L’iluy Neshama: Helping and Maintaining Our Relationship with the Deceased

Losing a close relative or friend is among the greatest traumas a person can experience. The thought that we have lost any possibility of a relationship with one we were so close with can be devastating. While Judaism appreciates just how painful this can be, it also offers something that can provide a degree of help. This is what is known as l’iluy neshama — the elevation of the soul of the deceased. In addition to whatever one manages to accomplish during his or her lifetime, others can also grant them merit, and help them to elevate their soul, specifically once they have left this world. In the process, those in this world will be able to maintain a connection, and even a relationship, with the deceased. G-d willing, we should all have the ability to directly help our departed loved ones, and to maintain a relationship with them, as much as is possible.

This should all be merit and an iluy neshama for Ruchama Rivka, a”h, bat Asher Zevulun.

Working for the iluy neshama (elevation of the soul) of the deceased is not only a chessed shel emet (true kindness); it is also an obligation of nosei b’ole im chaveiro (carrying the burden with one’s friend).

In Yeish Nochalin (by the son of the Shelah HaKadosh) it is written, “Chessed shel emet (the true kindness) that one does for the niftar (deceased) is enormously greater than all of the chassadim (kindnesses) that one does for the living in this world…Therefore, every person needs to be careful not to steal from the deceased, but rather to give tranquility to the soul that is at rest. The [living] one, who has the ability, should give [to the deceased]. We already wrote that there is a very great mitzvah for every person in this world to ease the judgment of those in Olam Haba (the world to come).” (Quoted in Kol Bo l’Yartzeit, p. 50)

The Sukkat Shalom, the classical organization of sources discussing the concept of l’iluy neshama, points out that if the Torah considers burial of the deceased, which is taking care of the body, to be a chessed shel emet, how much greater is the chessed we do when we help the neshama (soul) to reach its proper place in Gan Eden through mitzvot and learning done on behalf of the deceased? (Foreword, p. 8)

Rav Chatzkel Levenstein, Mashgiach of Ponovezh, wrote:

Nosei b’ole im haniftar (carrying the burden with the deceased) is enormously great and called — “gemilut chessed shel emet (the giving of true kindness).

The Saba from Kelm explained that the entire concept of aveilut (mourning) is to be nosei b’ole im haniftar, and to lighten his burden. This is why the Torah is so strict with aveilut, specifically during shiva and shloshim (the first week and month of mourning) [when the initial judgment is occurring].

The niftar (deceased) has to give a full accounting for his actions, and it isn’t easy for him to arrive at his [final] resting place. As soon as we are nosei b’ole im haniftar, his burden is lightened. All of this is what we are required to think about at the time of the aveilut (mourning) — that we want to lighten the yissurim (difficulties) and onshim (punishments) of the niftar. Even the people that are coming to comfort the mourners [should] have this goal — to make things easier for the niftar. All of these matters are inherent in what the Torah requires from us.

As long as we focus on Olam Ha’zeh (this world), there is room for jealousy and arrogance, and we don’t [necessarily] think about others. But once we understand that the purpose of man is Olam Haba (the world to come), our [negative] middot shrink within us, and we draw closer to loving others. When we listen carefully to the Kaddish and answer amen with kavanah (focus), we are being nosei b’ole im haniftar. And similarly giving tzedaka or learning mishnayot is all a tremendous zechut for the niftar. In addition, whoever gives zechut to the niftar also gains [a great deal] himself. (Ohr YehezkalMiddos pp.103-7).

Rabbi Hebel explained that when one passes away, our relationship with them is not over. “The relationship is instead transformed from physical to spiritual, and in this new form can potentially be even deeper than the physical relationship was. By sharing in their pain, we should be moved to do what we can to ease their burden. Being nosei b’ol with the deceased creates an everlasting spiritual connection. [This] is a very real obligation toward our departed loved ones that exists for the rest of our lives.” (The Neshama Should Have an Aliya – pp. 27-8).

