My uncle's family is holding a one-year memorial and stone unveiling honoring my uncle... on Yom Kippur! I was not close to my uncle but my mother was, and she is urging me to go to this event. I am thinking I should be at services, including yizkor to honor my father, whom I was extremely close with. They are even planning to make it into a celebration of my uncle's life and have food afterwards. My uncle was Jewish and my mom is, but these family members arranging the event are not. What are the principles I should consider and is there a clear imperative in what I should do? What would Jewish law and thought tell me is the way to proceed?
Thank you for your question. It sounds like a really difficult situation. Although it would be hard for anyone to give you definitive direction as to how to proceed, perhaps I can help clarify some of the Jewish values at play. That might help you make a more informed decision about what is right for you at this time.
The unveiling ritual is actually quite new in Jewish tradition. In fact, Moshe Feinstein (z”l) wrote that prior to WWII in Europe, it was common place for the cemetery to erect monuments on their own without family present. Because of that, there is relatively little halahah on the subject of the proper time for an unveiling. That being said, the question of visiting a cemetery on a holiday has been quite extensively discussed among earlier rabbis. They were quite clear that holidays were not an appropriate time to visit a cemetery. This was because they assumed that all Jews should/would be in shul (synagogue) on those days.
But Jewish families are more complex today and the varied make-ups and identities make these issues more difficult. Certainly honoring your elders, a clear biblical commandment, would be something to consider. How can you best honor the memory of your uncle and your father on that day? Additionally, Shlom Bayit – keeping peace in the home – is something to consider. What will the impact of your absence be on your family?
Have you spoken with the family about how the timing of this ritual will impact you and the other Jewish members of your family who may want to attend? Perhaps they are unaware and don’t understand the significance of the day.
I am a big advocate of being in shul. The synagogue community can be an incredible force for good and can be supportive in a way that few others can be. Particularly on Yom Kippur, when memories of loved family members are strong, having a community to support you is important. Only you can decide what the correct path will be. I might encourage you to consider creating a different ritual moment for yourself if you choose to not attend the unveiling. Perhaps taking some friends with you to the grave the morning before Yom Kippur – a common Jewish custom – would be a nice way to take care of yourself emotionally on both fronts.
I wish you a year of peace and joy. May the memories of your uncle and father serve as a blessing to you as you make this decision, and as you move forward into the year to come.
From your note, it seems that your mother is urging you to go to the memorial for your uncle on Yom Kippur and to forego Yizkor for your father. This has a disturbing ring.
Your uncle's family is non-Jewish, but even non-Jews know about Yom Kippur. I am baffled that they chose this day, Yom Kippur, which is not even on a weekend this year; it is in the middle of the week.
There seem to be lots of issues in this matter, and you are caught in the middle.
Jewish law on this is clear - Yom Kippur is sacred, and is not the time for a separate memorial ceremony and eating. Your place is in shul, praying, and reciting Yizkor.
Just to be fair, I strongly recommend approaching your uncle's family, and telling them that having this memorial on Yom Kippur is an affront to your uncle's memory and a breach of tradition that this would force you to trespass.
Hopefully, they will realize their error and re-schedule. If this was done deliberately (I really hope not), then you have reason to be upset. Your mother should be with you in urging your uncle's family to re-schedule the memorial. That would allow you to honor your father and your uncle.
All the best to you. And good luck with this challenge.
Before beginning, have you asked them if they could move the memorial one day earlier or later? Is your uncle buried in a Jewish cemetery? If so, they may find the gates locked on Yom Kippur, as no one will be working to unlock them.
If I were in your shoes, I cannot imagine going to an unveiling and meal on Yom Kippur. The proper memorial for your uncle would be to say Yizkor for him, as well as your father, in synagogue on Yom Kippur. Fasting and prayer go together. If you are with non-Jewish relatives who will not be fasting, it will make your fast far more difficult, as well as take you away from the spirit of the day.
Yom Kippur is clearly an important and holy day which includes aspects of repentance, prayer, fasting, and also great joy. It is not appropriate to be in a cemetery on such a day, much less have an unveiling on that date.
As a side note, if you offer to host the meal after the unveiling, they might be more receptive to change. I would hope that once they understand that it is not appropriate to have an unveiling on Yom Kippur for a Jewish man, they would move the ceremony.
In short, Step 1: Ask them to move it. If they say yes, great! Step 2: If they are committed to that date, apologize that you will be unable to join them and go to synagogue instead. There you can offer Yizkor prayers for your uncle, as well as your father. p.s. Doesn’t your mother want you in shul saying Yizkor for her late husband??
At first blush this dilemma and goodness knows it is a dilemma, looks like a case of weighing one mitzvah (commandment) against another. To wit:
· Doing honor to your mother by respecting her wishes and going to the unveiling
· Observing Yom Kippur
· Saying kaddish for a parent
· Being part of a minion at an unveiling
But everything about the request from your uncle’s family, that you attend the unveiling, is out of whack. Although they seem to be observing a Jewish ritual, an unveiling, they are doing it at a time that no one, but no one, in the Jewish community would approve of. Perhaps they don’t realize how inappropriate it is to try to honor your uncle by doing an unveiling on Yom Kippur. If they are unaware of this, the best thing to do is inform them, politely but firmly, that it is not at all an appropriate time to hold this ceremony, however non-observant your uncle may have been, and they should make other arrangements. Analogies are always a good thing. No church would conduct a funeral on Christmas, Good Friday or Easter Sunday. Unveilings are not done on Yom Kippur.
Oy, if they do know what they are doing and don’t care. It is always inappropriate to ask a person to violate one mitzvah in order to observe another one, especially if the person making the request has control over when the mitzvah is going to occur, and no one’s health is at stake. It’s important to remember that if they are going ahead, even knowing that doing an unveiling on Yom Kippur is no way to honor their family member, that does not obligate you.
No doubt, the toughest part of this would be to go against your mother’s wishes. On a formal level, Jewishly, one does not have to honor a request from a parent that asks you to violate another mitzvah. Jewish tradition acknowledges that there is something to be said for going out of one’s way to honor a parent’s request, and there are a number of midrashim, rabbinic stories, that illustrate this, but they do not invalidate your principled objection. Perhaps presenting her with the reasons why the invitation is so Jewishly inappropriate will persuade her that going to an unveiling on Yom Kippur does not pay honor to your uncle.
I wish you well on trying to navigate your way on this. It is a very challenging situation.
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