Monday, April 22, 2013

The Many Functions of Kaddish

The following is a summary of a talk I gave in synagogue on the Shabbat preceding my mother's first Yahrzeit in her memory and honor. The talk was entitled "The Many Functions of Kaddish."

During the year that I recited the Kaddish after the death of my beloved mother, Hinda Yael bat Yosef v’Chaya, may her memory always be with us, I asked myself many questions. What was the purpose of saying Kaddish? For whom was I saying Kaddish (myself or my mother)? How was Kaddish related to mourning? In her honor and to help process my thoughts and feelings, I kept a blog in which I mused about these and other questions  (
Nothing in life prepares you for mourning the loss of a parent. The idea that the person who gave you life is no longer in the world is incomprehensible. I had nineteen months after my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer to get used to the idea, and I understood that I’d soon be a mourner. But there is an existential divide between the “regular” world and the one occupied by mourners.
Becoming a mourner and living without my mother was and continues to be uncharted emotional territory. One of my mother’s many life messages was to strive continuously for personal growth through emotional honesty, no matter how painful the process. Before her death, she shared a series of poems with her children, one of which, entitled “Uncharted Territory,” reads:

Start anew
in uncharted territory
the unknown coastline
the unrecognized terrain
the language
foreign to heart and soul.

I tremble at my task
I have not been endowed
with great strength
or powerful skills
my means are meager
my support in doubt.

Yet persevere I must
to continue my journey
bringing forth the word
we are the children of prophets
are charged to start anew
fulfilling the purpose
given us.

To start anew in
bringing forth
the word of words
guiding our path in

In my mother’s spirit of self-assessment and her desire to live an examined life, I have tried to map the processes of mourning her death. My blog was a record of these experiences, a kind of self-therapy, which I invited my readers to share.
            How then does Kaddish relate to mourning? Kaddish is the major religious obligation associated with mourning and its most visible sign -- but it is not synonymous with mourning. One can mourn without saying Kaddish or, conversely, say Kaddish without truly mourning. Mourning is the internal process of dealing with the grief, loss and disbelief that accompany the absence of one to whom our very existence is owed.
What is Kaddish? Developed in the Middle Ages, Kaddish is a prayer the recitation of which, over time, became the obligation of mourners. This recitation is neither a biblical nor a rabbinic mitzvah. Rather, it is a strongly held custom. Kaddish is not mentioned in the Talmud or the Shulchan Aruch. The earliest sources, which date from the early 12th Century, discuss Kaddish in the context of orphaned boys reciting it if they have not reached the age of bar mitzvah, because only adults are allowed to say  ברכו  את  השם המברך . (These sources account for the Mourner’s Kaddish’s Hebrew appellation,  קדיש יתום, or “Orphan’s Kaddish”). Over time, the custom developed for a man (and, more recently, a woman) who has lost a parent to say Kaddish for 11 months. As Kaddish contains words of kedusha, it may be recited only with a minyan.
Saying Kaddish can, but does not necessarily, assist the mourner in these tasks. Like any oft-repeated ritual, it can become a mindless act. (I’ve seen mourners say Kaddish while checking their cell phones, folding their tallit or holding a conversation.) Indeed, the nature of the Kaddish obligation lends itself to rote behavior. While halakhically the obligation can be fulfilled by a single Mourner’s Kaddish each day, most mourners strive to recite every possible Kaddish, a total of eight daily, five during Shacharit (the morning service), two of which are Kaddish D’rabbanan (the Rabbi’s Kaddish), one after Mincha, another Kaddish D’rabbanan between Mincha and Ma’ariv, and one after Ma’ariv. This amounts to about 2,640 Kaddishes during the 11 months that the mourner recites Kaddish.
The incessant repetition of the Kaddish can fetishize the prayer, such that the mourner strives so intently not to miss a Kaddish that the recitation becomes an end in itself divorced from any sense of greater purpose.
Kaddish can and should, however, support the mourning process. Here are some ways I found that it does.
The eternal relationship. The traditional explanation of Kaddish is that its words bring merit to the soul of the deceased. This idea is based on the following midrash: Rabbi Akiva was walking in a cemetery when he met a naked man with thorns on his head. He discovered the man was actually dead and had been forced to chop wood. When Akiva asked him what he did to deserve this punishment, the man said he’d been a tax collector. Akiva wanted to help the dead man. The man told Akiva that the only way to help was if his son were to say
 ברכו  את  השם המברך” and the congregation responded
 יהא שמה רבא מברך לעלם  ולעלמי עלמיה”. Unfortunately, the man’s son had never been circumcised nor had he learned any Torah. Akiva prayed and fasted to open the son’s heart to Torah. God answered his prayer and Akiva taught him Torah. The son went to shul and said “ ברכו  את  השם המברך”.  The man then came to Akiva in a dream, blessed Akiva, and told him that his soul had been saved from the punishment of Gehenna.
From this midrash comes the notion that each time you say Kaddish, you raise the soul of your parent toward a higher level. No matter how righteous a life he or she led, their soul is in danger of being lost to Gehenna. Reciting Kaddish and prompting the congregation to respond “יהא שמה רבא מברך לעלם  ולעלמי עלמיה” rescues the soul from the lower realms of the afterlife.
The power of this midrash helps explain why some take the obligation to say Kaddish so seriously that missing a single Kaddish becomes unthinkable. Of course, it is easy to dismiss the midrash as mere superstition.  Can I really believe that my mother, whose work as a psychologist and Israel activist helped hundreds if not thousands of people, needs my help for her soul to achieve eternal rest?
But there is another way of understanding the midrash. Its message is that there is a link between the mourner’s actions and the deceased’s soul. The bond between child and parent continues even after death. Even more so, the midrash suggests that the relationship remains, in some respect, a two-way street. Just as my mother’s life affected me profoundly and her life is forever imprinted in my being, my life in some indefinable way still affects my mother. The relationship is eternal, transcending life.
Beyond these metaphysics, saying Kaddish fulfills more concrete, yet equally important, functions.

