Saying Kaddish Reluctantly – Ha’azinu 5776

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.

Shelach Lekha 5774 – Making the Minyan

A man living in Jerusalem was saying the mourner’s kaddish for his mother.  That’s the prayer that Jews say for eleven months after the death of a parent.  In order to say it, however, one needs to be praying with a minyan, a quorum of ten Jewish adults over the age of Bar Mitzvah.

Every day, consistently, the man would go to a synagogue so that he could pray with a minyan, and thus be able to say the prayer.  One night, the man returns home really late, at 3 am.  He collapses into bed, exhausted.  As soon as he turns out the light, he bolts upright.  “Oh no!  I did not pray Arvit!” the evening prayer.  “I missed saying kaddish for my mother!”

With tremendous effort, he drags himself out of bed and starts to dress.

Where is he going to find a minyan at this hour?

No problem.  As anyone who lives in Jerusalem can tell you, day or night, you can always find a minyan at the Shteibelach— a building filled with a bunch of small synagogues in the Zichron Moshe neighborhood.  People gather in one of the rooms, and as soon as a minyan shows up, they start praying.  You can show up at pretty much any time of day and find a service about to begin.

But not at 3 am.  When the man gets to the shteibelach, it is empty.

He takes out his cell phone and dials the number for a taxi company.

“Hello! Can you please send six taxis to the Shteibelach in Zichron Moshe?”

Adoni (my dear sir)! It’s three o’clock in the morning! You think I have six taxis? What do you think I am, a magician? …I only have five.”

“Okay. So send five!”

He dials another number. “Hello, please send five taxis to Zichron Moshe…”

Atah meshugah! You’re crazy! I only have four!

“Fine.  I’ll take them.”

Within twenty minutes, there is a line of nine taxicabs parked neatly outside the Shteiblach.

Adoni,” says one of the drivers, “Why do you need nine taxis? There’s no wedding here, no Bar Mitzvah, nothing.”

“I want you all to turn your meters on and come inside with me. We are going to pray together the evening prayer — arvit.  I will pay each of you just as if you’re giving me a lift.”

These taxi drivers are not observant Jews.  Some of them have not been inside a synagogue since their Bar Mitzvah.  Although they are fluent in Hebrew, they have no idea how to pray: what and when to answer; when to speak aloud and when to stay quiet.

It takes them quite a while. But the kaddish man, shows them exactly what do do.  At 3:30 am in Jerusalem that night, he is able to say kaddish for his mother.

Afterwards, they all go outside to the taxis; the meters in the cars are pushing upwards of 90 shekels per car.  The man pulls out his wallet and starts to count out the approximately 800 shekels it is going to cost him.  That is more than two hundred dollars

“How much do I owe you?” he asks the first taxi driver in the line.

Adoni, what do you take me for? Do you honestly believe I would take money from you. who just gave me such an opportunity to help my fellow Jew say kaddish?”

He moves down the line to the second driver, who gives him the same answer.  “Do you know how long it is since I prayed?”

And the third and the fourth, all the way down the line to the ninth…

Not one takes a shekel.

And so they embrace and drive off to a new morning in the holy city of Jerusalem!

 

The name of the prayer the man said, the Kaddish, comes from the word Kadosh, meaning holy.  It is an ancient prayer in which we publicly proclaim the sanctity, or holiness, of God’s name.  A leader recites the words, and the congregation responds in certain places with various interjections: Amen, B’rikh Hu, or Y’hei Sh’mei Rabba m’vorach l’alam ul’almei almayah – May God’s great name be blessed throughout Eternity.  The Rabbis of the Talmud think it is so important that they declare that a person who responds to the Kaddish with enthusiasm is assured of a place in the world to come.

There are other important prayers that are also connected to this word.  The Kedushah is the special set of verses that we recite during the reader’s repetition of the Amidah.  In it, we act as if we are Divine Beings, blessing God like the angels.

In order to be able to recite both the Kaddish and the Kedushah, we are required to have a minyan.  A person praying alone, or in a group of less than ten Jewish adults, must skip over those sections of the service.

Why is that?

Our Rabbis of the Talmud teach that “Any words of holiness may not be recited with less than ten.”  (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 23b)  In order to sanctify God’s name, that is to say, declare God’s holiness in a particularly special way, we must have a minyan.

In addition to reciting the Kaddish and the Kedushah, the Talmud identifies other religious actions which also require ten.   Chanting the Torah in public, invoking God during the introduction to the Grace After Meals, and forming a line away from a funeral to comfort the mourners are several more examples.

In ancient times, only Jewish males over the age of Bar Mitzvah were included to make up a minyan.  In recent years in the Conservative movement, we have expanded our interpretation of Jewish law to include Jewish females over the age of Bat Mitzvah as well.

Our tradition has always placed great value on communal prayer.  In Judaism, our prayers are said to reach higher into the heavenly chambers when we are together in a minyan as compared to when we pray alone.  The Talmud teaches, “Whenever ten pray together, the Shechinah (God’s Presence) is with them.”  (BT, Berachot 6a)  It seems to be taken almost as a given that minyan equals ten.

