Conflicting advice on Yizkor

          In an edition of the Hainault & Chigwell Synagogue’s Communal News Letter, two very interesting contributions on the subject of Yizkor appeared.  The first contribution gives several reasons for requesting those with both parents alive to leave the service during Yizkor.  One reason is: "One may not tempt fate `by opening one’s mouth to Satan (the adversary)` because one who remains in Shul may inadvertently join in the Yizkor recitations; a second reason given is that those reciting Yizkor might feel envious of those more fortunate than they and bring an “Ayan Hora" (evil eye)  upon the living parents. 

          The second contributor writes that he has heard “many Rabbis’ and Reverends’ sermons over the past 50 years, including three Chief Rabbis, and has never heard this procedure instituted.  On the contrary, he wrote, it has always been requested that the whole congregation remain in their place and those fortunate enough to have both parents alive should quietly remember the victims of the Holocaust and the fallen Israeli soldiers." 

          Since the latter experience has also been my experience, I was intrigued by this conflicting advice and undertook some research, the results of which may be of interest to members.  I found that there is some support for the first view expressed but I would respectfully suggest that the majority view appears to favour the advice given by the three Chief Rabbis.  In this contribution I quote extracts from various encyclopaedias and books and whilst I try to give a fair balance to the two conflicting views, it is by no means unknown for writers to be biased.  I will, therefore, mention my sources so that any readers who wish to research the matter further will be able to assess for themselves which of the two conflicting views is probably the correct one. 

          In the ENCYCLOPAEDIA JUDAICA, Satan is mentioned under two main headings: Demonology & Satan. 

          Under “Demonology in the Bible" it states, “Israel’s official religion contrasts sharply with contemporary Polytheisms in the role assigned to demons which, in the Bible, is practically nil.  Magic was prohibited amongst the Israelites from the very earliest times .....Calamities and illnesses were not from demons but from the Lord.  One must not over-estimate the importance of the numerous small traces of belief in demons which survive in the Bible, or under-estimate the difficulties involved in interpreting them." 

          Under “Satan" it states “In the Bible, except perhaps for 1 Chronicles 21:1, Satan is not a proper name referring to a particular being and a demoniac one who is the  antagonist or rival of God.  In its original application, in fact, it is a common noun meaning an adversary who opposes and obstructs.  It is applied to human adversaries ..... and its related verb is used of prosecution in a Law Court and the role of an antagonist in general,  There is nothing here to indicate that Satan was the permanent function of a particular angel.  He is clearly subordinate to God , a member of His suite who is unable to act without His permission.  Nowhere is he in any sense a rival of God." 

          Under “Post Biblical" it states “References in the Tannaitic literature are even more sparse and. with few exceptions, Satan merely appears as the impersonal force of evil.  During the Amoraic Period, however, Satan became much more prominent in the Talmud and Midrash.  The purpose of sounding the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah is “in order to confuse Satan" but on the Day of Atonement he is completely powerless. 

          In the ENCYCLOPAEDIA OF THE JEWISH RELIGION under “Demonology" it states “Belief in demons or evil spirits has played a relatively unimportant role in official Judaism though prominent in popular practice.  Jewish Theology as reflected in Biblical and Rabbinic literature did not deny the existence of supernatural beings capable of harming persons but the absolute sovereignty and Omnipotence attributed to God by Jewish Monotheism reduced the importance and power of such demonic force.  It is mainly under the influence of later dualistic systems with their dichotomy of cosmic good and evil that Demonology flourished.  In the Bible all cosmic agencies, both beneficent and malign, are controlled by God’s will.  Forces of destruction are His messengers of punishment and even Satan is only his servant.  In Rabbinic times, under Babylonian and Persian influence, Demonology like Angelogy assumed considerable importance in Aggadic thought and general Jewish Folk-lore.  Many of the demons became individualised and were given specific names, often of foreign origin." 

