My Twelfth Month of Mourning
I lost my father a little more than twelve months ago and I want to share with you what I’ve been thinking about during my twelfth month of mourning. I stopped saying kaddish a month ago after eleven months. I think that for many mourners, the end of kaddish after eleven months is probably more of a significant event than the end of twelve months. For eleven months, we try to make sure that we can find a minyan for every tefilla wherever we are and we will rearrange our schedules and often our travel plans and vacations to accommodate minyan schedules. Why do we do it?
One reason for saying kaddish is that it is spiritually beneficial for the deceased. In fact, the practice seems to be connected to a story that is cited by some early Rishonim, like the Or Zarua (2:50) and Machzor Vitry (144), whereby Rabbi Akiva found a boy who had lost his father and circumcised the boy and taught the boy Torah and some prayers. When the boy said “barchu” in shul and the congregation responded, his deceased father was freed from Heavenly punishment. Based on this story, the custom initially developed for a mourner to recite “barchu” or “kaddish” and eventually the custom evolved for a mourner to recite kaddish as a benefit for the deceased.
Another reason for saying kaddish is that it’s a form of affirmation of God’s divine judgment. Rabbi Yechiel Michel Tukachinsky (Gesher HaChayim, 30:4:1) explains that a mourner may be inclined to question God’s ways because of his bitterness. When a mourner recites the kaddish and says “yitgadal v’yitkadash shmei rabba,” or “God’s Great Name shall be glorified and sanctified,” he affirms his belief in the ways of God.
A difference between the two reasons is whether we should stop reciting kaddish after eleven months. If the only goal of kaddish is an expression of affirmation of God’s ways, then it would make sense to tie the timing of the recitation to the mourning period and we should recite kaddish for all twelve months of mourning. However, our custom is not to recite the kaddish in the twelfth month of mourning. The reason is that our Sages teach that the maximum that a wicked person is punished in the afterlife in gehinom is twelve months (Shabbat 33b). We don’t want to give off the impression that the deceased was a very wicked person so the custom developed to only recite kaddish for eleven months.
On an emotional level, however, there is another significant value to the kaddish. We feel like we are holding on to our parent. We still feel connected in some way by doing something concrete on a daily basis multiple times a day. And then the eleven months are over and we are at a loss. Even though it was difficult to rearrange our schedules and push off meetings so that we could recite kaddish daily with a minyan, we felt good about keeping the connection and now we are at a loss. That is why very often the end of the eleven months is viewed as more significant than the end of the twelve months because we do not do anything formal during the twelfth month. We simply abstain from festive celebrations and social gatherings and observe other restrictions that are connected with the twelve months of mourning.
As such, for me, the twelfth month of mourning, a time of no formalized obligations but only restrictions, was an opportune time for me to reflect how I can continue the connection. How can I continue to honor my father? How can I continue the legacy of my father? Jewish tradition often provides appropriate outlets to help process our feelings. I had the outlet for eleven months, but now I feel lost.
I then read a passage by Rabbi Shlomo Gantzfried in the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (26:22):
“Even though the saying of kaddish and prayers are helpful to [the souls of] the parents, yet they are not the main thing. The most important thing is that the children walk in the path of righteousness, because with that they gain Heavenly favor for their parents.… A person should, therefore, instruct his children to observe one certain mitzvah [with particular care]. If they fulfill [this mitzvah], then it counts for more than saying the kaddish.”
We connect with our parents and our parents leave a legacy if we continue in the path of righteousness of our parents. Rabbi Gantzfried wrote that one way to do that is to observe one particular mitzvah with particular care as a merit for one’s parent and, I would add, as a way to continue that connection. As an example, I know a number of mourners who started going regularly to minyan during their year of avelut and they continued this practice after avelut was over in memory of a parent to provide continued merit to that parent.
For me, my father’s trademark was his “yashrut.” He was someone who never lied and he never spoke lashon hara. Mind you, he did not have to overcome a desire to bend the truth or to gossip. He was simply raised not to care about these things. He was someone who was always very appreciative and he was content with what God gave him. He was never materialistic or jealous of anyone else. He was a devoted father, grandfather and husband. For me, the way I hope to emulate my father and to continue his legacy is to work on my own midot. And that’s very hard to do. It’s much easier to start practicing a formal, concretized ritual than it is to simply have better midot, because it’s hard to measure what “better midot” means. Therefore, any situation that calls for using the right midot and for being “yashar” in how I act and how I speak, I hope to ask myself what my father would have done. After all, he is my role model in midot. This is what I have been thinking about during my twelfth month of mourning. I hope and I pray that even after this time period of kaddish and mourning I continue keep his beautiful legacy alive.