Question: Is there any source for lighting a candle on the day of a parent’s Yahrzeit (anniversary of death)? Can this custom be fulfilled by turning on an electric light or candle? Is there any point to light a Yahrzeit candle?
Answer: A source for lighting a candle in honor of the deceased is mentioned in the Gemara (Berachot 52b) where the Mishnah states that the “Boreh Me’orei Ha’esh” blessing recited on Motza’ei Shabbat may not be recited on a candle of a deceased person. Rashi (ibid. 53a) explains: “Any deceased person who is a respectable person and a candle is usually lit during the day in his honor, even if this candle was lit on Motza’ei Shabbat, the blessing may not be recited upon it, for such a candle is meant for honor and not in order to illuminate.” Maran Ha’Shulchan Aruch (OC, Chapter 298, Section 12) rules likewise.
The Orchot Chaim writes: “Rabbeinu Asher writes that it is customary that everyone light a candle on Erev Yom Kippur in order to atone for one’s father and mother, for this is an honor to Hashem, as the verse states, ‘With lights honor Hashem.’ The custom of the Jewish nation is law.” Other great Poskim rule likewise. Based on this, it has become customary to light a candle on the day of one’s parent’s Yahrzeit every single year in order to elevate their souls. Indeed, the Maharshal writes in his responsa (end of Chapter 46) that if one has forgotten to light a candle in the synagogue on Erev Shabbat on the day of one’s parent’s Yahrzeit as is customary in all Ashkenazi countries, one may tell a non-Jew to light it during Ben Ha’Shemashot (twilight, the first several minutes after sunset before the stars begin to emerge), for since people are careful to light a candle in honor of their father and mother, this is considered a situation of great need and there is therefore room for leniency.
Nevertheless, according to all opinions, this is not an actual Mitzvah; rather, it is merely a fine custom which has been observed for generations which has an important basis. Thus, based on what the Poskim write that one may fulfill one’s obligation of lighting Shabbat candles by turning on electric lights (as we have discussed in our segment regarding the laws of lighting Shabbat candles), certainly regarding this issue which is merely a custom can one fulfill one’s obligation with electric lights. This is especially true regarding those who customarily light a Yahrzeit candle for their parents in the synagogue where the smell of oil or wax may disturb some congregants, there is room to say that it is certainly better to turn on an electric light as opposed to an actual candle. This is indeed the practice in many synagogues and Batei Midrash.
Thus, halachically speaking, Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l rules that one may fulfill the custom of lighting a Yahrzeit candle for one’s parent by turning on an electric light. It is likewise a great Mitzvah to donate money to a Yeshiva or Bet Midrash in order to cover lighting expenses which will thus enable continued Torah study. This, in turn, will cause great spiritual satisfaction to the deceased and they will certainly act as righteous defenders on one’s behalf.
The same law applies to candles lit in honor of the luminaries of the Jewish nation, such as those who customarily light candles in honor of Rabbi Meir Ba’al Ha’Ness (especially on Erev Shabbat when this adds light to the house) and one may continue to do so using electric candles and the merit of the Torah will protect one’s entire family (this is especially beneficial for the education of one’s children, for when children see their mother or father light a candle in honor of a righteous person’s soul, they grow up with an appreciation of faith in our Sages).
We should point out that the highest form of merit one can perform for one’s parents or teachers in Gan Eden is for the children and students of the deceased to toil endlessly in Torah. One cannot fathom the amount joy and benefit one provides for the deceased by studying Torah which is greater by far than lighting a candle in their honor (or reciting Kaddish, for that matter). This is especially true when one studies the teaching of our Sages, for in this way, their lips move in their graves and their merit shall protect the individual until the coming our righteous Mashiach, speedily and in our days, Amen.