          Under “Satan" it states that “The word `Satan`, probably meaning adversary, occurs in the greater part of the Bible as a common noun and refers often to human antagonists.  There are, however, intimations, even in pre-exilic Biblical literature of a malign influence variously described, that seeks to mislead human beings.  But in only three passages, all of them late, is Satan depicted as an individualised superhuman being.  But Monotheism has circumscribed his Powers.  On Rosh Hashanah he is confused by the Shofar; on the Day of Atonement his authority is annulled.  Ultimately he will be vanquished by the Messiah.  Kabbalah gives even greater prominence to the concept of evil and uses a variety of synonyms for Satan.  There are also occasional allusions to Satan in the Liturgy but these have the general connotation of “corrupting desires‿ and possess no doctrinal significance." 

          In VALENTINE’S JEWISH ENCYCLOPAEDIA under “Satan", it is stated “In the Bible, Satan is one of the angels whose task it is to test Man’s loyalty and tempt him to sin.  He may inflict pain on Men but only with God’s permission.  He appears always not for himself but as God’s servant." 

          In the OXFORD ENCYCLOPAEDIA under “The Jewish idea of Satan" it states “It was probably under the influence of these Persian ideas that the Jewish conception of Satan took shape.  At first, however, the “Satan" in the Old Testament was regarded as one of the servants of God, who, as a divine agent was permitted to bring evil upon Job to test this Righteous man.  Next, he is represented as the accuser of Israel as a Nation and is made responsible for leading David astray.  From being “the Adversary" and “tempter" he very soon became thought of as an evil spirit; and then, after the exiles returned from their captivity in Babylon and Persian ideas had begun to spread in Palestine, he was transformed into the Devil on the model of Druj." 

          Some years ago, the Lubavitch Movement was torn apart by a dispute to decide who owned a particular collection of books.  The dispute went to litigation and Rabbi Doctor Louis Jacobs was called as an expert witness by the Lubavitch Rabbi. Interestingly enough and in passing, he helped the Lubavitch Rabbi win the case.  I, likewise, propose calling on Rabbi Louis Jacobs as expert witness in this conflict. 

          In his book “A JEWISH THEOLOGY" he writes, “Belief in demons was very widespread throughout the Rabbinic period.  The Babylonian Talmud in particular contains stories of haunted houses, visitations by demons, spells and incantations of every kind.  The struggle against superstition was fierce, but it is undeniable that many superstitions did manage to find their way into Jewish Life." 

          Rabbi Jacobs continues, “What should the attitude be of the modern Jew to angels and demons?  The obstacles to such beliefs are so weighty that most moderns have given up entirely any belief in either angels or demons.  The evidence of modern psychical research is convincing to a minority that some kind of psychical disturbance and interference from “outside" does take place occasionally.  The theological difficulties are tremendous.  Why should God require these beings?  What purpose do they serve?  Is there not but a step from believing in their existence to according them something of the divine power?  Is not such a belief surrender to superstition and at variance with pure religious faith? 

          Thinkers like Maimonides valiantly tried to refine Jewish beliefs in this area but were handicapped by the clearest references to angels in the Bible and the numerous references to both angels and demons in the Rabbinic literature.  This fact, for them though not for us, gave a kind of divine sanction to the beliefs, which was heresy to question.  Again the advance of modern science enables us to explain otherwise quite mysterious phenomena without involving supernatural forces, benevolent or malevolent.  We no longer attribute mental illness, for example, to the invasion of the human mind my demons which have to be cast out before the patient can recover.  The whole area of the occult is viewed with great suspicion by sensitive thinkers, though it has its followers.  And quite apart from all these very weighty considerations, angels and demons are simply irrelevant to our religious life.  They do not form part of our religious consciousness.  We fail to be at all moved by them even if they do exist.  Most moderns see great gain and no loss in the new picture in terms of a more refined, less arbitrary, faith. 

