One of the most uncomfortable things that I do as a Rabbi is to lead the Kaddish Yatom, the Mourner’s Kaddish, during services.
The Mourner’s Kaddish is one of several variations on this ancient prayer. There is also the Chatzi Kaddish – the Half Kaddish, the Kaddish Shalem – The Full Kaddish, the Kaddish D’Rabbanan – Rabbis’ Kaddish, and the less familiar Kaddish D’Itchadeta – Kaddish of the Unification of the Divine Name, which is recited at funerals and at a siyyum marking the completion of study of a Tractate of Talmud.
While these variations developed over many hundreds of years, the core section of the Kaddish is one of the most ancient non-biblical prayers in our liturgy. It has its origins in the Second Temple, before the prayer service as we know it took shape.
In numerous places, the Talmud heaps praises on the person or community that responds appropriately and with kavanah – spiritual intention – with the words: Amen. Y’hei sh’mei raba m’vorakh l’alam ul’almeh al’mayah – “Amen. May [God’s] great name be praised for ever and ever and ever.” It does not specify the words that prompt this response, but it most likely resembles what we know today as the Chatzi Kaddish.
The central line is quite simple. It proclaims the sanctity of the Divine name for all Eternity. It is a simple statement of faith.
It is not clear in which contexts Jews would recite the Kaddish. Most likely, it was recited after Torah lessons. The teacher would proclaim God’s holiness, and the assembled would respond appropriately. Thus, the Kaddish was a kind of prayer of dismissal.
The Kaddish is in Aramaic, which was the language that Jews spoke in their daily interactions. This means that whoever instituted this prayer wanted to be sure that people understood what they were saying.
A midrash collection on Deuteoronomy called Sifrei Devarim connects this congregational response to a verse in this morning’s Torah portion, Ha’azinu. (Sifrei Devarim 306) In his poem to the Israelites, Moshe exclaims: Ki shem Adonai ekra,” – For the name of the Lord do I call. Havu godel l’eloheinu – “Hail greatness for our God.” (Deuteronomy 32:3) When we hear someone extolling the Divine Name, we must affirm it with the appropriate response, according to the midrash.
The Talmud considers it extremely meritorious for us to do so. One Rabbi declares that a person who responds with the words: y’hei sh’mei raba… is assured of a place in the World to Come. Another Rabbi claims that the evil decree against such a person is canceled. A third Rabbi says that one should interrupt whatever one is doing in order to respond Y’hei sh’mei… – even if one is in the middle of praying the silent Amidah. A story in the Talmud describes how pleased and honored God feels whenever the words of a congregation reciting Y’hei sh;mei raba… the Heavenly court.
But nowhere in the Talmud or in other writings of the era is there a single reference to the Kaddish as a mourners’ prayer.
The earliest oblique mention appears in a story from a text called Masekhet Kallah, “Tractate Bride.” It is part of what are known as the Minor Tractates of the Talmud, which were actually composed several centuries afterwards but eventually came to be published together. Masekhet Kallah, from the seventh or eighth century in Babylonia, deals with rules for brides and for conjugal relations. It contains the earliest known version of the following story:
Rabbi Akiva was once in a cemetery where he came upon a “man” (actually, a ghost) who was carrying a heavy burden on his shoulders and was having difficulty walking. He was crying and sighing. [Akiva] said to him: “What did you do?”
He said to him: “There was not a single prohibition that I did not violate in this world. Now there are guards set upon me who do not leave me alone for a single sigh.”
Rabbi Akiva asked him: “Did you leave behind a son?”
He said to him: “Don’t ask me. I am afraid of the angels who are whipping me with lashes of fire and demanding me ‘Why don’t you walk faster?’ Don’t tell me ‘you should rest!'”
[But Rabbi Akiva insisted, so] he said to him: “I left behind a pregnant wife.”
Rabbi Akiva went to that land. He asked [the locals], “Where is the son of so-and-so?”
They said to him: “May the memory be uprooted of that one who deserves for his bones to be ground up!”
He said to them: “Why?”
They said to him: “That robber stole from people and caused many to suffer, and furthermore, he had relations with a girl who was betrothed to another on Yom Kippur.”
[Rabbi Akiva] went to [the man’s] home and found his pregnant wife. He stayed with her until she gave birth. Then he circumcised [the baby boy]. When [the lad] grew up, [Akiva] brought him to the synagogue to recite the blessing before the congregation.
After some time, Rabbi Akiva went back to [the cemetery]. He saw [the spirit of the wicked man] which said [to Akiva]: “May your mind be at ease for you have set my mind at ease.” (Masekhet Kallah 2:9)
The story reveals several important beliefs and practices: first, the concept that the soul of a sinner is doomed to punishment; second, that the son of a sinner can do something to earn merit for his deceased father’s soul, thereby saving him from such punishments; and third, that those merits can be earned by leading a community in prayer.
