This week marks the 11th month since the passing of my father, Jacob Neusner (zt”l). In Judaism, there is great significance placed on the date of the yahrtzeit, or the anniversary of a relative’s passing. There are traditions to commemorate the yahrtzeit, including visiting the grave, saying Kaddish at shul, giving to tzedakah, and for those who are able, leading prayer services.
But less is known about the end of the 11th month milestone. In Judaism, though the mourning period lasts for an entire year, mourners actually stop saying Kaddish at the end of the eleventh month, a month before the first yahrtzeit. The custom is to say Kaddish for only eleven months so as to avoid connecting our parent with the period of judgment for an evil person, which is 12 months.
I have been saying Kaddish regularly for the past 11 months, 3 times a day. Over the past few weeks, when people hear that I am nearly finished, they look at me incredulously and say, “so soon?”, or, “I can’t believe the year has gone by so fast!”
The year really doesn’t go by so fast. Frankly, it’s a long haul, and a major commitment, not only for the mourner but for their immediate family members too. Countless family gatherings and routines have been disrupted by my rushing out the door to go to shul.
Yet, saying Kaddish has been a very comforting and supportive process, allowing me and at times forcing me to connect with my father and to my memories of him, and to praying for the merit of his departed soul. I’ve recited Kaddish in a wide range of places – from a majestic synagogue in the heart of Bogota to a small shul located in a dilapidated shopping center in Aventura, Florida; from my “home’ shul – the Young Israel of Brookline, Massachusetts, to the back room of a Chasidic bookstore in Monsey, New York. From the basement chapel of a Sephardi shul in Queens . . . to the Kotel.
Saying Kaddish in all of these locations, praying with people, many of whom were mostly strangers, made me reflect on the centrality of Kaddish, and prayer, to Judaism and to our Jewishness.
Over the past eleven months, in all of the above locations, I have often been the only person saying Kaddish, but never did I feel alone, and never did I lack for a minyan, the quorum of ten men (in Orthodox Judaism) required to say Kaddish. I am thankful and grateful for the presence of the other nine (or more) people, whose presence allowed me to say Kaddish day after day, morning, afternoon and night.
But gratitude does not begin to express the role of those who make up the minyanim. Who were these people and why were they there? They weren’t there especially for me to say Kaddish. Most of them had been coming to daily minyan long before I began saying Kaddish, and will continue going long after I’m done. They come to minyan, and to pray, and to be fortified by prayer. They pray to G-d, to praise and thank Him, to make requests of Him, to express their love of Him, and sometimes, to express their anger at Him. They pray out of obligation, purpose and routine. They pray to connect with the world around them, and they come to pray to support me and other mourners, to help us connect to family who are no longer around.
My father revered our great Talmudic sages, loved rabbinic Judaism, and deeply respected tradition and ritual. After the death of his father-in-law, my father wrote of his admiration for the chevra kadisha, the “holy society” that ministered to the burial in Har HaMenuchot cemetery in Jerusalem. He wrote that: “these beautiful Jews showed me more of what it means to be a Jew, of what Torah stands for, than all the books I ever read . . . (they) did what Jewish law requires, gently, reverently, and faithful to the law. Here was a stranger and a strange family, from far away. But all was done so kindly and thoughtfully, yet so wholly without sentimentality, that we were able to accept the Judgment and say “amen,” as is our duty.”
My father elegantly expresses how I feel about the fellow shulgoers who accompanied and supported me these past eleven months, whether they were in Brookline, New York, Bogota, or Jerusalem. In the words of my father, they showed me more of what it means to be a Jew, of what Torah stands for. They also show me that even amongst the temporary gathering of a community of ten fellow Jews, we feel the presence of God, we feel that we are at our place, and we feel, even with a loved one’s absence, at home.