The following is a prayer, the traditional Jewish prayer for the dead, as given by my godfather on the birthday of my late brother.
As he explained, the prayer is usually reserved for the day of the deceased’s passing. However, given that my late brother’s passing came only two weeks after his birthday, and the fact that my godfather and I would not be able to see each other on that date, he opted for conducting the prayer on the birthday night instead.
The same prayer was given a number of weeks the year prior after my brother’s actual passing. Although my godfather gave the prayer in the presence of his own family on that day, he repeated it during a visit on my behalf.
Given before seating at dinner, the prayer is repeated each consecutive year onward. However, it is reserved for kin, not given for friends and familiar faces.
Standing at the dinner table with our food before us, my godfather proceeded to recite the prayer (from memory), in its original Yiddish, which is also his first language:
Yitgaddal veyitqaddash shmeh rabba. Be’alma di vra khir’uteh. Veyamlikh malkhuteh, behayekhon uvyomekhon uvhaye dekhol bet Yisrael, be’agala uvizman qariv. Ve’imru: Amen.
Yehe shmeh rabba mevarakh le’alam ul’alme ‘almaya.
Yitbarakh veyishtabbah veyitpaar veyitromam veyitnasse veyithaddar veyit’alleh veyithallal shmeh dequdsha berikh hu. Le’ella min kol birkhata veshiratea tushbehata venehemata daamiran be’alma. Ve’imru: Amen.
Titqabbal tzelotehon uva’utehon d’khol bet Yisrael qodam avuhon di bishmayya. Ve’imru: Amen.
Yehe shelama rabba min shemayya, vehayyim ‘alainu v’al kol Yisrael. Ve’imru: Amen.
O’she shalom bimromav, hu ya’ase shalom ‘alenu, v’al kol Yisra’el. Ve’imru: Amen.
After this point, he took out a small candle and lit it, explaining that after the prayer, the candle is allowed to burn for 24 hours, and then extinguished.
The candle was then set in the center of the dining table. However, he explained, tradition does not call for the candle to be placed anywhere in particular. Given that the prayer is said before seating for the dinner meal, it is most often placed among where the meal is being eaten as a matter of simple convenience.
Following the recitation of the prayer and the lighting of the candle, we sat and ate.
At the same time next year, it will be done once more.
The English translation of the prayer has been included:
“Exalted and hallowed be His great Name.
Throughout the world which He has created according to His Will. May He establish His kingship, bring forth His redemption and hasten the coming of His Moshiach.
In your lifetime and in your days and in the lifetime of the entire House of Israel, sword, famine and death shall cease from us and from the entire Jewish nation, speedily and soon, and say, Amen.
May His great Name be blessed forever and to all eternity. Blessed and praised, glorified, exalted, and extolled, honored, adored and lauded be the Name of the Holy One, blessed be He.
Beyond all the blessings, hymns, praises and consolations that are uttered in the world, and say, Amen.
Upon Israel, and upon our sages, and upon their disciples, and upon all the disciples of their disciples, and upon all those who occupy themselves with the Torah, here or in any other place, upon them and upon you, may there be abundant peace, grace, kindness, compassion, long life, ample sustenance and deliverance, from their Father in heaven; and say, Amen.
May there be abundant peace from heaven, and a good life for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.
He who makes peace in His heavens, may He make peace for us and for all Israel, and say, Amen.”
What is interesting to note about the prayer itself is that it does not acknowledge the dead at all and is instead entirely an exaltation towards God. The significance of the prayer is undeniable given its exclusive reservation for family members, but to not mention death at all might prompt a double glance.
My uncle explained this as an almost humorous consideration, but elaborated that the absence of mentioning death in a prayer whose very purpose centers on it is that remembrance is almost implied, and that a reminder of the person’s passing is not necessary. I found it noteworthy, then, that the traditional prayer for the dead draws the entirety of its significance in the symbolism of its name and subsequent use, with the actual components of the prayer itself important to a lesser degree.
A topic that is often joked upon between my godfather and me is the fact that I am an Episcopalian Christian, and he a Russian Orthodox Jew. It is interesting to consider, then that such a highly specialized and ritualistic prayer may be conducted between members of two religions with a distinct barrier between them. In this case, circumstances of love supersede those of preconceived notions of theological leanings.