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Who needs our prayers for the dead?

The notion that the souls of the departed benefit from prayers said on their behalf by people on this earth strains credulity

This is the time of year for appeals. We mark the end of summer by the flood of letters and now emails requesting our support for a variety of worthy causes both here in the UK, in Israel, and around the world. Many of them set out similar goals and present a similar image. One however stood out for me. This was an offer from a communal organization to say Yizkor, on my behalf, for my deceased relatives. 

As is well known on Yom Kippur and again on Shemini Atzeret it is the custom to say the Yizkor prayer in memory of deceased relatives. Similarly, there is a practice, reinforced by Rabbinic rules, for children to say the memorial prayer for eleven months after the death of their parents. Some people find it difficult to make the time to fulfill either of these practices. So enterprising people have emerged offering to say the Yizkor prayer or the everyday Kaddish memorial prayer on behalf of those too busy or unable to do so themselves. This organization offered to do this on my behalf. Of course, the appeal protested vehemently, payment for such a service was not required but if one wished, then it was possible to make payment; this would be much appreciated and bank details were provided. Naturally, I was struck by the hypocrisy of the suggestion – money is the alpha and omega of this appeal. No one other than me and my family is the slightest bit interested in the welfare of the souls of my departed relatives. Why should they be?

There is a deeper question, however. The premise is that the souls of the departed benefit from prayers said on their behalf by people on this earth. It is one thing to believe this about a child praying out of duty on behalf of his parents but when it is a stranger, with no knowledge of the deceased, uttering the prayer, simply because he has been paid a fee to do so, then credulity is really being strained. 

But even for a parent is this really possible? When my mother died, a kindly but marshmallow-brained neighbor in shul offered that if ever I was too busy to say the Kaddish memorial prayer for her he would readily do this on my behalf. My mother was a strong woman, devout and meticulous in her observance and, in my very subjective opinion, a prime example of an Eshet Chayil, a woman of valor. She also had a mischievous sense of humor and the idea that her soul would benefit from a prayer said on her behalf by a complete stranger – a not particularly pious one at that – would have struck her as absurd. 

There are some in the community who believe that emanations from the prayers benefit the soul of the departed through some mystical process. They are entitled to their beliefs but the vast majority of the community does not even understand such ideas let alone share them. We should remember also that we are not the first to have this idea. Centuries ago the Catholic church hit on the wheeze of selling indulgences to people who paid for masses to be said for their souls. It helped them finance the splendid Renaissance creations in Rome for which we are all grateful. It was also responsible in part for the Reformation – a revolt against the perceived corruption associated with these practices.

But even if it is a child praying for a parent can he seriously believe that the parent’s situation is improved as a result? During the Days of Awe we have contemplated the Immanence and Transcendence of God, a being referred to as the Ein Sof – without end – about whom, as Maimonides said, predicates cannot be applied. Can we at the same time believe that he/she is like a kindly old relative who will change his/her mind about the ultimate fate of a person, not because of their own merits but merely because someone else has asked him/her to do so?

Shouldn’t a child be thinking, rather, that, as with prayers generally, their importance is not in their ability to change the cosmos but rather in their effect on those who offer them?

About the Author
I studied at Yeshivat Kerem Beyavneh in Israel and then at Cambridge University. After practising as a commercial lawyer I became active in communal affairs. I was Co-Chair of British Friends of Peace Now and the New Israel Fund. I was President of the Board of Deputies and then took a Masters at UCL in Jewish History and am now doing graduate research there.