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What is Kaddish? - Yom Kippur, 5775 (October 3, 2014)


I dedicated my remarks this morning to Steve Eschwege, whose occasional questions have always been important and insightful and beyond mere curiosity. He asked, many months ago, about the true meaning of the universally acknowledged central feature of Jewish religious life: the recitation of something called Kaddish. To his honor, and to the honor of my congregation, I address this extended response.

I remember being pulled aside by an older member of my little first student congregation, in Traverse City, MI, who had a question.

“I remember reading or hearing,” he said, “something about mourners saying Kaddish for the dead for eleven months, because the maximum time the dead spend in Gehenna, the closet thing we in Judaism have for hell, is a year, and one hopes the person one is praying for will not have to serve the full sentence. Do you have any idea what I am referring to?”

The direct answer refers to the great Rabbi Akiva of the first century.

The famous tale involving Akiva occurs in various medieval texts [Kallah Rabbati II:9,52a; Pirke Derekh Eretz from Tanna de Be Eliyahu, S23, Braude/Kapstein p. 488 in which the sage is not Akiva but Yochanan ben Zakkai], all of which tell how, while walking along a lonely road, Akiva encountered the apparition of a soot-blackened man hurrying beneath a heavy load of wood on his head and shoulders. Asked who he was, the man replied that he was a great sinner residing in Gehenna, an underworld dungeon, and that he was required to bring to it the daily supply of firewood over which he was roasted. One version says that this man died when his non-Jewish wife was pregnant; another that he failed to circumcise him. But each says that the man recounted to Akiva that only if his son were to praise God in prayer, saying in Hebrew: בָּרְכוּ אֶת יְיָ הַמְבֹרָךְ.; and the congregation respond “אמן!

בָּרוּךְ יְיָ הַמְּבֹרָךְ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד. Let God’s great Name be blessed for ever and ever!” in a synagogue, could the strange and suffering image of the man be released from his ordeal.

In Aramaic, this would be the call of the mourner: יִתְגַּדַּל וְיִתְקַדַּשׁ שְׁמֵהּ רַבָּא. ,and the response of the congregation in Aramaic is, of course, אמן! יְהֵא שְׁמֵהּ רַבָּא מְבָרַךְ לְעָלַם וּלְעָלְמֵי עָלְמַיָּא.

The story ends with Akiva’s tracking down the son, seeing to his conversion and circumcision, and teaching him the rudiments of Judaism; after which he says the Kaddish to which the congregation responds אָמֵן. יְהֵא שְׁמֵהּ רַבָּא מְבָרַךְ לְעָלַם וּלְעָלְמֵי עָלְמַיָּא and his father is freed from Gehenna and admitted to paradise.

In time, this prayer came to be identified with the Kaddish. The great Akiva is quoted in the Mishnah [Eduyot II:10] as saying that “the wicked are sentenced to Gehenna for [no longer than] 12 months.” A custom which became normative in Judaism was to recite Kaddish for a parent only for 11 months of the full year, so that it should not appear that one’s parent was so wicked as to merit punishment for the full year.

Kaddish, or some form of it, is recited several times in the course of a routine prayer service. It functions often like a liturgical semi-colon, separating the various rubrics and sections of the Jewish worship experience.

The Kaddish Shaleim (“Whole Kaddish”), for example, is recited after the conclusion of the major section of a prayer service. It includes a phrase that is not present in any other form of Kaddish: תִּתְקַבֵּל צְלוֹתְהוֹן וּבָעוּתְהוֹן דְּכָל (בֵּית) יִשְׂרָאֵל – “accept the prayer and the supplication of the entire Jewish people…” Not only is this a request that God find favor with the prayers just recited, it is another reference to a very specific Bible source.

