A wealthy individual once took a business trip with his assistant, leaving his pregnant wife at home. While overseas, the businessman died. The assistant then claimed that he was the son of the deceased man and seized all of his possessions. Sometime later, he married off his daughter to the son of a prominent family. Meanwhile, the real son was born and reared by his single mother. He eventually grew up and recounted this story to Rav Saadia Gaon (C10 Iraq), explaining that he was afraid to reclaim his assets, given the former assistant’s powerful familial ties.
When Rav Saadia Gaon heard the story, he offered to advocate on behalf of the young man in the king’s court. He then took a sample of the young man’s blood and sought a sample of the former assistant’s blood that he had let. He placed the blood of the assistant into a jar containing a bone from the deceased businessman, but the blood and bone stayed separate. He then repeated the exercise with the blood of the son and immediately the blood was absorbed into the bone, thereby demonstrating who the real son was (Sefer Chasidim 232).
בְּעָא מִינֵּיהּ רָבָא מֵרַב נַחְמָן: יוֹרֵשׁ מַהוּ שֶׁיְּבַטֵּל רְשׁוּת הֵיכָא דְּאִי בָּעֵי לְעָרוֹבֵי מֵאֶתְמוֹל מָצֵי מְעָרֵב — בַּטּוֹלֵי נָמֵי מָצֵי מְבַטֵּל, אֲבָל הַאי כֵּיוָן דְּאִי בָּעֵי לְעָרוֹבֵי מֵאֶתְמוֹל — לָא מָצֵי מְעָרֵב, לָא מָצֵי מְבַטֵּל. אוֹ דִּלְמָא: יוֹרֵשׁ כַּרְעֵיהּ דַּאֲבוּהּ הוּא?
Rava asked Rav Nachman: With regard to an heir, may he renounce rights in a courtyard? (If a person who had forgotten to establish an eruv died on Shabbat, may his heir renounce his rights in his stead?) On the one hand, perhaps only in a case where, if the person wanted to establish an eruv on the previous day he could have established an eruv, he can also renounce his rights on Shabbat. But this heir, since, if he wanted to establish an eruv the previous day he could not have established an eruv, as he was not then a resident of the courtyard, therefore, today he cannot renounce his rights either. Or perhaps an heir is like his father’s foot (an extension of his father).
The Sefer Chasidim (231) offers our Gemara as the source for the traditional custom to fast on the yahrzeit of a parent. As further evidence of the fact that a child is an extension of the parent, Rabbi Yehuda Hachasid recounts the story of Rav Saadia Gaon’s miraculous paternity test. He explains that since a child is an extension of the parent, the commemoration of their death is a physically painful day, manifested by placing pressure on the body by fasting. The Shelah adds an additional reason for fasting. Since one’s parent passed on that date, it is a day of poor mazal for the individual. One fasts in order to be engaged in teshuvah and have no further difficulties befall him that day.
Nowadays, however, fasting on a yahrzeit is rare. Most prefer to invite their friends for a l’chaim. The source for the reversal of the traditional practice is the Zohar. Prior to his passing, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai instructed his students that his yahrzeit should not be a day of sadness, but one of celebration. Each year on the yahrzeit, he explained, the souls of the righteous are elevated from one level of heaven to the next, based on an assessment of the ongoing consequences of their actions and accomplishments during their lifetime.
Let’s say, for example, a great individual started a charity for orphans while they were alive. Certainly during their lifetime, they accrue merit and reward for their efforts. But the orphans who go on to lead well-balanced lives, replete with mitzvos and positive behaviour, all continue to accrue merit to the soul of the charity-founder, without whose assistance they may never have gotten a decent start in life. They will then parent children and further generations, all of whom owe their accomplishments to a righteous person who lived decades and centuries earlier. Each year that soul continues its heavenly ascent, on account of the enduring consequences of their actions during their lifetime.
The Shem Aryeh questions the promulgation of this practice amongst the masses. It’s one thing, he contends, for Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and particularly righteous individuals to claim this fasting exemption on their yahrzeit. But who decided that every Moshe Goldberg merits a feast rather than a fast on their yahrzeit? In fact, it’s gotten so bad, he says, that minyanaires are made to feel guilty if they fail to bring a bottle on their yahrzeit!
The Chesed L’Avraham responds with a justification of the contemporary practice. He explains that the act of bringing people together in brotherly love and unity to make blessings brings merit to the neshama, prompting its annual elevation. He maintains that the contemporary practice did not happen randomly, but was encouraged by our saintly rabbis, who instituted the custom in order to standardize the customs of a yahrzeit. Since fasting was too difficult for most people in recent generations, the preference is to bring people together to evoke merit for the soul.
Sadly, right now, due to coronavirus, the yahrzeit l’chaim is more challenging. Shuls conscious of the health and safety of their congregants have proscribed the sharing of food and drink. Nevertheless, we Jews are always creative and innovative. The solution to the l’chaim conundrum is the 5cl whiskey bottle.
When air travel began shutting down, whiskey proprietors wondered what they would do with all their 5cl bottles. All of a sudden, shuls starting ordering them for their kiddush-to-go and yahrzeit-to-go bags! Strictly speaking, the Chesed L’Avraham’s reason for commemorating a yahrzeit with a l’chaim entails the gathering of people together in brotherly love, which we can’t fulfil properly right now. Nevertheless, the merit of the joy you give your fellow minyanaires when they receive their yahrzeit-to-go bag is the next best thing!
May you constantly accrue merit for your dearly departed loved ones every day of the year, and may you set the wheels in motion for merit to accrue to your soul long after you have passed into the Garden of Eden!