But there must be a reason.  Why ten?

Whenever I pose the question, I tend to receive several responses.

The first, and perhaps most obvious: ten fingers.

The second is from the Book of Genesis, when Abraham argues with God over the fate of wicked inhabitants of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.  He convinces God to save the cities if ten righteous individuals can be found.  Alas, ten cannot be found, and the cities are demolished.

But the reason that is offered by our ancient sources is different.

The Talmud identifies this morning’s Torah portion as the origin of the minyan.  It uses a particular kind of interpretational tool called a gezera shava.  A verbal analogy.  The way a gezera shava works is as follows.  We identify two completely separate biblical passages that have nothing to do with one another.  They do, however, share a word in common.  That word in common allows us to make an analogy between the two verses.  If something is true in one verse, it must also be true in the other verse.

The Tamud asks why is it the case that God’s name cannot be sanctified with less than a minyan of ten Jewish adults.  Now please bear with me for a minute.  This is kind of complicated.

Rabbenai, the brother of Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba, a Babylonian Sage from the third century, brings the answer, using a two step gezera shave.  (BT Berachot 21b)

Here is step one.  In this morning’s Torah portion, after the spies have given their report about the land of Israel and its inhabitants, sowing seeds of panic amongst the people, God becomes enraged.  Ad matai la-edah ha-ra’ah hazot asher hemah malinim alai – “How much longer shall that wicked community keep muttering against Me?”  (Numbers 14:27)  In next week’s portion, Moses and Aaron are facing a challenge from their cousin Korach and his followers.  Again, God becomes angry, and instruct Moses and Aaron to back off from the rebels so that God can cause the ground to swallow them alive.  Hibad’lu mitokh ha-edah ha-zot – “Separate yourselves from among this congregation!”  (Numbers 16:21)

Notice that the word edah, meaning “congregation,” appears in both passages.  In the first one, the story of the spies, we know exactly how many people are present.  There are twelve spies in total.  Joshua and Caleb bring a positive report.  That leaves ten remaining spies.  Therefore, we conclude, the word edah refers to a group of at least ten individuals.

Now for step two.  Back in Leviticus, God declares v’nikdashti b’tokh b’nei Yisrael – “And I will be sanctified among the children of Israel.”  (Leviticus 22:32)  Again we refer to the verse from next week’s Torah portion: hibad’lu mitokh ha-edah ha-zot – “Separate yourselves from among this congregation.”

Now we focus on the common word tokh – “among” – which appears in both passages.  If God is to be sanctified b’tokh – “among” – the children of Israel, exactly how many does that imply?  Well, since tokh and edah – “congregation” – appear together in the other verse, it must mean at least an edah‘s worth.  How many is an edah?  From the story of the spies, we know it is at least ten.

Therefore, to sanctify God’s name requires at least ten Jewish adults to come together.

Admittedly, this explanation seems convoluted, and perhaps a bit of a stretch.  It is quite possibly an after-the-fact justification of a long-accepted and widely-embraced tradition.  But there is a deeper message that goes beyond the linguistic gymnastics.

The whole concept of a minyan is quite positive.  It encourages community.  Jewish worship takes place not in a synagogue, but in any place where ten Jewish adults come together.  It is about the people, not the building.

For thousands of years, the idea of the minyan reinforced Jews’ motivation to live in close proximity to one another.  Jews needed to be able to pray together, support one another in times of loss, and celebrate holidays with community.  Even God is sanctified when Jews form a minyan. It is impossible to lead a complete Jewish existence by oneself.

But the origin of the number ten, we now learn, comes from what is perhaps the greatest sin committed by the Israelites in the entire Torah.  Believing the spies that they have no hope of defeating the Canaanites and conquering the Land of Israel is the sin that earns the Israelites forty years of wandering in the wilderness.  After all they have seen, the miracles in Egypt, the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, the Revelation at Mount Sinai, the Israelites lack the imagination and the faith to believe that God can deliver the land into their hands, as promised.

Rooting the minyan in this story of faithlessness is ironic.

Perhaps joining together in the same symbolic number gives us the opportunity to repent of our ancestors lack of faith.  Once upon a time, it was ten people who failed to sanctify God.  Now we come together as ten to sanctify God.

Perhaps another lesson is that things can go either way.  When we come together in community, things can go the way of the ten spies, in which one person’s fears spread to the entire group.  Or, we can inspire one another.  One person’s kavannah, spiritual focus, can help the other worshippers express what is in their hearts too.

In the story of the nine taxi drivers, one mourner’s kavannah to honor his mother by saying kaddish for a year inspired the rest of the minyan to connect to a ritual that they had not encountered for many years.  Surely, God’s Presence was among that edah, that holy congregation, at 3:30 am that morning in Jerusalem.

When we come together as a community, whether to worship here in the sanctuary on Shabbat, or to support someone during shiva, the week of mourning, our kavannah can be contagious.  We give each other strength: strength to connect with what is in our hearts, strength to express ourselves with honesty, strength to connect with each other, with our tradition, and with God.

In that way, God is truly sanctified amongst the People of Israel.