On his deathbed, the patriarch Jacob gave his son Joseph the city of Shechem, telling his son that he acquired it “with my sword and my bow” (Genesis 48:22). Onkelos, the preeminent Bible translator, who typically explains metaphors, renders this in Aramaic, “bitzloti uv’va’uti” – “with my prayer and my supplication” – the same words later chosen for use in the Kaddish Shaleim.

The closing phrase of every Kaddish, except for the Chatzi Kaddish (“Half Kaddish”), is also Biblical in origin. Job [25:2] says that authority and dread are under the control of “the One Who makes peace in His lofty realms” (“Oseh shalom bimromav”). In Hebrew, Heaven is called Shamayim, a contraction of the words אש (fire) and מיים (water). God makes peace between these two forces of nature, which cannot peacefully coexist under normal circumstances, and from the result He has built the Heavens. If God can do this (and He can), He is certainly capable of making peace among us, His children who dwell below. We only pray that He do so soon!


But when people speak of “The Kaddish” they are talking about what Akiva’s apparition of a burdened man was hoping his son would say. I never really appreciated its title until my mother, ע"ה , died in 1998. קדיש יתום is no euphemism. קדיש יתום is the Orphan’s Kaddish, and when my mother died twenty years after I lost my father, I became an orphan.


A month after she died, the leaders of my congregation in Sharon, Massachusetts, considered my desire to say Kaddish every day with a minyan to be an act of disloyalty . . . a public admission of institutional inadequacy. They successfully prevented me from modeling normative Judaism to my children, and I have waited until this morning to disclose that fact and relieve myself of the burden of its weight on my conscience.


קדיש יתום is not some crypto-Orthodox practice, of course. The recitation of Kaddish is a central feature of every form of Jewish religious life. Its essential meaning is as simple as it is profound: having an heir who serves as the catalyst – the enabler – for the congregation to praise God is a source of merit for the deceased. The objective, the point, the key is not the recitation, but the response. We might say that the whole point of קדיש יתום is the response: אמן!


Gates of Mitzvah, published by the Reform Movement, clearly articulates the standard:

It is a mitzvah for mourners to recite the Kaddish…in memory of the dead: at daily services during shivah at home, and thereafter in the synagogue. It is a mitzvah to recite Kaddish for parents for a year and for other members of the family for a month. If there is no daily service in the synagogue, mourners should recite Kaddish with their families or privately. . . . [I]t is appropriate that a minyan be assembled whenever possible. Some suggest that, in the absence of a minyan, a mourner might recite Kaddish in English or substitute another memorial prayer.

But Kaddish says nothing at all about death. No. Just 75 words long, with most of those words not in Hebrew but in Aramaic, the Kaddish is simply what is called “a doxology,” a hymn of praise to God. Its original version was shorter still – just the first paragraph, based on a messianic passage from Ezekiel [38:23], which we recite today along with its response –

אָמֵן. יְהֵא שְׁמֵהּ רַבָּא מְבָרַךְ לְעָלַם וּלְעָלְמֵי עָלְמַיָּא.

“Amen. Let God’s great name be blessed for ever and ever.” Dating back to the first century of the Common Era, that was the entire Kaddish, and it was probably recited as a way of concluding a public discourse or a lesson on a hopeful, messianic note.

This response is truly sacred, my friends. It is the fulfilment of the Kaddish mitzvah. יְהֵא שְׁמֵהּ רַבָּא . . . these seven words, consisting of 28 letters: both sacred numbers to Judaism, form the deep meaning of this recitation. It is a moment of enabling, permitting a minyan – a community of Jews – to praise and thank Almighty God. That is what we might say is the point of Kaddish. It is recited by mourners such that we, in response, are all thereby compelled to say: אָמֵן. יְהֵא שְׁמֵהּ רַבָּא מְבָרַךְ לְעָלַם וּלְעָלְמֵי עָלְמַיָּא.

Those 75 words tell us – and this is breathtaking – that it is God who needs to hear them – because not one of those 75 words mention death and not one of those words refers to the aching absence that we feel.

