"Shoot!" (Q & A)

The Ascent Question & Answer Forum

conducted by Yrachmiel Tilles, Editor of the Ascent Quarterly


"What is the Jewish Kaddish prayer? How how does it memorialize the dead?"
Pat N. / Pearl City, Hawaii '

The first and most interesting thing to say about Kaddish is that even though it is chanted by mourners, it is not a prayer for the dead. Exactly the opposite. As you can glean from just a superficial reading of the accompanying translation, it consists solely of lofty praises for the Creator and heartfelt imploration for the perfection of Creation.

There are four variations of Kaddish: 'Whole,' 'Half,' 'Rabbis',' and 'Orphans'.' The first two are said only by the prayer leader, the latter two by the mourners in unison, even though anyone who participates in the study of the Oral Torah is entitled to say the Rabbi's Kaddish.

The obligation of reciting Kaddish is part of the mourning observances for a parent, sibling, offspring or spouse for one month, starting immediately upon burial. For parents, the mourning continues through the rest of the year because of the obligation of 'honor' in addition to the mourning. When possible, it is preferable for a son of the deceased to be the Kaddish-sayer, rather than any other relative.

So if Kaddish makes no mention of the dead, and if it is so special, why do mourners say it? For one thing, it is an honor for the soul of the deceased that its 'representative' is saying the Kaddish. Primarily, it is a great merit and help for the soul during its year of judgment after death. This is especially true when it is said by the son(s) of the deceased, and especially when those sons lead observant Jewish lives.1 (Parents themselves, as they get older, become more conscious of this. I know a fellow that is an only child born to parents who were already in their forties. They named him Kaddish!)

One way we know of the extraordinary redemptive power of Kaddish is from a dramatic story that begins with Rabbi Akiva's mystical encounter with an lifelong sinner who had died and was suffering grievous, unrelenting punishment. The sinner informed the rabbi that only if his sole surviving child would recite the Borchu and Kaddish could he be redeemed. With great effort, Rabbi Akiva located the lad and taught him these prayers. When the youngster finally recited Kaddish in the synagogue, he earned his father's release.2

Saying Kaddish can also be very helpful for the mourners themselves. Just thinking about the ideas expressed as you say them (or before, or after) helps bring acceptance of the tragic loss, even when it is seemingly unreasonable and still painful. G-d has a master plan!

Having to chant Kaddish in public (a minyan is required) and, often, simultaneously with others, also helps to move the mourner beyond personal woes and to start thinking more communally.

Local custom determines how many Kaddishes get said by the mourner each day over the course of the three prayer services. According to Kabbalah, the maximum number, even if he is the prayer leader, should be sixteen.3 Kaddish-saying stops at eleven months, because "the judgment of the righteous concludes after 11 months, the wicked after 12," so to continue into the twelfth month would be to cast aspersion on the departed.4

In some communities, the mourner teaches out loud a bit of mishna and adds another Rabbis' Kaddish at the end of each of the three services. The recommended texts, included in many versions of the siddur, are very special, each citing various cases where the conclusion is 'Pure.'5 The four letters of the word MiSH-NaH can be re-arranged to spell Ne-SHaM-aH [soul], which explains why Mishnah is the preferred vehicle of study in this situation.

There is also a nice Chabad custom that after completing the study, the mourner murmurs to himself a line from Chassidic teachings before starting the Kaddish. A good short one is, "Hanefesh hasheinit hu chalek m'elokai ma'al mamash" ["The second soul is truly a part of G-d above!"]6, for it can be both comforting and inspiring. It stresses that the soul is divine and eternal; only the body is affected by death.

* * *

Another surprise: Kaddish is not said in Hebrew. Rather, it is recited in Aramaic, the main spoken language of the Jewish people from the period of the destruction of the first Temple [around 2400 years ago] past the completion of the Talmud [around 1400 years ago]. If the reason is, as is traditionally understood, that the majority of the people were not fluent in the Holy Tongue, we can see how important it is for the mourner to understand the prayer he is saying.

According to the Zohar,7 however, we employ a secular language because subjugating the 'External Forces' and utilizing them as a vehicle for holiness enables to accomplish the profound goal expressed in Kaddish: "Let His Great Name be magnified and sanctified on earth."

