Honoring One’s Parents After their Passing
Our Sages tell us in Masechet Kiddushin (31b) that “One must honor him during his lifetime and one must honor him after his death,” meaning that just as one is obligated to honor his parents while they are alive, one must also honor them after their passing. This honor cannot be achieved by feeding them and giving the to drink as we have discussed regarding one’s live parents; rather, one must honor them in other ways, as we shall now explain.
Saying “I am an Atonement for His Rest”
The Baraita in Kiddushin (31b) states: “Whenever one mentions a Torah though from one’s father, one should say, ‘Father would say this and I am an atonement for his rest.’ (This means that anytime one mentions his father after his passing, one should add the words, “I am an atonement for his rest.” The meaning of this phrase is one means to say that any harm which is destined to befall his soul should befall me instead.) When does this apply? Only during the initial twelve months following his passing. However, after twelve months one merely says, ‘My father, of blessed memory.’” The reason why one does not continue to say “I am an atonement for his soul” even after twelve months is because the wicked are judged in Gehinnom for twelve months and after this time, there is no longer any purpose in reciting this phrase. (Although there are wicked people who are judged in Gehinnom for more than twelve months, nevertheless, twelve months is the usual judgment span in Gehinnom and one need not assume that one’s father will be punished more than this.)
Only When Mentioning a Torah Thought
Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l writes that the only time one needs to say this phrase of “I am an atonement for his soul” is only when one mentions a halachic thought from his father, as the Baraita states, “Whenever one mentions a Torah thought from one’s father.” However, if one mentions mundane thoughts from one’s father that are not connected to Torah, one need not mention this phrase. Similarly, if one mentions a righteous custom that one’s mother observed, for instance, how his mother would customarily recite the blessing upon lighting Shabbat candles before actually lighting in accordance with the ruling of Maran Ha’Shulchan Aruch and the like, one must also recite this phrase.
Mentioning One’s Parents in a Letter
Maran zt”l also discusses in his Chazon Ovadia-Avelut (Part 3, page 196) whether if when one mentions one’s parents in a letter one must also write “I am an atonement for his rest,” or perhaps one must only say this phrase when mentioning his parents verbally. He quotes the words of the Rama in his Darkei Moshe who writes: “Nevertheless, I have seen in the works of the Poskim and the Nimukei Yosef that when they quote the opinions of their rabbis, they write "הכ"ם",” which means that even in writing they use "הכ"ם" which is an acronym for the Hebrew translation of the phrase “I am an atonement for his rest” ("הריני כפרת משכבו").
Similarly, we find in the Sefer Benei Shmuel, written by Rabbeinu Shmuel Hayun who was one of the greatest Poskim who lived over three hundred years ago, that when the author quotes his grandfather, the Maharashdam, he adds the phrase “I am an atonement for his rest” since he was writing his work within the year of the passing of his grandfather and rabbi, Rabbeinu Shmuel di Modena.
On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur
When one mentions his parents on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, one should add “I am an atonement for their rest” even if more than twelve months have elapsed since their passing. The reason for this is because on these days the Book of the Dead is opened before Hashem, and all souls, including those who have already departed this world, are judged on these days. Thus, it is only proper to add this phrase when mentioning one’s parents’ names.
The Benefit of Reciting the Phrase, “I am an Atonement for his Rest”
Hagaon Harav Moshe Feinstein zt”l writes that by adding this phrase, one does not benefit one’s parents in the least, for indeed if punishment has been decreed upon the parents, certainly these few words that the son utters will not be enough to absolve them from it; rather, as the verse in Yechezkel states, “The righteousness of the righteous man shall remain upon him and the wickedness of the wicked man shall remain upon him.” Reciting these words provides no benefit at all; rather, it is only meant as a show of respect. However, Hagaon Harav Betzalel Stern zt”l, author of the Responsa Betzel Ha’Chochma, disagrees with this and writes that if this is indeed the case, why would the Sages enact that one should utter a phrase which really has no benefit at all? Thus, he explains that in the merit of the child putting forth an effort to honor his parents, this Mitzvah will serve to protect the parents from the judgment of Gehinnom. Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l adds that through the child’s accepting upon himself the punishment that was supposed to befall his parents, what he means by saying this is that he accepts upon himself to repent fully by keeping Shabbat, Kosher, and the like; this merit causes one’s parents to be absolved of their punishment. He proceeds to support this idea with several proofs.