Ask another Jew to tell you the most memorable Jewish thing about the month we are in and the chances are s/he will either say “shofar” or “apple and honey”.
Yet the very first halacha of Tishri showcased by the Kitsur Shulchan Aruch, the popular bite-sized Code of Jewish Law compiled in 1864 by Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried, deals with neither of these highlights. Instead, it proclaims in its memorably terse style: In every Kaddish recited from Rosh haShana to Yom Kippur we double the word le’eyla – and since it is necessary to have exactly 28 words [and now we have an extra le’eyla] … we contract min kol to mikol.
What are these 28 words in the Kaddish? Halachic and kabbalistic sources clarify that they are the words from yehei shemei raba until da’amiran be’alema. Sephardim declaim all these words aloud as a Kaddish response. Ashkenazim merely recite the line yehei shmei raba mevarach le’olam ule’alemai alemaya – which fascinatingly contains 28 letters.
What is the significance of this number? Our Sages link it to the word כח (ko’ach = strength) which has the numerical value of 28. Indeed, the Talmud promises (Shabbat 119b) that “whoever says amen yehei shmei… with all his [inner] strength (בכל כחו) merits that every negative Heavenly decree against him (or her) will be torn asunder!”
However, there is a lesser-known linkage of the 28 principal words of the Kaddish which helps to cement its status as a “prayer for all seasons”. Twenty-eight is the number of life-experiences memorably catalogued by King Solomon at the start of the third chapter of Kohelet (Ecclesiates) which we shall read this year on Shemini Atseret:-
To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to reap that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to seek and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silent, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace
Anyone who grew up as I did in the pop culture of the Sixties will vividly recall the chart-topping hit-song (music by Pete Seeger) of a group called The Byrds the lyrics of which were ‘borrowed’ verbatim (shouldn’t every living Jew be entitled to royalties?) from the above-cited Scriptural passage – along with the haunting strain “Turn, Turn Turn!” It makes for an inspired refrain because Shlomo haMelech captures in this immortal passage every turn of human life – and death – experience. As the wisest of all men, he would also have been fully cognizant of the 28-year solar cycle in connection with which he not only purposely offers twenty-eight manifestations of human experience “under the sun” (a phrase he reiterates several times) but also declares that there is “nothing new (further) under the sun” (1:9).
A time to be born and a time to die… Those opening eight verses of the third chapter of Kohelet just about sum up the all-encompassing, timeless and time-saturated relevancy of the Kaddish I have already remarked in a previous chapter (11) how one unique form of Kaddish is said on just two occasions which are as diverse as could be imagined, namely at the burial of a parent and on the achievement of completing a significant study of Torah which is “our life and the length of our days” (Maariv liturgy).
Rabbi Ganzfried knew what he was doing when he commenced his chapter on Rosh HaShana with a halacha stressing the importance of the 28 principal words of the Kaddish. Particularly at this time of the year when our destiny and that of humankind hangs in the balance, reflection upon what these 28 words symbolise, namely the choate spectrum of human existence, is timely – as is resolve that we will do our bit to make the coming year “a time to plant… to build up… to mend”.
Then we can anticipate that G‑D will do His bit and make the coming year “a time of (ultimate Messianic) peace!”