Question: What is the proper date of the first yahrzeit, the date of death or the date of burial?
Short Answer: The Mishnah B’rurah rules that the yahrzeit is observed on the date of death in all years. However, many poskim, including Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l, disagree and rule that where the date of burial is three (or possibly, even two) days after the date of death, the first yahrzeit is observed on the date of burial and all subsequent yahrzeits are observed on the date of death.
I. Fasting on Date of Death
The Gemara (Shevuos 20a) discusses a person who vows to fast on a particular day. The Gemara explains that in order for the vow to be binding, one must connect the fast to another (previously accepted) fast (“hatfasah”), such as Tzom Gedalyah or the date that the person’s father died.
This Gemara is one of the sources for the minhag to fast on a parent’s yahrzeit. Notably, the Gemara assumes that the day of yahrzeit for fasting is the date of death, as opposed to the date of burial. This point is noted by the Maharil and Agudah (cited in the Beis Yosef, Orach Chayim 568:8), who rule that a person should fast on the dates his parents died, and not on the dates of burial. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 568:8) paskens this way, as well, that he should only fast on the date of death, not the date of burial.
The Rama (Yoreh Dei’ah 402:12), while acknowledging that a person should fast on the dates his parents died and not on the dates of burial, adds an important caveat from the “zakein muflag Maharam Landau.” Rav Landau notes that where a person is only present at his parent’s burial and not at his death, he fasts on the date of burial.
The Shach (Yoreh Dei’ah 402:10) disagrees with this Rama, as the reason a person fasts on a yahrzeit is because the person’s own “mazleih” (loosely translated as “luck”) is weaker on this date. Accordingly, there should be no difference whether the person was present at his parent’s death; the person should always fast on the date of death, the date where his luck is weaker. The Shach also notes that the distinction of the Rama would lead to illogical results and a violation of “Lo Sisgod’du,” as one son (who was present at the death) would observe the yahrzeit on the date of death while another son (who was only present at the burial) would observe the yahrzeit on a different date, the date of burial.
Thus, for all relevant purposes (fasting, davening before the amud, going to the cemetery, etc.), the yahrzeit is on the date of death, unless the aveil was only present at the burial, in which it is a dispute between the Rama (date of burial) and the Shach (date of death) as to which date is observed.
[As an aside, ArtScroll’s Mourning in Halachah (p. 422) appears to follow the Shach, as they make no distinction in the text whether the aveil was present on the date of death and only mention the limitation of the Rama in passing in a footnote.]
II. The First Year and the Opinion of the Shach
But is there any difference between the first yahrzeit after the passing and other yahrzeits?
The T’shuvos Mas’as Binyamin, cited in the Shach (Yoreh Dei’ah 402:10) and the Taz (Yoreh Dei’ah 402:9), rule that for purposes of all relevant laws (i.e., haircuts, attending s’machos, greeting people, etc.), the 12 months of aveilus end on the date of burial. He adds that the yahrzeit for the first year after passing should also be observed on the date of burial, because otherwise the aveil will potentially err in the laws of aveilus. In other words, if the first yahrzeit is observed on the date of death, and the date of death is a few days earlier than the date of burial, the aveil may mistakenly end the observance of the laws of aveilus a few days earlier than required, because people are accustomed to ending the laws of aveilus on the observed yahrzeit.
The Shach (ibid), however, challenges this ruling. He notes that the Mas’as Binyamin’s distinction is not found anywhere in the writings of the Rishonim, and thus it is preferable that the yahrzeit be observed on the date of death in all years, even the first year. However, the Shach subsequently qualifies that where the date of burial is “three or four days” after the date of death, one should rely on the opinion of the Mas’as Binyamin and observe the first yahrzeit on the date of burial. The basis for this qualification is that such a scenario is unlikely, and there really is no other good option if we don’t want to risk the aveil erring on the laws of aveilus. However, when the date of burial is on the same date as, or the following date after, the date of death, the first yahrzeit is observed on the date of death as in all other years.
Applying the Shach, where a person dies on a Tuesday that is Erev Yom Tov (in the United States) and is not buried until after the two-day Yom Tov on Friday morning, the first yahrzeit is on the date of burial, as it was three days after the date of death. However, if a person dies on a Shabbos and is buried on Sunday, the first yahrzeit is observed on the date of death, as the burial is only one day after the date of death.
III. The Two-Day Gap
However, the Shach leaves us with a problem. What is the law where a person is buried two days after the date of death? In other words, which day is observed as the first yahrzeit where a person dies on Friday and is not buried until Sunday?
The Nishmas Yisrael (Vol. 2, p. 521) cites a machlokes between the Chelkas Yaakov and the Levushei Mordechai how to interpret the Shach. The Chelkas Yaakov (1:132) understands that in the two-day scenario, the first yahrzeit is the date of death, because only where there is a three- or four-day gap – a very unlikely situation – do we observe the first yahrzeit on the date of burial. The Levushei Mordechai disagrees and rules that the first yahrzeit would be the date of burial in this case, as well. The Nishmas Yisrael himself thinks that the Levushei Mordechai is the better interpretation of the Shach, because when the Shach wrote “three or four days,” he really meant including the day of death in the counting. Thus, if the person dies on Friday but is not buried until Sunday, the Schach is explicit that the first yahrzeit is observed on the date of burial.
IV. Practically Speaking
The Mishnah B’rurah (Orach Chayim 568:44) acknowledges the opinion of the Shach (and appears to understand the Shach like the Nishmas Yisrael), but also cites, and appears to follow, the ruling of the Chayei Adam and Elyah Rabbah that the yahrzeit is always observed on the date of death, even in the first year. Indeed, the Mishnah B’rurah (Orach Chayim 132, Maamar Kaddishin) earlier rules that we always follow the date of death. See also the Aruch HaShulchan (402:16). The Nishmas Shabbos notes that the Sheivet HaLevi agrees with this ruling, as well.
On the other hand, Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l (Igros Moshe, Yoreh Dei’ah 3:160:2) notes that the minhag is like the Shach (according to the interpretation of the Nishmas Yisrael) that if the burial takes place more than one day after the death, the first yahrzeit is on the date of burial.
Interestingly, the Vilna Gaon (Tosefes Maaseh Rav 150) has a unique opinion: that the first yahrzeit is observed on the date of burial if the date of death and date of burial are different days, even if only one day off.
NEXT WEEK’S TOPIC: Should a burial be delayed more than one day in order to enable a close relative to attend the burial?