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Reflections on the Kaddish

January 2011

My neighbor and friend, Ofer, died suddenly and unexpectedly last week from flu complications. He was a good man and had touched many lives. The funeral Friday morning started outside our community synagogue, an institution which plays a very important role in the Amir family. The eulogies were beautiful and when they were done, there followed the traditional procession of escorting the deceased towards the cemetery for burial. The crowds followed the hearse through the streets and every so often, everyone would stop and wait. The four sons, strapping, righteous boys each one, stood near their father’s body, draped simply in a prayer shawl, and called out the Kaddish prayer.

Following the death of a parent, child, spouse or sibling, the Mourner’s Kaddish is recited by the son, father, husband or brother, first at the funeral, then during the seven days of mourning and for a full year afterwards during the three daily prayer services at synagogue. Each year following, the Kaddish is recited during the three daily prayer services on the anniversary of the death. I remember once cringing when I heard my friend congratulating his friend on the birth of a son. “Now you have someone to say Kaddish for you when you are gone.” I thought it was in bad taste. But standing there at the funeral, with those four adult boys reciting those words of old, honoring their dear father’s memory, their voices ringing out strong, cracking slightly with emotion, I understood. There is something comforting about the sense of continuity… right then, in the face of death, which my friend had felt at the life-changing moment of birth.

The words of the Kaddish actually don’t mention death at all. There is no reference, no word even, about death. The word “Kaddish” means “Holy” and the prayer focuses on the idea of magnifying and sanctifying God’s name:

“Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world which He has created according to His will. May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days, and within the life of the entire household of Israel, speedily and soon and say Amen.

May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.

Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that are ever spoken in the world, and say Amen.

May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us and for all Israel, and say Amen.

He who creates peace in His celestial heights, may He create peace for us and for all Israel, and say Amen.”

So why is this specific prayer said by mourners? The theme is actually the greatness of G-d, lofty praise of the One who actually conducts the whole universe, who supervises every one of His beloved creations. Indeed, this prayer is most appropriate at the death of a loved one. A period of mourning is the period during which one is most likely to find comfort in these words, to see the passing of someone, as being taken by the One who had given him life in the first place.

The story is told of Beruria, the wife of Rabbi Meir, who upon the death of their two sons, said to her husband, ‘A soul is comparable to an object which was given to us… to watch over for a limited time. When the time comes for the object to be returned to its rightful owner, should we not be willing to return it?’

Upon hearing the news of a death, it is traditional to say, “The Lord gave and the Lord took; may the name of the Lord be blessed.”

Our Sages say that the reciting of the Kaddish helps elevate the soul of the deceased, that in some way, it adds merit. How can that be? Because the deceased becomes the reason, the impetus for a public sanctification of G-d’s name, which can atone for any desecration of G-d’s name that the person may have committed during his lifetime. How beautiful that Ofer, who lived a life of loving kindness towards his fellow man, had four Torah-loving, upstanding sons, to honor his name with the Kaddish.

I think there is also a benefit for those who say the Kaddish. A person suffering from a loss may feel bitterness, even anger towards G-d. I think it must be very therapeutic at that painful time, to openly declare G-d’s holiness, gently forcing the realization and recognition that death is part of some greater plan.

The Kaddish was written in the language of the period of the Talmud, in Aramaic, in a vernacular that was understood by all. Ironically, Aramaic is now much more obscure than Hebrew. But the words, long dead, are still a source of consolation. The translation doesn’t do it justice. The Kaddish reads almost like a mantra… a meditation, the repetition of syllables and sounds providing a haunting rhythm, and I am moved by it, though the words are foreign to me.

Interestingly, even the most unaffiliated Jew, a person who has wandered far from his faith, often chooses to say the Kaddish. It is not unusual to see the most secular Jew, standing at the side of a freshly dug grave, borrowing the traditional skullcap from a friend, and reciting the Kaddish. It is also not unusual for this person or other people who are not regular synagogue goers, to take upon themselves the unfamiliar burden of going to synagogue three times daily for the full obligatory year of mourning, in order to fulfill the reciting of the Kaddish in the company of a prayer quorum. The prayer is written for a mourner and a congregation. The congregation plays a role, standing up when the mourners begin, answering a consoling “Amen” when the liturgy calls for it. The “call and response” reading elicits the response of “Amen” from those around him. Chanting the Kaddish publicly, helps the understandably self-focused mourner to start thinking more communally. The collective voice is nurturing.

Ofer’s funeral was Friday morning and Friday night we went to synagogue for the popular, joyous service of welcoming the Shabbat. And then the time came for the Kaddish and the four boys called out loudly and poignantly in chorus, the ancient words, “Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world” and there was a comforting heartening answering roar within the walls of our House of Worship: “May His illustrious name be blessed always and forever.” The Kaddish is a necessary reminder for the mourner, but also for the congregation, who sees the mourner standing day after day for a year, honoring the memory of the one who passed. The Jewish people recognize that God’s plan is beyond us; our understanding is limited. But there is hope, and peace is possible, through worship and hard work, and what work is harder, more challenging, than asking a mourner to praise G-d? The Kaddish is an ultimate acceptance of G-d’s judgment. We hear someone died and the first words out of our mouths are, “Blessed is the righteous judge.” We say the same text for a 95 year old man who died peacefully in his bed, surrounded by his dynasty of children and grandchildren, as we do for a pregnant young wife, gunned down by a terrorist.

Is this acceptance supposed to make us sound submissive and weak? No! It makes us sound hopeful and unselfish. In the midst of our pain we are beseeching G-d for the redemption, for the perfecting of His world, demanding strongly peace “speedily and soon”, and thinking of our fellow man, for “the entire household of Israel”. The Jewish people do not believe that the redemption will simply arrive. We have to dream of it and strive for it, by working to bringing it about. Mourners are most aware of the fragility of life and the necessity to repair G-d’s beautiful world and glorify His name.

The opening words of the prayer are inspired by Ezekiel (38:23), where we find a vision of G-d becoming great in the eyes of all the nations. As in almost every prayer, every period of the Jewish people’s history, we include a supplication for peace. The only part of the Kaddish which is in Hebrew is the moving ending which asks for peace, “Shalom”, from the only One who can guarantee it.

“He who creates peace in His celestial heights, may He create peace for us and for all Israel, and say Amen.”




Shira Schwart
Christian Friends of Israeli Communities