According to Jewish custom, the tradition of mourning is done in both private and public ways.
Observing a Yahrzeit (anniversary of a person’s death) is generally a private observance. Yizkor, as well as reciting Kaddish, is the public observance commemorating one’s death.
Yizkor is the appropriate time for personal reflection, and to commit to particular actions or general self-improvement as a source of merit for the departed.
The word ‘Yizkor’ (may He remember) comes from the word ‘zachor’ – remember. Yizkor is our way of remembering our loved ones publicly, and is recited four times per year in the synagogue.
Originally, Yizkor was only recited on Yom Kippur, to remind people to donate charity on behalf of their loved ones. The giving of charity is believed to be one of the ways to elevate the Neshama (soul) of the departed.
Since the Torah portion read on the last day of the holidays of Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot mentions the significance of donations, Yizkor was later added to these holiday services.
Most synagogues light up all their memorial tablets on days in which Yizkor is recited. It is also customary to light a 24 hour memorial candle in your home for Yizkor.
The Yizkor service consists of four sections:
1) The service begins with verses and prayer that are recited together.
2) Individuals then silently recite the paragraphs specifically written for a mother, father, wife, husband, child, relatives, and Jewish martyrs.
3) ‘El Maleh Rachamim’ (the memorial prayer for the deceased, also recited at the funeral) is then read aloud by the person leading the services.
4) ‘Av Harachamim’, believed to be composed in memory of those who were massacred in the First Crusade, is then recited by all.
Some congregations also add the recital of the Mourner’s Kaddish at the conclusion of Yizkor.