The anguish of the departed is because they are now facing a din v’cheshbon (Divine judgment and accounting), and can no longer do mitzvot.

Parallel to the aveilut (mourning) of the bereaved family, there is also a type of aveilut that the departed themselves go through (Shabbat 152a). This anguish of the departed takes two distinct forms:

  • din v’cheshbon for the life they lived in this world. Many of the laws and customs of aveilut correspond to the various stages of judgment that the departed are experiencing at those times.
  • The realization that they can no longer perform mitzvot in this world. Those still alive must, therefore, try to redirect their thoughts from their own grief to the grief of the departed, and try to ease their difficulty. Empathizing with this pain of the departed is a crucial part of the mourning process and is extremely meaningful to them. Rav Chatzkel Levenstein wrote that the deceased greatly desire that their relatives be nosei b’ol with them. (Ohr YechezkelMichtavim, 358).

Rav Dessler wrote — “Chazal (Our Sages of blessed memory) taught us that there are [three] different judgments on the nefesh (soul) after death — chibbuk hakever (the embrace of the grave), kaf hakelah (a type of slingshot), and the din (judgment) of Gehenom (the place of purification from our transgressions):

Chibuk hakever is the process by which the deceased come to recognize that they have already separated from this world, and their soul is no longer able to return to the guf (body) and its [physical] desires.

Kaf hakelah — Even so, the nefesh of the person still chases after the desires that it was used to, [which allows the deceased] no rest. The power of the desire is racing from here to there with great confusion after what is impossible to find there, until, with the passage of time, its desires are [finally] forgotten from it bit by bit.

Only after the end of all of this is a soul finally able to enter into Gehenom. That is [where we] will see with great light and tremendous clarity the essence of our transgressions — that we rebelled against our Creator, and we [will] be pained about this with an overwhelming regret. We will [then] feel in our soul the lack of true reality because we attached ourselves during our lifetimes to emptiness and nonsense, since whatever is against the will of G-d is emptiness. Therefore, we ourselves became empty, and there is no greater pain than this.” (Michtav M’Eliyahu, Vol.4, pp.193-201).

The principle of b’rah m’zakeh Abba means that children can help their parents to improve their situation after they have passed away from this world.

Seemingly, once one leaves this world, he is no longer bound by mitzvot and is thus unable to add to his zechuyot (merits) at all. As Chazal (the Sages of blessed memory) put it — “Only what one prepared erev Shabbat (prior to Shabbat) [i.e. in this world] will they be able to eat on Shabbat [i.e. in Olam Haba]” (Avodah Zara 3a). However, Chazal revealed to us the principle of B’rah m’zakeh Abba — that every child can give merit to their parents.

Rabbeinu Yona wrote — “When one’s children serve Hashem, do His will, and fear Him, it is considered as if [the parent] is still alive and doing all of the mitzvot.” (Igeret HaTeshuva, 3rd Drasha, # 79).

How do the actions of the children help the parents?

The Sefer Chasidim explains that the parent [was generally] the cause of the chinuch (education and guidance) that led to the child’s good deeds. (Section 1171). Another way of understanding this is that every child is actualizing some potential within the parent that the parent had not managed to actualize him or herself.

However, even if the parent didn’t help the ruchniyut (spiritual situation) of the child at all, and even if the parent was a terrible person, since the child is considered like a chelek (portion) of the parent, the child is still able to help the parent get to Olam Haba. A child is referred to as kara d’Avuha, the foot of the parent, because he allows the parent to keep moving forward, even in Olam Haba.

Rav Dessler asks how such a thing could be possible:

“We know that Olam Haba is the reality and true essence of a person. How would this be able to change through the actions of one’s child? We also need to understand, when we are davening, saying Kaddish, and learning for the neshamot of [our parents] that have passed away, how does this affect their situation in Olam Haba?” Rav Dessler’s answer is simply that — “Children are the extension of the parents. Therefore, even if the parents didn’t impact the ruchniyut of the child directly, in any case they brought him into the world and certainly helped the development of the child, whether a little bit or a lot.” (Michtav M’Eliyahu, Vol.4, p.157).

