The Jewish tradition of visiting the cemetery during the High Holy Days
EAST LOS ANGELES – It is a very special Jewish custom that during the Days of Awe – the ten days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur – that one visit the cemeteries, to consider our mortality like that of our forefathers. And to visit the graves of our ancestors.
I recently went to the annual Kever Avot memorial service at Home of Peace Memorial Park in East Los Angeles. Several families from my synagogue have loved ones buried here and so were in attendance on this day. And I also have many friends who have loved ones buried here as well. So I came out to pay my respects to our eastside mishpacha and some of my favorite Jewish heroes.
So what is this custom of visiting the cemeteries during the holy days?
In the Jewish calendar there are two very important dates in the fall. The first is Rosh HaShanah, the head of the year; when every year one acknowledges the Divine as being King over us all. On that day we celebrate with anticipation the hope of being declared for a good new year by the King.
Though on Yom Kippur the day is more solemn; it is the day of atonement. When we consider G-d as the King sitting in judgment over us for based on our deeds; and therefore we seek atonement for our sins through repentance, prayer and charity. It is a day of fasting and people wearing white garments like a burial shrouds. On this day we remember that we are but mere mortals, who will one days perish and all that will remain is the memory and merit of our deeds.
And likewise it is also said in the Jewish tradition, on Rosh HaShanah the declaration is written in the Book of Life, who will live and who will die in that year. And on Yom Kippur, this fate is then sealed.
So in the ten days between these two most holy days, one is encouraged to visit the grave sites of their loved ones and teachers. To reinforce this understanding in the most vivid way.
Although I must make the case that most Jews also come out to visit the graveyards on these days between the high holy days for less pious and mystical reasons.
The graveyard visits became a pervasive custom since days of old for more obvious reasons; because when the holidays come people just miss their loved ones so much. And it’s felt most deeply during the high holy days.
It can be overwhelming sometime, when someone you love and have spent a lifetime of joyous holidays memories with, and then for them to no longer be there. And sometimes it just really hits one at the core, as you hear that holiday melody your zaydie taught you. And as you make that recipe that you and your bubbie used to make together. And as a mother and father passes away, while they remain alive to you in your vivid holiday memories; it can be entirely overwhelming.
The Jewish tradition recognizes this. It has given us several ways of affirming that sense of loss and turning it into soulful remembrance. One is the visiting of the resting places of our dearly departed. The other is special memorial services with solemn prayers that are recited during the midst of the holidays; the Yizkor service; the name comes from the Hebrew word zachor, which means to remember.
And that is how the tradition of the Kever Avot – which in Hebrew literally means the grave of the ancestors – has come to be.
In this video I invite you to come with me to observe this tradition today at Home of Peace Cemetery, and a quick peek into the lesser known Mount Zion and Agudath Achim orthodox cemeteries.
Home of Peace Cemetery is the oldest of the Jewish cemeteries that in continual use to this day, and is the relocation of the original “Old Jewish Cemetery” founded by the Hebrew Benevolent Society near Chavez Ravine, near the base of today’s Dodger Stadium until it was evicted at the start of the 20th century; as discussed on my “Lost Cemeteries of Los Angeles Tour.” In the years between 1901 and 1903 almost all of the 360 burials were transferred to this then newly dedicated Jewish sacred burial site. Making this site one of the most deeply historical Jewish sites in all of the city.
And to me, it is all together lovely. Where I hope to come to my final rest some day.
DID YOU KNOW? In the most ancient times of Jewish history the Yizkor service was only recited once a year; during Yom Kippur. However, eventually it became four times a year according to the widespread Ashkenazi tradition of Central and Eastern European Jews. In the aftermath of the massacres of the middle-ages and crusades that had decimated their communities. Thereafter people were so grieved that they began demanding more liturgical opportunities during the holidays to acknowledges their loved ones. In the Sephadic and Mizrahi tradition this is not generally the custom, though it is has come to be adopted by some western-influenced Sephardic synagogues in America.