Rather, over and over we talk to God – יִתְבָּרַךְ וְיִשְׁתַּבַּח וְיִתְפָּאַר וְיִתְרוֹמַם וְיִתְנַשֵּׂא וְיִתְהַדָּר וְיִתְעַלֶּה וְיִתְהַלָּל – blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled, mighty, upraised, and lauded – synonym after synonym saying great things not to us – but to God.

And the paragraph continues, with these crucial words: לְעֵֽלָּא מִן כָּל בִּרְכָתָא וְשִׁירָתָא תֻּשְׁבְּחָתָא וְנֶחֱמָתָא,- for God is beyond (or above) any blessing or song, praise or נֶחֱמָתָא – from the Aramaic or Hebrew נ-ח-מ, nichum, meaning consolation, as in nichum avelim, or “consoling the mourners.”

Is it possible that God, Himself, is a mourner; that God needs us for His consolation? Leon Wieseltier, whose short volume simply entitled Kaddish is now a classic, was amazed to discover that God may need him even more than did his dead father. Wrote Wieseltier: “The kaddish is a communication from one mourner to another. Every kaddish in the liturgy is the Mourner’s Kaddish, and God is the mourner.”

So who does God mourn? First we must understand that God has lost one of us, one of His children, one of His beloved?

But is the meaning of God’s mourning even deeper?

Another Talmudic tale [Berachot 3a] speaks of Rabbi Yose, who encounters Elijah the prophet at the entrance of one of the ruins of Jerusalem, prohibiting him from entering. But Rav Yose hears a voice in the ruin, crying, weeping.

The story explains the depth of God’s grief, which is now understood to be stronger when it is set in a ruin. The prophet Elijah seeks to dissuade the rabbi from entering the ruin, because Elijah does not want the rabbi to discover God’s secret, which is that He is a mourner. Is the ruin the Temple? Can God truly be consoled? And if God cannot be consoled, how can any one of us, mere mortals, ever be consoled?

My friends, this day of Yom Kippur is our haunting dress rehearsal for death.

The titles we use, the words we speak, the actions we take, the actors we encounter, the settings we utilize, the fasting we endure, even the clothes we wear tell us so. From the Viddui, the confession we offer only here and on our deathbeds, to the unetane tokef, to the words acknowledging the sacred power of this day – ”Who shall live and who shall die.” And this day reaches its saddest point just now – at Yizkor – when we encounter our loved ones, those who have preceded us in death.

This is and should be a powerful day, a difficult day, a painful day, a solemn day. It is anything but Yom Tov. It is no holiday.

And we will say Kaddish.

But God wants us to emerge from the pain and abject fear of Yom Kippur. He has faith that we will emerge: reborn, renewed, restored and returned as this day ends, when the gates begin to close.

Is that not the message of today, that we have come together as a community of sinners – like a community of mourners, reaching out to each other as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death? Is that not the profound message of this day that, as we walk through the valley of the shadow, that we are not and will not be alone? For this day, in communal embrace, we shall choose life.

The recitation of Kaddish enables us to come together, to function as a community, to support each other and to support the Great Mourner who needs our consolation, Almighty God Himself. The key is not its leadership – by one, two, or a hundred bereft avelim, mourners – the key is our response, our answer, our insistence that בָּרוּךְ יְיָ הַמְּבֹרָךְ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד – or in Aramaic אָמֵן. יְהֵא שְׁמֵהּ רַבָּא מְבָרַךְ לְעָלַם וּלְעָלְמֵי עָלְמַיָּא., that The LORD’s name is to be praised and glorified, sanctified and profusely thanked. The Kaddish is the declaration that we are a community; and it enables us to console a grieving God. What an honor, what a distinction, what a deeply meaningful celebration it is, when you come to a synagogue or a house of mourning, to proclaim the existence of community, simply rendered by the great Hebrew declaration: אמן!

V’chein y’hee ratzon.


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