The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 13

One of the most fascinating aspects of the mourner’s kaddish is that it doesn’t directly mention death or mourning. Given that kaddish is a conversation between people, this leaves me wondering.

How much do we leave unspoken between us? How much was left unspoken between me and my father z”l? If the death prayer omits death, how much more so might loved ones omit love? How much of humankind’s communication lies between our lines? Between our words? Between our breaths and syllables?

There are so many reasons I write. One is: my daily recitation of the traditional mourner’s kaddish is not about my father. If the traditional kaddish is impersonal, this kaddish series is not. Even so, reflecting now, I would say: my personal kaddish cannot express everything. My tears don’t stain your computer screen. In truth, they rarely come, but how would you know? I fear letting go, even as I write with desperation and my father continues to slip through my fingers like dry sand.

Also, if I were to write an entire composition about my love for God (assuming that I loved Him) without mentioning my father, would that befit my father’s memory? Would it honor him? Would it preserve any of him? Would it have anything to do with him? Would it be more in the spirit of the traditional mourner’s kaddish, or less so? If I’m being honest, it’s easier to read and write about kaddish than it is to bethink myself of memories, even privately.

I must read between my own lines.

* * *

Now, regarding the tradition: Two questions spring to mind.

  1. Why not mention death or mourning in the mourner’s kaddish?
  2. Given this pretermission, why does the kaddish persist as the Jewish prayer for the dead?

* * *

The answer to the first question, it seems, is more equivocal. I discover an answer in Wieseltier’s book Kaddish that resonates with me. He brings a text from a novel written by Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky titled The Five. The Editor quotes the Revisionist (p. 164-5):

A man stands at the open grave… and presents his… accounting for the damages, to the Lord of the Universe. He is furious… and… behind the tombstone nearby, Satan squats and lies in wait for… when the man… explodes with curses… As soon as he hears these words… he… addresses God: ‘See what you get for your goodness! And see from whom: from a Jew! From your own agent and representative on this earth! So go quietly, old man. I am in charge now.’ This is the devil’s plan. But the [man]… guesses Satan’s game. He asks himself: ‘… Will I really allow evil to rule the world? No! …’ – and at this point… the man begins to list all those praises of God… who needs reasons? It is reason enough to lay the devil low… To say, in other words: ‘You, Satan, keep out of this! Whatever grievances I have against God… Somehow we will settle the matter between ourselves…’

In Jabotinksy’s understanding, the kaddish takes the form of a doxology in order that we keep our worst demons in check. Give in to our darkest inclinations; succumb to our pain; permit unfettered evil to reign. Therein lies no honor for our loved ones.

* * *

Actually, it’s the second question that draws me because I think its answer is simpler, and I’ve already touched upon it: the mourner’s kaddish persists because we cannot coherently articulate the immeasurable depths of our helplessness and loss. That the Jewish wisdom of yesteryear saw fit to attach mysterious words of an ancient language to the opacity of death is comforting. Tradition consoles. Even the most articulate mourner lacks for expression.

My sorrow’s voice is age-old.

In volume six of My People’s Prayer Book, I unearth a gem. Rabbi David Ellenson writes the following (p. 155):

The rationalism of Reform’s founders did lead the authors of the 1819 Hamburg Gebetbuch to address the fact that no mention was made of the dead in this prayer. They compensated for this “lapse” by inserting an Aramaic paragraph… whence it found its way into the classical Reform prayer book… Despite the fact that the new version of the Mourner’s Kaddish thus achieved considerable long-term standing in Reform tradition, no other Reform prayer book in the twentieth century… retained it. This ultimate failure of even an innovation that lasted over 150 years demonstrates the tremendous tenacity of folk traditions in matters surrounding mourning. The affective power of the classical version of the Mourner’s Kaddish has proved more enduring than theory and a century and a half’s sustained novelty.

I am struck hard by curiosity. What were the words of this discarded text? A bit of online research brings up the following:

Insertion from the 1819 Hamburg
Reform Gebetbuch (prayer book):

על ישראל ועל צדקיא. ועל כל-מן דאתפטר מן עלמא הדין כרעותה דאלהא. יהא להון שלמא רבא וחלולקא-טבא לחיי עלמא דאתי. וחסדא ורחמי מן-קדם מרא שמיא וארעא. ואמרו אמן

Unto Israel, unto all the righteous, and unto all who departed this life according to the will of God, may there be granted fullness of peace, grace, and mercy by the Lord of heaven and earth. And say, Amen.


Not only does the mourner’s kaddish not directly relate to death or mourning, but it would seem that we Jews don’t want it to.

* * *

Is humankind’s rejection of reason so hard to understand? For me, it’s the most intuitive facet of the mourner’s kaddish. Consider this: For as long as I can remember, my father kept spare batteries in the door of our refrigerator, insisting that this would extend their lifespans. Of course, even a cursory review of articles suggests that this is a dubious claim [see: 1, 2, 3], but you can still guess where I keep my batteries.

About the Author
David Bogomolny was born in Jerusalem to parents who made Aliyah from the USSR in the mid-70's. He grew up in America, and returned to Israel as an adult. David has worked as a Russian-speaking Jewish educator for the JAFI, the JDC the Brandeis-Genesis Institute for Russian Jewry, Moishe House, and Olameinu. He now works for Hiddush - Freedom of Religion in Israel. He and his wife and daughter live in Jerusalem.
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