My father recently passed away and I find myself saying the Kaddish prayer on a daily basis. Even after reading it over many times, I still don’t understand the connection between it and the death of my father. I hear Kaddish said in synagogue at other times by other people. What is the purpose of my saying Kaddish? I want to do what is right, and I am ready to commit to a year of Kaddish, but I would feel better knowing more.
The saying of Kaddish can be a very stirring and affecting experience for someone who has lost a parent. A basic understanding of the prayer will help you in upgrading the meaningfulness of your Kaddish commitment.
The Kaddish is a unique prayer. Take a close look and pause to notice some of the curious elements: comparing it to other prayers is helpful and a purposeful peek will yield some dramatic observations. Here are five: the Kaddish is not in Hebrew, but in Aramaic. There is no proper name of God used, only the “Holy One, Blessed be He.” The reader urges the listener to respond with “amen.” There are different versions of the Kaddish. Finally, there is no mention of death! These five peculiarities are the key to understanding the Kaddish.
In its first mutation, Kaddish was not a mourner’s prayer — it was not even a synagogue prayer. It was a spontaneous prayer offered in the House of Study, the beit midrash. After scholars had completed their study one would rise and urge everyone — spurred by the inspiration of study, one might presume — and burst out with a “Let His Great Name be exalted and sanctified!”
This begins to explain some of the five issues. Since it was not an official part of synagogue liturgy, the proper name of God is not employed. Because of its spontaneous nature, it is in the vernacular Aramaic. Finally, because it was led by one scholar in the House of Study, there is an urging on of others — an appeal to join in and say amen for those gathered were not there for prayer, but for study.
With technicalities easily dispensed with, let’s proceed on to the bigger question: what is the connection between the Kaddish and the death of a parent? Let’s begin with the origins of the text and the pre-prototypes of the prayer.
Our investigation begins with two Biblical verses, one in Leviticus — Vayikra — and one from the prophet Ezekiel. In both we find a sort of invocational forerunner of the Kaddish. The Israelites are exhorted to make God’s name hallow: “But I will be hallowed among the children of Israel.” In Hebrew, the word used, v’nikdashti, means “I will be made holy.” Here then, say the later commentaries, is the core commandment for martyrdom, making God’s name holy and a more attainable commandment of publicly exalted God’s name. The Ezekiel verses are a prototype for the phraseology: “Thus I will magnify myself and sanctify myself”— the two starting words of the Kaddish. Two hints of what is to come.
The first indication that these words might be part of a prayer module is the passage from the Talmud Berachot. It is mysterious and heart rendering. Rabbi Yose comes to have a conversation with Elijah the prophet. Elijah has seen Rabbi Yose, who enters the ruins of a building and hears a Divine voice. Elijah questions Rabbi Yose about what he has heard and Elijah confirms that indeed not only does God cry daily about having destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, but cries three times a day when the Jews declare: “Y’hi sh’mey rabbah m’vorach” — “May his great name be blessed.”
Irrespective of the notion that God, regretting His own actions, may rock the world of the rationalists, this image conveys the message that God is merciful and compassionate and that our deeds have impact on the Divine countenance.
What does this do for our Kaddish conversation? Still no direct connection to death, but we do begin to detect a theme of the weighty influence upon heaven and the power of the certain words before the Almighty. This premise, that the human declaration of the greatness of God evokes celestial sympathy is found in other Talmudic passages as well.
The next neccesary leap from the evocative Kaddish-kind of declarations to a child’s recitation of Kaddish on behalf of a parent is made up of two essential ingredients. The first is a principle found in the Talmud that teaches us that a child has the ability, through his or her deeds, to confer merit upon a parent. Simply put, your good kid reflects positively upon you. This idea combined with a mystical Midrashic tale found in the medieval prayer book, Machzor Vitry, about Rabbi Akiva and an orphan, becomes the delicate foundation upon which our very compelling practice of offspring reciting Kaddish for a parent is based.
It is a frightening, gruesome story about a ghost of a man subjected to eternal Dantéesque torment of epic proportions. He is a soul condemned to hard labor as punishment for earthly sins, but liberated finally by his lone descendant’s Kaddish, taught to him by Rabbi Akiva.
Exalting God’s name publicly is powerful — it indicates the commitment and devotion of descendants, and in turn bears witness that the condemned soul is not without merit. Indeed, the merit of the child reflects upon the parent. How bad could this tortured soul be? Look at his progeny: they bode well for the parent and testify to even the most obliquely remote God-fearingness of the parent.
This line of thinking concludes that the public recital of Kaddish has the power to alleviate parental suffering in the next world – no matter the sinfulness of the parent.
As a mourner stands and recites the words of the Kaddish, though the prayer says nothing of death, it affirms the commitment of the next generation and serves as a life affirming indication of belief in the Holy One. The year of mourning is never an easy one. As you walk through the yearly milestones without Mother or Father, the Kaddish is there is escort you and to comfort. Though they may physically be gone, you can continue to help their souls and, as we say, bring them nachas — pleasure and delight.