the traditional form really represents an advance in religious thinking; for what it has done, in fact, is to shift the emphasis from triumph to resignation. In the traditional form of the Yizkor service, the dominant note is that there is a larger life in which there is no death; that those who have passed from the earthly scene are nevertheless embraced in a wider communion of all generations—the “bundle of life”; and that they survive also in their children and their children’s children. This it is that constitutes evident proof of the eternal mercy of God; this is the true “reward in the world to come”; this it is that finally vindicates and “redeems” the martyrs and that compensates for the defeats and frustrations of individual lives. The Reform version dulls these clarion notes. The real message of the Yizkor service is not that in the midst of life we are in death, but that in the midst of death we are in life; that Memory is a living thing and makes alive.

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1 lt has been suggested that the custom of commemorating the dead on the Day of Atonement was derived from the fact that, in the morning service, the lesson from the Law begins: “And the Lord spake unto Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron . . .” (Lev. 16:1).

2 The English Bible renders it “Righteousness delivereth from death,” but it is well known that the Hebrew word zedakah, which originally meant “righteousness,” came later to acquire the specific connotation of “charity, alms,” and it is in this sense that the sages understood it.

3 Note that November 2, the day after the old New Year, is observed by the church as All Souls' Day—likewise, in all probability, a transmutation of a pagan festival of the dead.

4 It may be suggested that it is such a perpetual quickening, rather than an instantaneous resurrection “at the end of days,” that is really to be understood by the familiar Hebrew expression t/?/?/?/?/?h ha-methim. Such, at least, was the view of Maimonides and Judah Halevi. who took it to refer to the immortality of the soul.

5 It has been claimed that the custom is really far older and goes back at least to the 2nd century B.C.E., an allusion to it being found in a passage of the Second Book of Maccabees (12:44) where we are told that when Judah the Maccabee and his followers picked up the bodies of their fallen comrades after the defeat of Gorgias near Adullam, and found that they had secretly been wearing images of heathen gods, the survivors were ordered to contribute 2,000 drachmas each to the Temple in Jerusalem. Says the writer of the account: “In this he acted quite rightly and properly, bearing in mind the resurrection, for if he had not expected the fallen to rise again, it would have been superfluous and silly to pray for the dead—and having regard to the splendor of the gracious reward which is reserved for those who fall asleep in godliness—a holy and pious consideration. Hence he made propitiation for the dead, that they might be released from sin.” This, however, was a special case; its purpose was to make restitution for idolatry by a gift to the Temple. It is no evidence for an annual or periodic “yizkor” ceremony.

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