Yizkor, which means remembrance in Hebrew, is Judaism's memorial prayer. It likely became a formal part of the prayer service during the Crusades of the eleventh century, when many Jews were killed as they made their way to the Holy Land. The earliest mention of Yizkor can be found in the eleventh-century Machzor Vitry. Some scholars believe that Yizkor actually predates the eleventh century and was created during the Maccabean period (around 165 B.C.E) when Judah Maccabee and his fellow soldiers prayed for their fallen comrades. (Source: Kolatach, Alfred J. "The Jewish Book of Why." pg. 81).
When Is Yizkor Recited?
The Yizkor is recited four times a year during the following Jewish holidays:
Originally Yizkor was only recited during Yom Kippur. However, because giving to charity is an important part of the prayer the other three holidays were eventually added to the list of times when Yizkor is recited. In ancient times, families would travel to the Holy Land during these times and bring offerings of charity to the Temple.
Today families gather at synagogue services and for meals during these holidays. Thus, these are fitting times to remember family members who have passed on. Although it is preferable to recite Yizkor in the synagogue setting, where a minyan (gathering of ten Jewish adults) is present, it is also acceptable to recite Yizkor at home.
Yizkor and Charity
The Yizkor prayers include an undertaking to give a donation to charity in memory of the deceased. In ancient times, visitors to the Temple in Jerusalem were obliged to make donations to the Temple. Today, Jews are asked to make donations to charity. By performing this mitzvah in the name of the deceased, credit for the donation is shared with the deceased so the status of their memory is enhanced.
How is Yizkor recited?
It is a common misconception that Yizkor must be recited in a synagogue with a minyan (a group of ten Jewish adults). Although reciting the prayer with a community is preferable, it is also acceptable to say Yizkor at home in privacy.
In some synagogues, children are asked to leave the sanctuary while Yizkor is recited. The reason is largely a superstitious one - it is thought to be bad luck for parents to have their children present while the prayer is said. Other synagogues do not ask people to leave, both because some children might have lost parents and because asking others to leave is seen as enhancing any feelings of isolation. Many synagogues also recite Yizkor for the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust and have no one left to recite Kaddish or Yizkor for them. For this reason, it makes sense that no one is asked to leave the sanctuary.