The war against forgetting. Saying Kaddish regularly prevents you from forgetting what happened. It’s easy after the first few weeks to shove aside the trauma and pain of your parent’s death. As the saying goes, “out of sight, out of mind.” It is natural, perhaps even human nature, to try to “move on” or “get over it.” That is how people who have survived traumatic events continue to live functional lives. We are blessed, or perhaps cursed, with the ability to heal from traumatic events. And with healing comes the possibility of forgetting. But saying Kaddish every day doesn’t allow you to forget. Kaddish is a public affirmation that you are a mourner. Kaddish is a pronouncement, to others and to yourself: “I am a mourner. My parent died. It happened. I cannot forget.”

Something concrete to do. Kaddish gives the mourner a concrete task to regularly perform. After a tragic event, it’s natural to ask oneself, “What now?” Kaddish’s answer is: Get up, get out of your home, get to shul and say these words for 11 months. Not too many words, about 100.
The words, even though they are in Aramaic, are not that difficult to pronounce. They have rhythm that is easy to pick up. Unlike any other prayer, the Kaddish is transliterated in most siddurim (prayer books) so that you don’t even have to know how to read Hebrew to say it. It’s the one prayer that seems to unify all Jews, no matter their denomination. (No one is proposing to change the words of this prayer.) Kaddish may not take away the pain of loss, but it does peg your mourning to a specific, definable, easy-to-accomplish task.

Routines. Saying Kaddish creates a routine for the mourner. You go to shul in the morning and the afternoon. Your life revolves around the obligation to say Kaddish. Routines are beneficial to one’s mental state. There is something comforting about knowing that you have to be at a certain place at a certain time every day. Dealing with the death of a parent is overwhelming; going to shul every day is much easier to deal with. Kaddish says to the mourner: “Dealing with your parent’s loss will take time. In the meantime, get yourself to shul and say Kaddish.”

