Kaddish Part 1: What are we praying for?

For the last 4 months I have been reciting the mourners kaddish for my mom. This process has had its ups and downs, many of which revolve around the structure of Kaddish and the place that it holds in the mourning tradition. Since the passing of my Uncle and Bubby in 2012 I have learned a lot about the mourning rituals both from both the legal (Halachic) and psychological perspectives. Through this process I learned two important things: one, that there is not a lot out there for the psychological piece, and two, that people really need this piece. I originally started writing some ideas down but never finished them. As my Mom was generally a sounding board for these ideas I found that my experiences following her death has prompted me to share. Some pieces are about the mourning ritual that really work for me from a different perspective and some are about pieces that are not working. I am hoping that this article, along with more to come will start a conversation of healing for me, you the reader. Since Kaddish is such a central pillar of mourning I wanted to start here.

The Kaddish is a prayer recited in a quorum, minyan, during all the prayer services of the day. There is a lot written about the mysterious history of the prayer and how it has evolved to what we experience today in services. One of the most common things pointed out is how the prayer itself never mentions death, dying, or the deceased. When one looks at the prayer, translated below, it focuses on praising God for what God has done and what we hope God will do. The tenuous connection between the deceased and the Kaddish is seen as an elevation for the soul of the departed based on the praise of God that their death causes. However, when one looks closely at the words of the Kaddish a much deeper and profound theological message comes to light.

During my grieving process I have thought a lot about the interplay of one’s relationship with God, death, and the deceased. This process started right after my Bubby’s passing when I came across Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s perspective on the Onen status directly following the death of a loved one. Rabbi Soloveitchik suggests that the Onen’s status of not doing positive commandments is God’s way of acknowledging that there are times when people need their space from God and cannot see God as a merciful or benevolent creator when they have the dead right before them. It is just like when one gets in a fight with a loved one, they often need some space to cool down and reflect before reconciliation can be reached. That is a part of what being an Onen is about.

After the fight with God, one needs to reconcile with God, and that can only happen through conversation. The Kaddish, and the need to pray 3 times a day in a minyan is God’s way of starting to talk again. In a modern context, Kaddish could be seen as couples therapy sessions. It is a time when one has to come in and “talk” with God through the hurt and pain of the loss. It is only through this sacred space that one can mend the relationship.

A physical reminder and manifestation of this therapy session can be seen with the three steps back at the end of Kaddish. Mourner’s Kaddish is recited at the beginning and the end of services and the idea of taking three steps back indicates a transition of physical and metaphysical space. At the beginning one takes the steps back to enter a space to talk with God, leaving one’s life behind. At the end, the steps are to mark the end of the session and transition back to regular life. This became most stark for me when I noticed the number of times one steps back at the end of services (3 or 4 kaddishes totaling 9 to 12 steps). It felt similar to the ending of Yom Kippur when we recite Hashem Ho Haelokim seven times and feeling God’s presence leaving. This imbalance of steps at the end versus the beginning can show how easy it should be to enter the space but hard to leave.

If prayer is supposed to be a time to confront God, then the Kaddish can give us insight into what we should be talking about. In the aftermath of my Mom’s passing I was, and am still, struggling with God regarding the idea of the Messianic time. A lot of religious sources console mourners using the ideas of an afterlife and the resurrection of the dead. These themes are the core of the Kaddish. “May God establish Their Kingdom in your lifetime” is alluding to the messianic time when all nations will see God as King. The rest of the Kaddish goes on to list different ways that the world will be in a future time. If this is the case, then the connection of Kaddish with mourning makes more sense, meaning, when the Kaddish is fulfilled then we will be reunited with our loved ones. In this light, the Kaddish is asking or challenging God to live up to God’s great name and bring about the future. A problem with this reading is that it is passive. We assume that God will do everything and one day the world will be redeemed.

Recently, I have started to read the Kaddish in a different light, one that puts the burden on us and challenges us to bring about redemption. Instead of seeing the Kaddish as our words to God, view them as God’s words to us. God is telling us, you want to reconnect with your loved one? You want to connect with me? Then you need to make a world were my presence is “glorified and known throughout the world.” Or as God puts it in Deuteronomy 10:12 “What does the LORD your God demand of you? Only this: to revere the LORD your God, to walk only in Their paths, to love Them, and to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and soul”. God wants us to listen to the messages of the Torah- caring about people, making sure that now one cheats another, ensure that all people have food, healthcare, and a home. God does not care about the politics of religion or  government, God wants a more perfect world and the only way that we can have it is if we put in the effort to create it.

While reflecting on this message of the Kaddish on Yom Haatzmaut I was struck by the teachings of the early Zionists vision that they were bringing about the redemption, fulfilling the thousands of years of prayer and longing to return to being a Sovereign nation in Israel. They started the process and it is on us to continue the process. We still fast on the 9th of Av and sing “Next Year in Jerusalem” on Passover because our Israel is not the redeemed Israel. It is incumbent upon us to follow the teaching of Rabbi Tarfon in Pirkei Avot 2:16 “You are not expected to complete the task, but neither are you free to avoid it.” The Kaddish that we recite is a challenge for each of us to build off of the work of those that have passed. It is not the reciting of Kaddish that gives the deceased merit, it is the lessons that the deceased taught us and motivated us to lead the world closer to the vision of the Kaddish. If we accept the challenge and really take in the meaning of the words of the Kaddish then maybe within our lifetimes we will all be reunited with our loved ones.

Mourner’s Kaddish in English Translation

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 House 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.



About the Author
Rabbi Ben Shefter is a graduate of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical school in Riverdale, New York and the Senior Jewish Educator at Hillels of Westchester. He grew up in Balitmore, Maryland, and attended the University of Maryland, where he received a BS in Material Science and Engineering while engaging in pluralistic programming through the organization Heart to Heart. Ben strives to make Judaism relevant and fun by finding activities or topics that people are interested in and showing the Jewish content within. He is a Seymour Siegel Scholar and the Educational Director for Heart to Heart.
Related Topics
Related Posts