The Ramban says that even Terach may have merited his chelek (portion) in Olam Haba through the zechut (merit) of his son Avraham, and this was despite being an idolater who hadn’t kept the sheva mitzvot b’nei Noach (seven mitzvot for the non-Jews). (Bereshit 11:32).

The Chafetz Chaim wrote — “Through any mitzvot and good deeds that one’s offspring fulfill after their passing, the parent’s soul gets atonement. Through the power of their deeds, children have the ability not only to spare their departed parents from suffering for their aveirot (transgressions), they can also affect their entry into Gan Eden and continual elevation there.” (Ahavat Chessed 2:15).

The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch explains, "Ha’ikar She’habanim yeilchu b’orach mishor" — The main [zechut for the parents] is if their sons and daughters follow the straight path. And if, G-d forbid, one’s children don’t take the straight path, it is a great disgrace to the parent in the upper world, even after the child has also died. However, it is obvious that one should try to prepare one’s own path to Olam Haba, and not merely rely on one’s children to get there. (Chap. 26:22).

Kaddish is very helpful, particularly when said by a son that lives properly.

Rav Henkin explained how the Kaddish is a zechut and korat ruach (spiritual satisfaction) for the niftar. It is a kiddush sheim Shamayim (sanctification of G-d’s Name), a tziduk hadin (recognition of the justice of the judgment up above), and a kabalah (acceptance) of the din from Shamayim (Heaven). Kaddish should be combined with teshuva (self-improvement), tefillah (prayer), and tzedaka (donations to the poor) for [the greatest] korat ruach to the niftar. Before saying the Kaddish, it is good to have the intention that one is about to fulfill the mitzvah of kiddush Hashem (sanctification of G-d’s Name). (Quoted in Ta’arich Yisrael, section 19).

The main source for the saying of Kaddish is a medrash which says that Rebbe Akiva saw a man in terrible anguish because of his lifetime of evil deeds. Only once Rebbe Akiva taught the man’s son to do mitzvot and to say the Kaddish did the man’s suffering finally stop. And eventually the father even entered Gan Eden. From this medrash we see:

  • The main benefit of Kaddish is when it is said by a son that lives properly. Rebbe Akiva, therefore, worked hard to teach the son of the niftar, and didn’t just say it himself.
  • Kaddish by a son can help even a parent who was a terrible person. (L’iluy Neshama, pp. 52-3)

The Ari z”l explained that Kaddish is not, as most think, only able to save [the deceased] from the judgment in Gehenom. It can also bring them into Gan Eden, and [help them] to be elevated step by step. Therefore, even on Shabbat and Yom Tov, when there is no judgment in Gehenom, one should still say the KaddishKaddish is the only thing in this world that saves the niftar, by itself, from the din of Gehenom. (Quoted by Rav Chaim Vital, Sha’ar HaKavanotDrosh HaKaddish 15:2).

Even a non-relative of the deceased can contribute to the iluy neshama.

Teshuvot Maharam Shick wrote — “Every Jew is commanded on lo ta’amod al dam rei’echa (don’t stand by the blood of your friend), in addition to the mitzvah of hashavat aveidah (returning a lost object) which includes returning one’s body and saving one from danger, even with one’s money. If we are commanded to save the body, all the more so to save the neshama with whatever is possible. Whoever returns the soul of a person fulfills this mitzvah whose obligation is upon all relatives, as well as others.” (Quoted in Kol Bo l’Yartzeit — pp. 46–7).

Sukkat Shalom (1:4) wrote explicitly that taking part in iluy neshama is relevant and possible for anyone. He said — “Many have the custom to supply merit to their parents, relatives, and friends who have passed away, by studying Torah for their sake.”

