Kaddish – Is it More than a Prayer for the Dead?
By Blima Moskoff
Judaism is a religion packed with customs and rituals. From posting a mezuzah on the doorframe, to performing brit mila (circumcision) on a newborn boy, to spinning a dreidel on Chanukah, Jewish traditions contain far more significance than most people realize. Understanding their deeper meaning lends profound beauty to our implementing them.
One highly misunderstood practice is the recital of Kaddish. Most people automatically connect Kaddish to death and consider it to be a prayer for the dead. Yet, Kaddish is much broader than that. Let’s try to gain a little more insight into what the Kaddish prayer is, its purpose, and its importance.
A brief examination of the words of Kaddish shows no connection to death. In addition, Kaddish is recited much more often by non-mourners than by mourners. This short prayer is said many times throughout the day in congregations all over the world, even when no mourners are present. (In its short version, called Half-Kaddish, it is recited several times throughout each prayer, in between segments. The full version, called Full-Kaddish is said at the end of each service.) Of course, most well-known is the Mourner’s Kaddish, which is recited by a mourner present at the service. A mourner is someone who has lost a parent within the previous eleven months or who is observing the Yahrzeit (the anniversary of death) of a parent. But this Kaddish is said relatively infrequently compared to the Half- and Full-Kaddishes.
Another category of Kaddish is one that is said just after the deceased is buried or when a portion of Torah study has been completed.
All of this information seems to confuse us more than ever. How are all of these areas connected – Torah study, prayer and death? What is the common denominator?
To gain a better understanding of the significance of Kaddish, we first have to know what this prayer is all about. As noted previously, the Kaddish prayer makes no mention of death, nor of Torah study. The Kaddish begins with these words: May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified in the world that He created as He willed. That’s what it’s all about – sanctifying God’s name. In fact the word “Kaddish” means sanctification, making something holy.
To understand all of this better, let’s take a look at the Jewish view of holiness – kedusha. The non-Jewish view of holiness involves separation from physicality – asceticism and abstinence. In contrast, Judaism sees holiness as the elevation of the physical. In other words, when the world is used in a way that exposes the godliness in it, it is considered holy. This is why Shabbat, for example, is a time for dressing in our best and indulging in delicious food. Kiddush, the opening prayer of the Shabbat meal which affirms the holiness of Shabbat, is not performed by merely meditating on the significance of the day of rest; it is said over wine, which is then drunk by those present. We involve ourselves in this world in order to connect with God, because that is the purpose of our existence – to reveal God in the world.
This is what Kaddish is all about. It is a reminder, recited at significant times, that God is present, that He created the world and that He runs it. It is an entreaty that He be blessed and praised by the world forever. When we recite Kaddish and declare the purpose of our lives and our loyalty to God, we are bringing His light into this dark world. Not only is it a reminder, but by mentioning the sanctification of God, we are actually bringing holiness into the world and sparking powerful spiritual results.
Particularly, the congregation’s response within the Kaddish (Amen, yehei shmei rabah mevorach le’olam u’le’olmei almaya – May His great Name be blessed forever and ever) is considered very potent. The kabbalistic writings of the Zohar teaches that when this statement is made with sincere concentration, it can destroy evil forces. In fact, the reason that Kaddish is said in Aramaic, in contrast to Hebrew, the language of most prayers, is that evil forces cannot understand the holy language of Hebrew. These words have the power to obliterate sin and wickedness from the world, because mentioning God’s greatness and praying for this greatness to be known in the world actually chases away evil.
The potency of the Kaddish prayer is the reason it is recited so many times a day, and in such varying circumstances. During regular prayer services, the Half-Kaddish is repeated several times to elevate the whole congregation. The Full-Kaddish is said at the end of each full service with an extra petition that the prayers just recited be accepted. After completing a portion of Torah study, which also is an act of holiness, is an appropriate time to ask for more kedusha, sanctity, to fill the world.
Now that we have a base, we can examine the Mourner’s Kaddish and the Kaddish said after burying the deceased, our most common associations with this prayer. The purpose here is two-fold. First of all, it is a comfort to the mourner. By mentioning such concepts as resurrection of the dead and redemption, the grieving survivor is reassured that he will eventually be reunited with the deceased loved one.
The other purpose of reciting Kaddish for the deceased is the effect it has on the departed. Generally, we think of this world as the time of action, our opportunity to grow as people and to develop a relationship with God. Death is the end of this opportunity. In other words, whatever groceries you’ve brought to the check-out counter is what you’re left with. However, there is another way of gaining eternal reward, even after death, and that is through the righteous actions of one’s offspring.
The good deeds and kindness of one’s children reflect well on the parents. Thus, when a child acts virtuously, his parents are credited with some of the reward. After all, they are the ones who raised this child towards goodness. Even if some children feel that they were “self-made” and that their parents deserve nothing for their worthy actions, their parents did bring them into the world. If nothing else, they ought to be credited for that.
When a child says Kaddish for his deceased parent, he is sanctifying God’s name in public, broadcasting how “blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled, mighty, upraised and lauded” God is. Since our purpose in this world is to reveal God’s magnificence, sanctifying God’s name (known in Hebrew as Kiddush Hashem) is one of the greatest mitzvot. So the credit for the child’s mitzvah is given to the parent, and his position in the next world is raised.
Kaddish is not a prayer for the dead, but it has the power to do something awesome: to elevate the soul that is no longer able to elevate itself. Sometimes, there are no offspring to say Kaddish, in which case it is possible to ask, or even hire, someone else to perform this great kindness to the deceased.
We’ll conclude with a story to point to how great the recital of Kaddish is considered and to what lengths people have gone to say it. Many years ago in a village in Romania, lived a boy name Shlomo Isaacson, who was orphaned from his father at age nine. As the only son, it was the young boy’s duty to say Kaddish at every prayer service three times a day. One day, Shlomo asked his mother if he could go to an amusement park that was temporarily in town. She acquiesced on condition that he be sure to leave in time for the Evening Prayer Service at 9:30. Gleefully, he agreed and ran off with his friends. At 9:50, just in the middle of his fun, Shlomo was shocked to see his mother approaching him with a stern expression on her face. He had forgotten.
Shlomo’s mother brought him with her to the synagogue, but they found the building empty, services having ended much before. But this did not deter her. She began knocking on doors, begging the men to gather in the synagogue to say some psalms, so that Shlomo could say Kaddish for her late husband. To understand what sacrifice this took on her part and on the part of the townsmen, we have to know that this was in communist Romania, where they did allow public prayer, but only at very specific hours. Anyone caught outside of those hours was certain to be severely punished, without trial, and without any excuses. Furthermore, in that town, the people went to bed early, because they had to rise early in the morning. Nonetheless, despite the great danger and the late hour, ten men gathered in the synagogue, and Shlomo was able to say Kaddish.
Who can know the ripples of this great act of devotion? Shlomo certainly absorbed the importance of his sacred duty, his mother and the townspeople were surely elevated, and so was the soul of Shlomo’s father.
Kaddish, appropriately translated as a prayer of sanctification, has been held dear by Jews throughout the ages. Perhaps ignorant of its deeper significance, the collective Jewish soul has retained a subconscious awareness of how powerful and valuable saying Kaddish is.