Why is it customary to visit loved ones' graves before or during the High Holidays?

Answered by
Rabbi Daniel B. Syme

Jewish tradition gives structure to many aspects of mourning as a way to create order at a time when mourners may feel unmoored. Our tradition offers guidance that suggests when to visit a grave and cautions against visiting too often, lest the visits keep us from living full lives that include joyous occasions. Indeed, Jeremiah 22:10 proclaims: "Weep ye not [too much] for the dead."

Many Jews make a point of visiting loved ones’ graves during the Hebrew month of Elul just prior to the onset of the High Holidays, on the day before Rosh HaShanah or Yom Kippur. During this season, some congregations hold communal memorial services (sometimes called “Kever Avot” or “ancestors’ graves”).

Visiting the graves of loved ones prior to the High Holidays helps connect us to the holidays’ themes of renewal, repentance, reflection, and growth through memories of our loved ones. Visiting these graves can add poignancy and perspective to the High Holidays.

Other appropriate days to visit graves include Tishah B’Av (the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av, a general day of mourning numerous Jewish events throughout history), on a loved one’s yahrzeit (anniversary of their death), birthday, or other special days. Jewish practice also provides for a regular, structured, communal expression of reminiscence through Yizkor, which is observed several times during the year.

Jews historically do not visit graves on Shabbat, Hanukkah, or the middle days of Passover or Sukkot, which are joyous, celebratory holidays.

Source: Rabbi Daniel B. Syme, The Jewish Home: A Guide for Jewish Living (URJ Press, 2004)