The Medrash Tanchuma on Haazinu (with explanations based on Rabbeinu Bach’ya) quotes the Torat Kohanim on Devarim 21:8 — “Kapeir l’amcha Yisrael (atone for your nation of Israel) asher padita (that were redeemed)”:

Kapeir l’amcha Yisrael (atone for your nation of Israel)” — this refers to the living [that cause a kaparah (atonement) to occur through their money].

“Asher padita (that were redeemed)” — this refers to the deceased [who receive a kaparah through the money of the living]. [We learn] from this that the living [even non-relatives] can redeem the deceased [by giving donations for their sake]. Therefore, we are accustomed to mention the deceased on Yom Kippur [i.e. during Yizkor] and to make pledges to tzedaka for them. One might think that once someone dies, tzedaka would no longer help them. The Torat Kohanim on “asher padita,” therefore, teaches us that when we make pledges to tzedaka for the deceased, we [are able to] take them [from Gehenom], elevate them, and purify them like when they were first born.”

We are accustomed to pledge tzedaka on Yom Kippur for the sake of the deceased (Shulchan Aruch — Orach Chaim — 621:6).

Therefore the day is called Yom HaKippurim in the plural — [since it is a day of kaparah both] for the living and for the deceased (Mishnah Brura).

And we mention the neshamot since the deceased [also] receive a kaparah (atonement) on Yom Kippur (Rema).

[A pledge from a non-relative helps them because] we say — if they were still alive they would [probably] also have given tzedaka. And even if they were poor, they would have had a pure heart and wanted to give. And, even a bad person, if he had tried to improve, like saying viduy (the verbalization of the teshuva process) before he died, we can assume that he received a kaparah and is now considered a tzadik (Mishnah Brura).

The Shelah haKadosh wrote — “One that gives tzedaka on behalf of the neshama of a departed person is certainly providing them with a great salvation, and granting their soul much satisfaction (nachat ruach). This is true even if done for one that is not a relative…it certainly works for a relative.” (Quoted by the Chafetz Chaim in the footnotes to Ahavat Chessed 2:15).

Rav Chaim Kanievsky explained that learning and mitzvot l’iluy neshama can be divided into two categories:

Specifically for deceased parents (what is known as B’rah m’zakeh Abba) — There is no requirement that the children learn Torah or do mitzvot particularly for the sake of the parents, or even that it be anything beyond what they would normally do. [As we explained previously, the parent was either the cause of the children’s good deeds, or the children are viewed as an extension of the parents. PeleYo’eitz, however, (in the section on kibud av v’eim — honoring parents) implies that a child should explicitly mention their parent before doing something [particular] in their merit.].

Learning and mitzvot for all non-parents — This must be extra, it needs to be specifically for their sake, and should explicitly mention their name beforehand. Common examples are tzedaka which is given, or learning which is done, for the sake of the deceased. It is a zechut (merit) because the niftar has thereby caused some increase in learning or mitzvot [presumably in either quality or quantity]. (Quoted in L’iluy Neshama, pp. 9-10).

Virtually any mitzvah can be done l’iluy neshama.

Here are some that are discussed (in L’iluy Neshama – pg. 63-7):

  • Inspiring teshuva during a hesped (eulogy).
  • Leading the bentching (blessings after a meal).
  • Making blessings on food with the name of the deceased in mind.
  • Saying the blessing “Asher Yatzar” with extra kavana (focus and intention).
  • Writing a sefer Torah, or donating sefarim (Torah books) to the community, which will give zechut whenever they are used.
  • Raising funds for Jewish education.
  • Doing a mitzvah the deceased was particularly connected to during his or her lifetime.

The personal kabalah (commitment) of Rav Yechezkel Levinstein for the iluy neshama of the Ponovezher Rav was to overcome some middah (character trait) issue every day.

