Shortly before a soul is embodied it is asked if it wants to be able to attach itself to its children, to feel the pain of becoming detached from one it loves, and in general to love and be loved. If it says yes it is embodied in a mammal. If it says no it is embodied as a fish or an insect.
Then it is asked if it desires to be independent and responsible only for its own survival or if it desires to be part of a group or a pack with a social structure. If it desires to be only an individual it is embodied as a solitary hunter. If it desires to belong to a community it is embodied as a social insect such as a bee or a termite if it did not want to love, or as a social mammal such as a chimpanzee or a dog if it desired to love and be loved.
Finally, it is asked if it wants to be self-conscious of its need to struggle with its social and moral choices, its duties and responsibilities to others, and its spiritual connection to greater realities. If it says yes it is created as a human being and if this soul is a Jewish human being the soul is given the power of the Kaddish prayer.
Contrary to what one might expect, kaddish makes no explicit mention of the dead. The prayer begins with an acknowledgment of God’s rule over the earth “as He willed.” We may not understand God’s will–especially at a time of major loss–but we submit to it even when it goes against our very nature.
Kaddish continues with a plea for the ultimate redemption–the messianic era–when God’s kingdom will be recognized by all. Addressing the congregation, the mourner prays that the redemption will come about “in your lifetimes and in your days and in the lifetimes of the entire family of Israel, swiftly and soon.” The congregation replies with the words: “May His great name grow exalted and sanctified forever and ever,” a phrase that is then repeated by the mourner.
The call and response of kaddish–in effect, the public acknowledgment of ultimate faith in God–is so essential to the prayer that kaddish can be said only as part of public prayer, in a minyan made up of ten worshipers, all of whom reply with a loud “amen” at five specific points.
Kaddish has a few different forms and variations, but all have these essential elements: Aramaic, call and response, praise of God, submission to God’s will, and hope for redemption. A special kaddish is said at the graveside after burial. Two other variations, called Half Kaddish and Full Kaddish, are said during the synagogue service by the person leading the prayers. In its various forms, kaddish is said several times during each of the three daily services. In any of its variations, it rarely takes more than a minute to recite. The Mourner’s Kaddish, for example, is just seventy-five words long. But despite its brevity, it is one of the most poignant prayers in the liturgy.
The most powerful story associated with kaddish is the Rabbi Akiva’s which is examined at great length–and from every angle–in Leon Weiseltier’s book, Kaddish. This story has Rabbi Akiva, the great Talmudic sage, walking past a cemetery late at night and seeing an apparition, his complexion black as coal, carrying a load of wood “heavy enough for ten men.” Rabbi Akiva tells the man to stop, “Why do you do such hard work?” Rabbi Akiva asks.
“Do not detain me lest my masters be angry with me,” the spirit responds. “I am a dead man. Every day I am punished anew by being sent to chop wood for a fire in which I am consumed.” “What did you do in your life?” “I was a tax collector,” the spirit responds. “I would be lenient with the rich and suppress the poor.”
“Have you heard if there is any way to save you?” asks Rabbi Akiba.
The spirit responds that his only salvation would be if he had a child who would say kaddish and have the congregation respond: “May His great name grow exalted and sanctified forever and ever.”
As the spirit disappears into the night, Rabbi Akiva resolves to find the man’s family. He journeys to the man’s town and inquires about the much-hated tax collector. The townspeople curse the man’s name but point Rabbi Akiva to an ignorant and illiterate lad, the accursed man’s son.
Rabbi Akiva takes the boy under his wing, teaches him to pray, and eventually brings him to the synagogue, where he says the kaddish prayer. The congregation responds: “May His great name grow exalted and sanctified forever and ever:’ That night, the tortured soul appears to Rabbi Akiva in a dream, blesses him, and tells him that he has been released from his ongoing punishment.
Weiseltier concludes: “The themes of the story? That the dead are in need of spiritual rescue; and that the agent of that spiritual rescue is a child or even a grandchild; and that the instrument of spiritual rescue is prayer, notably kaddish.” The message? We, the living, cannot bring back the dead, but we can redeem death. God’s will is done, but so is ours.
And so Jews say kaddish only as part of a congregation of a least ten fellow Jews; to remind us that our species has chosen to live and always be self-conscious of its need to struggle with its social and moral choices, its duties and responsibilities to others, and its spiritual connection to greater realities of Holiness.