For the next couple of weeks, I will be discussing Kaddish, that awesome, yet a bit intimidating declaration famously recited by mourners called Kaddish. The origins of this doxology are shrouded in mystery. Generally, we believe its roots are in the Mishnaic Period (100 BCE-225 CE), but our first full version of it doesn’t appear until about the year 870. More confusingly, the first references to it are not about mourners. So, let’s attempt to reconstruct the story of this most distinguished element of our prayer service.
I don’t think it’s hyperbole to state that without the recitation of Kaddish many, if not the majority, of weekday minyanim wouldn’t exist. Probably many of my dear readers have been to a minyan where the vast majority of those present were saying Kaddish. In most Modern Orthodox minyanim, the bulk of participants began coming to shul regularly when they felt the obligation to recite Kaddish, and stayed, either out of comradery or a sense of responsibility to make sure mourners would have a minyan.
Apparently, Kaddish began in Bavel (what the world called Iraq), and was recited after public lectures. This Rabbi’s Kaddish transformed what might have been an inspiring intellectual activity into a spiritual experience. We love the mental rigor of a Torah lecture, but its ultimate purpose is transcendent.
Most historians believe that the transformation to a declaration of faith for mourners occurred in Nothern Europe during the terrors of the Crusades. These supposedly religious, military excursions performed countless atrocities throughout their travels on the way to ‘free’ the Holy Land, and Jewish communities were often the victims. In the wake of these disasters a number of prayers, liturgical poems and religious rites were initiated. The most famous of which was the transformation of this declaration of piety into a statement of belief and faith during these tragic times.
What was the goal of these bereaved people in making this declaration? There are a number of meaningful approaches to that question. Let’s begin with the most famous: This recitation in some way benefits the deceased.
This belief is, of course, widespread. Many Jews have a deep desire for Kaddish to be recited for them after they have departed this worldly realm. My mother OB”M, who wasn’t very observant, occasionally referred to me as her ‘KADDISHEL’. Most Jews want Kaddish recited for them.
The famous source for this position is a story about Rabbi Akiva, amongst the most famous Rabbis of the Mishna. He died about 135 CE, during the Hadrianic persecutions. The story is from Midrash Eliyahu Zuta, which didn’t take its final form until the 900’s.
In the story, R. Akiva encounters a man suffering the tortures of Gehinnim. He finds out that the man had an illicit relationship on Yom Kippur. Rabbi Akiva asks him what can be done to relieve his suffering, and the man says that the son who was born of that union must say Kaddish for him. R. Akiva seeks out this young man, and, after many tribulations, teaches him to recite Kaddish. The father is then released from his torture to enter GAN EDEN, heaven.
This wonderful tale, perhaps, raises more questions than it answers. Who can benefit the deceased? It is generally acknowledged that a direct descendant can, indeed, benefit the status of the deceased beyond the grave. There are authorities who are more liberal in their approach and claim that anyone can provide positive vibes for the departed. I don’t know, but, assuming we accept the basic premise, that the God we daven to will be generous in the benefits accrued to the souls of those who have passed away, I would like to think that any Jew can help any other Jew in this endeavor.
However, Reb Shlomo Ganzfried, author of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch makes a marvelous observation:
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. Thus, it is written in the holy Zohar: ‘A child honors his parent.’… alive. but after their death you might think he is exempt; this is not so. Even after their death it is his duty to honor them even more, for it is written, ‘Honor your parent’… A person should, therefore, instruct his children to observe one certain mitzvah with particular care. If they fulfill this mitzvah it counts for more than saying the Kaddish (26:22).
The benefits of recited Kaddish for the departed are unclear, but the payoff for the survivor, to my thinking, is, indeed, very obvious and very great. In my experience as both personally as a child and professionally as a Rabbi, reciting Kaddish provides a plethora of good to the mourner. It is the first answer to the ubiquitous question, ‘Rabbi, I’m so distraught, what can I do?’ Well, for one thing: recite Kaddish for your loved one.
One last point this week, which presents a fascinating irony. Why do we recite the Kaddish in Aramaic, that archaic form of Jewish speech? Tosafot asks that question (Berachot 3a), and provides two answers. The famous mystical answer is: Because the angels don’t understand Aramaic, and therefore, won’t get jealous over these beautiful devotions to God. Okay. Then he explains: Since they used to recite Kadish after Torah learning, and there were often unlettered individuals present, who did not all understand Hebrew. So, they instituted it in Aramaic, so that everybody should understand it, as it was their spoken tongue.
Of course, the irony is that nowadays the use and understanding of Hebrew is much more widespread than that of Aramaic. But, ya know, there is something mystical about this recitation in this exotic tongue, and, today, the translation is right there on the page, anyway. When honoring our loved ones, it’s cool to honor our past simultaneously.