The Chazon Ish once sent an avreich (married student) to take care of one that was very ill. The avreich told the Chazon Ish he had a yartzeit that particular day and needed to lead the davening for Mincha. The Chazon Ish replied to him — “What is the importance of leading the davening? That it should be l’iluy neshama [for the niftar]. This mitzvah to be concerned for [and take care of] one who is ill will itself be what is l’iluy neshama.”

The Shelah (quoted in The Neshama Should Have an Aliya, pp. 79-80) recommended donating tzedaka money for the iluy neshama of the deceased to three different categories, corresponding to the three pillars that the world stands on (Pirkei Avot 1:2):

  • Torah — Support for Torah scholars, Yeshivot, and tuition for the poor.
  • Avodah (Service of G-d) — Communal tzedaka and communal spiritual needs.
  • Chessed (Kind deeds) — Set up gemachim (free loan funds) for the poor.

Sukkat Shalom lists six different levels of tikunim (repairs or benefits) for the neshama in ascending order (L’iluy Neshama, pg. 44-6):

  • Saying Kaddish and receiving Maftir — The brachot following the haftarah are similar to the Kaddish. Both contain an aspect of tziduk hadin (accepting the justice of G-d’s judgments) as well as prayers for the final redemption. (The Neshama should have an Aliya — p. 95).
  • Leading the davening — This is greater than simply saying Kaddish Yatom (the Orphan’s Kaddish) which was initially established for children, who weren’t able to lead the davening. This is true, however, only if one is able to do it while avoiding conflicts with others.

Rabbi Hebel (ibid, pp. 98-100) quotes Mikdash Me’at who stresses how careful we should be to avoid conflict in the process of trying to lead the davening l’iluy neshama for the niftar. He lists a total of nineteen different prohibitions that one may end up violating, such as ona’at devarim (afflicting others with words), lashon hara (negative speech), and malbin p’nei chaveiro (embarrassing others). While a poseik (halachic authority) determines the proper order of preference for leading the davening, in some cases it may be best for the one who actually has the priority to allow another less-flexible person to lead. Not only will the neshama that one is davening for still get the zechut (Chatam Sofer in a teshuva — Yoreh De’ah #345), but the avoidance of conflict itself will also be a great zechut for the niftar.

In addition, we should try to prevent people from leading the davening if they can’t properly daven or won’t be heard. They won’t be helping the neshama, will be misusing hekdeish (sacred property), and may end up embarrassing the neshama.

  • Fulfillment of whichever mitzvah the niftar requested be done — ideally a mitzvah of action that will also benefit the community.

This is considered greater than the Kaddish and is clearly also relevant for women and non-relatives.

Sukkat Shalom (L’iluy Neshama, pp. 44-5) stresses how important it is to dispel the common error of thinking that only by leading the davening or by saying Kaddish can one give nachat ruach to the deceased. People, therefore, enter into machloket (disputes) over this, while that which they can do even better, and without any argument, they don’t do. We should teach them that it would be better for them to do active mitzvot during aveilut (mourning) and on the day of the yartzeit, and that this is the ikar (main point). It is also obvious that if it is possible to seek out active mitzvot that are also communal mitzvot, one should certainly try to do so, and thereby take [the niftar] out of all of the chambers of Gehenom. Whoever is able to publicize these matters will be mezakeh et harabim (giving merit to the community).

  • Learning Torah  at least mishnayot with meforshim (basic commentaries).

When the wife of the Steipler Rav passed away, the Steipler Rav instructed their daughters to learn Pirkei Avot l’iluy neshamah for her (ibid, p. 48).

  • Talmud Torah (learning Torah) publicly — i.e., with at least ten men.
  • Learning specifically between Mincha and Maariv — i.e., joining day and night together with Torah.

Read part two here


Rabbi Resnick’s extensive writings on loss, difficulties, and trauma provide a sensitive Jewish perspective on coping with these fundamental life issues. They were recently published in his book Pain is a Reality, Suffering is a Choice – Grappling with Divine Justice.