You are not the only mourner. When I started going to shul to say Kaddish, someone said to me, “Welcome to the club.” What he meant was that, everyone will someday be in the “club” of mourners. The mourner is not alone, but part of a community of mourners, not one voluntarily joined, but joined nonetheless.
During the year of saying Kaddish, we mourners took turns leading the prayers and discussed the details of our parent’s illness and death and their effect on us. We formed powerful, often unspoken, bonds born of common grief. These connections do not replace the severed link with our parent, but the obligation of Kaddish does help create social outlets that offer a measure of companionship and solace.

Connection with community. Kaddish connects you to the community at a time when your natural focus is your own grief. Being in pain is selfish by nature. It is you—not others—who has suffered a loss. Kaddish provides a corrective message: In your time of grief, you must be with others. Kaddish puts your own pain in a broader context. You have to leave your house, go to shul and be with others. Indeed, not only are you not alone, but you are also the center of attention in shul. The mourner is considered a “חיוב,” that is, one with an obligation to lead prayers. As a mourner, you cannot hide in shul. Anyone who utters Kaddish is noticed.  People come up to you to ask you for whom you are saying Kaddish, even if you are a stranger. You meet people. You are not alone.

Benefit to the community. Saying Kaddish serves to remind the community that some of its members are in pain. Indeed, this idea is so powerful that the custom has developed that a person saying Kaddish for a parent has a חיוב, that is, priority to lead prayers except on joyous days such as Shabbat and holidays. The mourner leads prayers not because of any particular talent in this regard, but solely because his loss and pain grant him a certain stature. God prefers the prayers of the lowly to those of the exalted. As you represent the community in prayer, your words remind all those assembled of the reality of death and our own mortality.

Honor your father and mother. We all have an obligation to honor our parents, but that obligation does not end with their death. True, you can no longer honor them in the same way. But by coming to shul and saying Kaddish, you bring honor to their memory. You are acknowledging that your relationship does not end with their death, that you remember your parent and that your parent was and remains worthy of your honor.

Your parent’s evidence. When your parent dies, you are charged with carrying on their memory. In a sense, you take their place in the world. When you say Kaddish, you are testifying to this fact and that their lives merited to be perpetuated through you. Most people in shul did not know my mother. But through my daily saying of Kaddish, they got to know me. Through my efforts to go to shul every day to say Kaddish, I provided evidence that my mother lived a life worthy of memory and that, through her children, she continues to live.

Keeping hope and faith alive. It’s been often noted that the Kaddish does not mention death. Moreover, it focuses not on the past, but the future. If some find that their parent’s death ruptures their relationship with God, saying Kaddish may help repair the breach. Kaddish speaks to the hope that God’s name will become fully known in the world. It is a prayer for peace and better days ahead. Sometimes saying these words in the face of death may seem incongruous, even cruel, but the point is to keep saying them. Through the Kaddish, you are pointed to your own post-mourning future, to the belief that the sorrow will lift, that life will be renewed, and that the world, both heaven and earth, will someday be redeemed.

These are some of the thoughts I developed while saying Kaddish.

In the many years since I began attending synagogue regularly, I never gave much thought to the people saying Kaddish. But once your parent dies, you enter into a new realm of mourning and loss. Just as the mourner assumes a central position within the prayer community, Kaddish assumes center stage for the mourner. It provides a meaningful, repetitive and concrete activity that focuses the mourner on his or her loss, providing an anchor that grounds the mourning process.
After the year-long mourning period ends and the Kaddish experience recedes, the mourner reenters the world of life -- but not completely. Once you’ve encountered death, you are never quite the same. You stand somewhere between the realms of death and life, loss and renewal, sorrow and hope. A space all of us, eventually, will inhabit.
For myself and all mourners, I offer the prayer that, in my mother’s words, we be allowed to
start anew in
bringing forth
the word of words
guiding our path in