The word Yizkor means ‘may He remember’ and is the name of a short prayer service held on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) and the final day of each of the three pilgrim festivals (Pesach or Passover,Shavuot and Sukkot). It is a service at which the participants remember the dead, especially their own parents who have passed on, but many synagogues also include prayers for those who died in the Holocaust and otherwise died al kiddush HaShem (a Hebrew phrase literally meaning ‘sanctifying the name’, i.e. referring to Jews who have been killed as a consequence of antisemitic prejudice).
The service originated in the Middle Ages as a reaction to the massacres of Jews in continental Europe during the Crusades, with the first such service being held at Nuremburg (southern Germany) on Yom Kippur 1295. The practice quickly spread to other towns, and then to the pilgrim festivals as well as Yom Kippur.
The Yizkor service is held immediately after completion of the Torah reading service and before the Rabbi’s sermon and Musaf (the additional service held on holydays). Traditionally congregants with both parents still living have gone outside while the Yizkor service is held, but increasingly synagogues encourage all congregants to attend, pointing to the communal prayers for those who died al kiddush HaShem as a reason why those with both parents still living should also attend. Donation cards are provided for those whose parents have passed on so that they may give tzedakah (charity) on behalf of their deceased parent; as writing is not permitted on Jewish holydays, these cards are carefully designed so that congregants do not wite when they pledge their donation and indicate the amount of their donation.
The central prayer of the service, said after an introductory Psalm, has the following wording:
May God remember the soul of [here the congregant inserts the name of their deceased parent or parents] who has gone to eternity. May his/her soul be bound up in the bond of life with the souls of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, and with those of all the righteous in the Garden of Eden.
Following this, the prayer Av haRachamim (‘Father of Mercy’) is said, followed by a meditation. Optionally, prayers for those who died al Kiddush haShem may also be said, either before or after the other prayers, depending on the preference of those running the service.