It may seem a logical extension of these reasons that not only should it be permissible to say Kaddish in English, it could be desirable! After all, how many native Aramaic speaking Jews do we have today, and what language more expresses the secularity of the contemporary world than English? Perhaps so, theoretically. Nevertheless, the force of the original Aramaic is so powerful-"The Kaddish is an ancient Aramaic prose-poem, a litany whose word music, strong rhythms, stirring sounds, and alternating responses of leader and congregation, cast sheer hypnotic power over the listeners"8-the effort is universally made to master the Aramaic phrases and their meaning--even by Americans, the world's worst language students. The rhythmic cadences themselves help: it's a lot easier to recall song lyrics than prose passages, right?

Another reason for the power of the original is that deep mysteries are embedded in the letters, words, and phrases of the Aramaic. Most of them we cannot fathom easily, but some are relatively accessible.

The Kaddish begins with the four words Yitgadal v'yitkadash shmei rabbah [Exalted and sanctified be His great Name]. These four words parallel the four letters of G-d's holiest name. This is one reason we already respond "Amen" after only four words.

The main part of the response to the Kaddish is the line: Amen. Yihai shmai rabbah m'vorach, l'olam u'olmai umayah ["May his great name be blessed forever, eternally"]. This phrase contains seven words and 28 letters. The very first verse of the Torah, Bereishit bara Elokim et hashamayim v'et ha'aretz ["In the beginning G-d created the heaven and the earth"], also contains seven words and 28 letters. In addition, the introductory line to the Ten Commandments [Ex. 20:1], Vayadabair Elokim et kol hadevarim ha'elah, laimor ["And G-d spoke all these words, saying"], also contains seven words and 28 letters.

Thus, saying Kaddish includes the privilege of linking to these two monumental events. The seven-word response also affirms our belief that G-d is the creator of all, and also intimately involved with his creation

This all-important seven-word sentence is followed by seven expressions of praise, beginning with yisbareich [be blessed]. There should be no pause between saying almaya and continuing yisbareich, etc., for the wish that His Name be blessed generates immediately the demand that He be forever extolled.9

The phrase, "bring forth his redemption and hasten the coming of Moshiach" is part of the earliest known versions of Kaddish. Even today it is included by most Jews-all Chassidim and Sephardim, most congregations here in Israel-but it is omitted in nusach Ashkenaz prayerbooks, ostensibly because Redemption and Moshiach are included in "His Kingdom" (the preceding words).10

* * *

Those, who for whatever (one of many possible) reasons, are relying on the Kaddish-saying of another, would do well to concentrate on answering "Amen" with gusto at all the appropriate places. This is especially true of the Amen followed by yhei shmei rabbah...

The Talmud and Zohar agree that responding, "Amen. May His great Name be blessed forever and ever," with vigor can nullify an adverse decree of seventy or even one hundred years."11 Because of this, nearly everyone calls out this response with extra intensity. Remember, it must also be said with total concentration for a decree to be annulled.12

Allow me to conclude with the reminder that when the children lead good Jewish lives, full of mitzvah observance and Torah study, this is even more meritorious for the soul of the parents than saying Kaddish. In fact, the earliest extant records of Kaddish seem to indicate that Orphan's Kaddish was expected to be said by pre-bar mitzvah boys. From adult offspring, more is to be expected.

It is even more beneficial, both for the souls above and those still alive in this world, when as a result of the death, offspring, other family members and all those close to the deceased examine their deeds and resolve to improve accordingly. As it is written, "the living should should place it upon their hearts."13

And when we do, that helps to "bring forth his redemption and hasten the coming of Moshiach." Amen! ________________
1. Meam Loez on Gen. 18:32, op. cit.
2. Recorded, with slight variations, in the Talmud, the Zohar, and various collections of Midrashim and classic commentaries.
3. Based on Zohar I, 62b.
4. Remah 376:4
5. Some say one, some say both of these two chapters from the sixth (and concluding) volume of the Mishnah, Taharot [Purifications]. Ch. 24 from tractate Kelim [Vessels], was recommended by the holy Rebbe Yisroel of Rhizin because it contains seventeen paragraphs, which is the numerical equivalent of the word 'good,' and each one ends with the word 'pure,' with the last one ending "pure on the inside and the outside." Ch. 7 from the tractate Mikvaot, also concludes with 'pure,' plus the initial letters of the last four of its seven paragraphs spell NeShaMaH ('soul').
6. Tanya beg. ch.2.
7. Quoted in Taamai Minhagim, para. 1055.
8. The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, p.150.
9. The World of Prayer, p.186-7
10. Artscroll Siddur, p.56-57, in the name of Aruch HaShulchan.
11. Shabbat 119b. Cf. Zohar in Reya Mehemna.
12. Rashi, ibid.
13. Eccles. 7:2


Yrachmiel Tilles

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