          Can it be left at that or should moderns still keep an open mind on the question?  To be sure the many superstitions associated with these beliefs have gone never to return or, when they are present, are generally acknowledged to be irrational vestiges of primitive beliefs.  Yet some may still consider it rash to deny completely that there is any reality at all behind all the talk of angels and demons in the classical Jewish sources.  Are the “Heavenly Hosts" which praise God only a beautiful piece of ancient poetry?  Perhaps the soundest attitude after all is an open mind, free from the grosser descriptions and conceptions but acknowledging that we cannot know all of God’s purposes in His creation.  For all we know to the contrary, there may be myriads of creatures of which we have no inkling, which have their place in this mysterious universe.

The angels keep their ancient places:-

Turn but a stone, and start a wing:

`Tis ye, `tis your estranged faces

That miss the many-splendoured thing. 

          Fine poetry or halting expression of a reality?  Most of us would opt solidly for the former.  Yet perhaps, a very faint perhaps, the question mark is still there." 

          All the Encyclopaedia and Books mentioned above, with the exception of the Oxford Encyclopaedia, are scattered with references from both the Talmud and Midrash in support of the views which they express. 

          I now come to my personal questions and comments arising from the reasons which were given at the beginning of this essay for requesting those with both parents alive to leave the service during Yizkor, for they trouble me religiously. 

  1.   Those Rabbis who believe in the power of Satan also believe that, on the Day of Atonement, he is completely powerless.  What harm, therefore, can Satan cause to a person with both parents alive, even if that person stays in the service during Yizkor on the Day of Atonement? 
  2.   Many believe that on Rosh Hashanah is inscribed and on the Day of Atonement, is sealed and determined a person’s fate for the forthcoming year.  Those who believe in Satan also believe that he is subordinate to God.  How then would they explain that it is possible for Satan to adversely affect any person, during any Yizkor service if they believe that each person’s fate for the current year had already been predetermined? 
  3.   How can a person “inadvertently join in the Yizkor recitation" for, when reciting the Yizkor prayer, one must mention specifically the Hebrew name of the deceased?  This cannot be done inadvertently.   If the name is not included in the prayer then against whom would Satan act adversely? 
  4.   If an envious person has the power to bring an “Ayan Hora" (evil eye) upon the living parents, then there are a whole range of people who should be encouraged to leave the Shul.  A bride should leave the Shul when the bridegroom is being called up to the reading of the law because there might be an envious person in the congregation who has no sons to marry off; parents of a Barmitzvah boy should leave Shul when the Barmitzvah boy is being called to the reading of the law because there might be in the congregation another boy who has been or is about to become Barmitzvah who does not have both his parents alive and who might be envious of the Barmitzvah boy who has; wealthy persons should not attend Shul because there may be many poor people in the congregation, one or more of whom may feel envious of them, and adversely affect them by the “evil eye".  This list is endless. 
  5.   Again referring to the Jewish Encyclopaedia it states “The Talmud comprises both Halachah (Law) and Aggadah.  Aggadah is defined as that portion of Rabbinic teaching which is not Halachah and includes narrative, history, ethical maxims, fairly tales, witticisms, jokes, etc., and should not be regarded as authoritative in the same normative way as the Halachah is obligatory, and the sages themselves explicitly testified that `No Halachah may be derived from Aggadah`." Much that is written about Satan is Aggadah. 
  6.   In “JUDAISM A-Z" written  by Rabbi Doctor Yacov Newman and Doctor Gavriel Sivan (formerly Godfrey Silverman of Ilford)  and published by the Department for Torah Education and Culture, it states, “The memorial service includes prayers for deceased parents, close relatives and teachers, as well as special public hazkarot for the Six Million Jews who perished in the Nazi Holocaust and for the fallen soldiers of Israel.  In some congregations, worshippers blessed with two living parents customarily leave the Synagogue during recital of memorial prayers, although there is no obligation to do so." In view of the superstition which has attached itself to the Yizkor Service, this is, I think, a balanced comment.

July 1990