Contrary to what one might expect, the kaddish that is recited on Tisha b’Av is the standard mourners kaddish. There is nothing in the Tisha b’Av service like the Yizkor service part of Yom Kippur. The Biblical Book of Lamentations is read aloud; and a few memorial poems have been added to the synagogue service; and some special customs are followed outside the synagogue but the kaddish is unchanged.
Perhaps this is because the mourners 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 the 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.
The Mourner’s Kaddish and the Rabbi’s Kaddish are reserved for the mourners.There are no poems that focus on individual personal pain or bereavement like this modern one:
God gives opportunities to love but not forever.
God takes opportunities away after a while.
So don’t hesitate or delay to express your love,
or curse the darkness while remaining mired in hopelessness,
because God gives; and God takes away.
Blessed be the name of the LORD.
But why bless the LORD when God takes away?
Because if the opportunities were always there,
we would wait until the time was right
and never make the leap, and years might waste away.
For God gives and God takes away opportunities to love.
And “the very earth itself is a granary and a seminary,
and every seed means not only birth but rebirth.”[Thoreau]
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.
A powerful story associated with kaddish is the legend of Rabbi Akiva, which is examined at great length–and from every angle–in Leon Weiseltier’s book, Kaddish. The narrative has Rabbi Akiva ben Joseph the convert, the great Talmudic sage, walking past a cemetery late at night and seeing an apparition carrying a load of wood “heavy enough for ten men.” Rabbi Akiva asks the man, “Why do you do such hard work?”
“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 oppress the poor.”
“Have you heard if there is any way to save you?” The man responds that his only salvation would be if he had a son 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 daughter or a son; and that the instrument of spiritual rescue is prayer, most notably the kaddish.” So we the living, cannot bring back the dead, but we can redeem death. God’s will is done, but so is ours.
And so we say kaddish, which serves to give us a wider view of life and death [Fire is one way that God renews forests. Death from old age and disease is one way that God renews humanity], and the hope that our love will survive the death of a loved one, and that spiritual rescue is always possible.
This does not apply to national disasters when society itself is endangered and community action is needed. For this we need every mourner to pray 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.”