Later versions in subsequent centuries expand the story and specify that the son recited bar’khu and y’hei sh’mei raba m’vorakh l’alam ul’almeh al’mayah.
It seems that, over time, the recitation of the Kaddish came to be associated with mourning. At first, it was recited at the end of the seven days of shiva that was observed for a Torah scholar. On the seventh day, a learned discourse would take place in the home of the deceased. This learning would culminate with a recitation of the Kaddish.
Apparently, some people felt left out. Maybe there was someone whose family thought he was more of a Torah scholar than he actually was. Maybe there was an outcry from the non-scholars who wanted equal treatment. It is hard to tell, but the practice gradually expanded to include all deceased.
Similarly, a practice developed for sons who were mourning the loss of a parent to lead evening services on Saturday night after the conclusion of Shabbat. I can only imagine the disputes that arose: opposing mourners fight over the right to lead, those who do not have the skill to lead but still want the opportunity to earn merits for their parents’ souls. The need arose to provide more opportunities.
These various beliefs and practices eventually came together. Instead of leading the entire service, a mourner could just recite the Kaddish at the end of the service, and it would be “as if” he had led the entire thing. Plus, multiple mourners could have the opportunity to recite the Kaddish. Finally, the practice spread from just the Saturday night service to every service.
In many traditional synagogues today, mourners do not all recite the Kaddish in unison. Rather, each individual mourner stands up and says the words independently from his or her seat. Other congregants respond with Y’hei sh’mei rabah… to the person who is closest to them. The result is a cacophony of voices reciting these ancient words at different volumes and speeds.
The standard Jewish belief about what happens when we die goes like this:
The soul of a person who lived a totally righteous life goes straight to the Garden of Eden/the World to Come/God. The soul of a person who lived a totally wicked life goes to hell/Sheol/non-existence. For the in-between souls – which is pretty much all of us – our souls go to Gei Hinnom, or Gehenna. This is what Christians refer to as Purgatory or Limbo. It is assumed that our souls will have the residue of at least some sins still clinging to them. This residue is removed while in Gehenna over the course of up to a year, and the soul is cleansed. Then, it can move on to wherever it is that souls go.
Mourners recite the Kaddish as a way to earn merits on behalf of the soul of the deceased, shortening its period of purification before it returns to its Source. That was the initial motivation for reciting Kaddish on behalf of one’s parent. There are other things that we do to help our loved ones’ souls move on. People learn Torah, give tzedakah, and perform other mitzvot with this specific intention. It is a way of saying that our loved ones’ positive attributes are still alive and making an impact in this world.
The Kaddish has gained added significance as a way to ritually mark a person’s period of mourning, to offer the mourner something to do in the supportive presence of the community, and to identify the mourner to the community so that it can come to offer comfort. People who recite Kaddish for a loved one often find it to be a deeply cathartic activity which helps them move through the stages of grieving at a time when their loss is still raw.
According to Jewish law, children recite Kaddish for a parent for eleven months. Why eleven, and not twelve? It is a mark of respect, a way of saying, “even though it can take up to a full year to purify a person’s soul, my parent only needed eleven months.” Someone who has lost a spouse, sibling, or child recites Kaddish for thirty days.
Kaddish is then recited on the yahrzeit (anniversary) of the death of an immediate family member. Those who are not in their periods of mourning or observing yarzheit, generally speaking, should not recite the Mourners’ Kaddish.
I am blessed to have both of my parents living and in good health. Many of you have met them, as they visit our community several times a year. They were just here for Rosh Hashanah.
While it is pretty standard in Conservative synagogues for the Rabbi to lead the Mourners’ Kaddish, every time I do, I feel a powerful dissonance between the words I am saying and the reality that it is not the time for me personally to be saying them.
As a Rabbi, I have justified saying the Kaddish for two reasons. 1. It is important for someone to provide leadership so that numerous mourners in the congregation can recite the words together at the same pace. 2. Some people find it difficult to recite the words of the Kaddish. The Aramaic can be very difficult. It is much easier when there is a leader reciting them loudly and at a steady pace.
I feel that the time has come for an adjustment to the way that we recite the Mourners’ Kaddish at Congregation Sinai so that I no longer have to say it. Some communities invite all mourners to assemble at the front of the sanctuary to recite the Kaddish together. If someone prefers to remain at his/her seat, it is, of course, perfectly acceptable for them to do so. Other communities invite an individual mourner to step up to the podium to set the pace for all those who are in mourning or observing a yahrzeit. These are both possibilities for us. I will be engaging the Ritual Committee to identify a solution that works for Congregation Sinai and helps me to feel more comfortable.
This adjustment might feel awkward at first, but I believe it will ultimately strengthen the bonds between those who are in mourning and the rest of our community. I appreciate that Sinai is a community that is open to change. It means a lot to me to be the Rabbi of a community whose members are always supporting each other’s efforts to increase in our knowledge of Torah and our commitment to Judaism.