So, we have arrived at the final installment of our articles on the Kaddish, perhaps Judaism’s best-known prayer. All that’s left are the two, apparently, redundant declarations about SHALOM, usually rendered ‘peace’. Throughout this piece I will use the word SHALOM, rather than any regular translation, because this powerful term means so much more than any single English word I could choose. Wikipedia comes through for us on this occasion and describes SHALOM as ‘Peace, harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, welfare, and tranquility, and it can be used idiomatically to both hello and goodbye’. That’s helpful, and begins to introduce all of the power of this beloved term.
The penultimate statement in all the longer versions of Kaddish (4 out of 5 versions, all except Chatzi Kaddish) is: May there be abundant SHALOM from Heaven and life upon us and upon all Yisrael, and let us say: Amen! That’s the standard Ashkenazic version. The Sephardic (usually Chassidic) rite adds ‘good life’.
The true Sephardic (Eidot HaMizrach) text adds a beautiful list of requests: Satisfaction, help, comfort, refuge, healing, redemption, forgiveness, atonement, relief and salvation. As much as I love hearing this version and occasionally get to recite it when visiting a Sephardic minyan on a Yahrzeit. I don’t believe it is the correct version, because this moving list of requests goes far beyond the spiritual nature of the Kaddish format. Viscerally, I adore it; intellectually, not so much. These requests are too earthly.
This line is in Aramaic, which maintains the format of the rest of Kaddish. However, the final statement of Kaddish is in pure Hebrew: The Maker of SHALOM in His exalted heights; may He make SHALOM upon us and upon all Yisrael, and let us say: Amen!
This final statement corresponds to the same declaration in Grace after Meals and the end of the AMIDA (Silent Devotion) prayer. I have a strong sense that this sentence was borrowed from the end of the AMIDA, because that usage has a much earlier source for its place in our liturgy than does the recitation of Kaddish. In the Talmud, it says:
One who has prayed must take three steps back and extend Shalom. He must pause there, like a student taking leave of his Rebbe as the as turning away immediately would be considered an insult. He extends Shalom to the right, then left, if he fails to do so, it would have been better had he not prayed at all (Yoma 53:).
Over time it became the norm to make the OSEH SHALOM declaration a part of Kaddish. We don’t know if this was the original version, but accept it as authentic. I believe strongly that at some point during the time of the Geonim (600 CE-1000 CE). This parallel statement to the last line of Kaddish was added to that recitation. This would give a SHALIACH TZIBOR (the prayer leader) a chance to step back the three steps at the end of Kaddish Shalem (recited after a communal prayer), which he would have missed after finishing a repetition of the AMIDA (for Shacharit, Mincha and Musaf).
Okay, so we have become used to stating this powerful line twice, once in Aramaic and once in Hebrew, in every Kaddish. But why? What is its importance? Rav Soloveitchik pointed out that in heaven God has mysteriously reconciled the forces of DIN (justice) and CHESED (kindness) and caused them to merge and dwell together in tranquility. This idea is mystically expressed by describing the angels Gavriel and Michael getting along even though the former represents DIN and fire, while the latter embodies CHESED and water.
We want that same kind of peaceful resolution to earthly dichotomies and paradoxes. As time goes on, we see increased strife here on earth, not just between nations but even within nations. Both of my homelands have never been as polarized and disconnected as they are today. These days people not only harbor different viewpoints and worldviews; they also seem to hold on to different sets of realities and facts. In this declaration, we recognize that bringing true SHALOM requires Divine intervention.
The Rav also pointed out that this declaration contains the request for SHALOM ‘upon us’ as well as ‘upon Yisrael’. There, therefore, seems to be a desire for SHALOM both personally as well as nationally. He then explains that each one of us individually has a distinct personality with particular needs and desires. These differences are the seeds not only of conflicts in our world, but also struggles within families and even within our own psyches.
This is why we recite: May God bring this SHALOM to us and to all Yisrael! We recognize that this dissidence isn’t limited to politics, business, and society, but enters our homes and poisons our families. It also causes great consternation and confusion within the psyches of many individuals. We plead for peace of mind, tranquility of soul, and an end to the inner conflicts from which so many in our world suffer.
I think that peace and harmony look more distant today than, perhaps, anytime within our collective memory. I grew up in a period of civil disobedience (anybody out there remember the 60’s?). Today, I’m living in a time when serious people are talking about Civil War, which is a very uncivil phenomenon, indeed. The disassociations get greater; the hopes for reconciliation grow dimmer.
So, when we are ending our Amida or our Kaddish, we do it with this most urgent plea: Please, please, please bring a little of that Divine Shalom, which is truly altruistic, unifying, and miraculous, down here!! We really need it!