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Drash The Mourner's Kaddish

The Mourner's Kaddish

Drash, October 1997 by Iris Lav

Why is basically the same prayer that is used to separate the sections of the service also the prayer mourners recite for up to eleven months after the death of a loved one and each year on the yartzeit or anniversary of the death? How has saying the mourners Kaddish, the text of which barely mentions death or mourning, become so widely observed, and why does its recitation seem to have power to comfort and heal?

The Kaddish in all its forms is a petition for the santification of God's name and the establishment of God's kingdom soon, in our lifetime or in the near future. It is said to have been inspired by Ezekiel 38:23. The verse of the prophesy begins with the words v'hitgadilti v'hitkadishti , obviously similar to the yitgadal v'yitkadash of the Kaddish, and speaks of a time when God will make his greatness and holiness known among many nations and they will know that he is the Lord.

In general, the prophet Ezekiel is associated with messages of resurrection and redemption, and the cited verse follows closely the graphic Chapter 37 prophesy of the dry bones of the dead reconnecting into the shape of people, having life breathed into them, and being transported to Israel. This association -- the hope of resurrection and return -- may be one reason the Kaddish has become the mourners' prayer, but it may not be the predominant one.

The heart of all of the forms of the Kaddish seems not to be so much the text, but rather the congregational response in the middle of the text. While the Talmud never mentions the term "Kaddish," there are a number of references to the congregational response that is made between the first two paragraphs, the response of " Yehei Shmei rabba mevorakh l'olam ul'almei almaya ," May His great Name be blessed for ever and ever. The following is a sample of the great significance attributed to this response: Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said, "He who responds Amen, Yehei Shmei rabba .... with absolute devotion, merits that any evil decrees against him be abolished." Rabbi Chiya bar Abba said in the name of Rabbi Yonatan, "Even if one has a taint of idolatry, one is forgiven." (Shabbat 119b) According to Rava, the world itself is sustained by the religious merit accrued by the recitation of Yehei Shmei rabba . (Sotah 49a)

The Talmudists did not have the mourner's context in mind; the prayer was not yet used this way. But there is a related story about Rabbi Akiva that may make the link. In the legend Rabbi Akiva saw a man struggling under a heavy load of wood and offered to do what he could to relieve him of his burden -- to redeem him if he was a slave or to give him money if he was poor. The man replied that he was sentenced to hell-fire in Gehenna, and was condemned to carry the wood for his own torment. But the man told Rabbi Akiva that he had heard that if his little son, who he had left behind, were to say in public Yitgadal v'yitkadash ... and the others would answer Yehei Shmei rabba mevorakh. .., or if the son were to say Borkhu et Adonai hamevorakh and the congregation would answer Borukh Adonai hamevorach l'olam va-ed , then he would be set free from his judgement. Rabbi Akiva proceeded to find the son and teach him Torah and prayer and prepared him to stand before the congregation to recite Yitgadal . When the boy did this, the father's soul was delivered from its judgement and found its rest, and the man appeared in a dream to Rabbi Akiva and thanked him.

While Rabbi Akiva lived in the second century C.E., the Kaddish does not appear to have become a regular prayer for mourners until the middle ages. Around 1200 there was evidence that "orphans" recite Kaddish at the end of the service some places in Europe but not in others, so the practice was not yet universal. About two centuries later, the term Yartzeit first appears in the German/Yiddish world in connection with the annual recitation of the Kaddish. However, official Jewry in Europe may have been less enthusiastic than ordinary Jews about the spread of this use of the Kaddish. In his classic work on Jewish prayer originally published in 1913, Ismar Elbogen observes dryly, "Protests against the conception of Kaddish as a means of salvation have been raised continually."

Whatever one thinks of the power of the Kaddish for specific salvation, the concept that the purpose in saying the Kaddish is to elicit the communal response, Yehei Shmei rabba ... certainly has a lot to do with the way the Kaddish affects mourners. Since Kaddish cannot be said without the community to make the response, it assures that a mourner cannot stay alone but must reach out to find and join that community -- to search out comfort. To the extent that Jews feel an obligation to make the critical response, Yehei Shmei rabba ..., perhaps for their own sake as well as for the sake of the mourner, it means that the community will be there for the mourner or any other Jew to find and join.

The feeling of being responded to -- creating a spiritually cohesive moment in which the congregation praises God's name together -- evokes for me not only the value of community, but also the continuity and connectedness of Jews across generations and across the world. That is a comforting thought for any Jew at any time, but is particularly important at a time of mourning or remembrance.

 Presented at Tifereth Israel by Iris J. Lav, October 23, 1997