History of Kaddish

The Kaddish is a vigorous declaration of faith. It is one of the most beautiful, deeply-significant and spiritually moving prayers in the Jewish liturgy. It is an ancient Aramaic prose-poem, a litany whose word-music, strong rhythms, stirring sounds, and alternating responses of leader and congregation, cast sheer hypnotic power over the listeners. It has well been noted that the Kaddish is the echo of Job in the prayerbook : "Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him." It is a call to God from the depths of catastrophe, exalting His name and praising Him, despite the realization that He has just wrenched a human being from life. Like the Kol Nidre prayer of the Day of Atonement, the significance of Kaddish is usually taken for granted. It is a response from the sub-vaults of the soul almost a primitive, mesmerized response to the sacred demand to sanctify Almighty God. Its passionate recitation has inspired a "healthy, cheerful manliness" in a time of deep sorrow.

The Kaddish appears in the traditional service no less than 13 times. It is recited at the conclusion of all the major prayers and at the conclusion of the service. It also serves as a transition recital at every minor turning-point in the service. It is recited after a Talmud study period, at the cemetery after burial, at services during the year of mourning, and at every yahrzeit. These sages said that one who recites the Kaddish with all his inner power and conviction will merit the abolition of any severe Divine decree directed against him. In fact, they contended that the whole world itself, as it were, is maintained because of its recital, and that it redeems the deceased, specifically from perdition.

The Kaddish was considered so vital to the religious life of the Jew that it was recited in Aramaic, the spoken tongue of the Jewish masses in ancient times, so that every individual would understand it. In testimony to its continuing power, it is recited in that language to this very day. Another reason suggested for the use of the common Aramaic language is that it functioned as an educational device. It taught that the daily, secular life must be infused and interpenetrated by holiness, the epitome of which is expressed in the Kaddish. Inevitably, the Kaddish became so very popular that the sages actually had to forewarn the people lest they come to rely on it as on some magical power, and lest they increase the number of recitations, possibly leading to the undesirable consequence that a prayer for the dead might become central to the worship service.

For all its majesty and grandeur and importance, the origins of the Kaddish are beclouded in the obscurity of our ancient religious tradition. From the sparse, brief, yet emphatic, references to the Kaddish in the Talmud, it is evident that the recitation of the essence of the Kaddish, Yehai shmai rabbah, "May His great name be blessed," was so well-established a custom that its origin and significance were simply taken for granted. It is probable that the Kaddish was formulated after the destruction of the first Temple and was recited primarily after a lecture or discourse on a Torah theme. It then slipped easily into the worship service into which its themes and responses fitted admirably.

There arose five variations of the basic Kaddish which embodied the yehai shmai rabbah, the central core of every Kaddish.

  1. The abbreviated form, called the "Half Kaddish," is used as a transitional theme following minor portions of the service.

  2. The "Complete Kaddish" is used to terminate major parts of the service and, thus, includes the prayer, titkabel, asking God to accept the heartfelt prayers just uttered.

  3. The "Rabbi's Kaddish" is used as an epilogue to the study of rabbinic literature, and contains the rubric al Yisrael, a prayer for the welfare of students of Torah and of all Israel-in the hope that they may devote themselves uninterruptedly to their sacred tasks.

    Until this point in its history the Kaddish was considered highly important, but its significance was appreciated only by scholars and students who understood the deeper meaning of the prayers. In the tractate Soferim, an early medieval geonic document, we are told that it soon came to be used as a solemn recitation at the end of the shiva period, when mourning the death of a scholar. The Kaddish began to ride the crest of popularity when, in order to avoid embarrassing distinctions between scholar and layman, it came to be used for all who died and by all, especially youngsters, who did not know how to recite the prayers or study the Oral Law. It then began to engage the minds of all Jews, knowledgeable or illiterate, and it was recited at the closing of every Jewish grave.

  4. Thus, a fourth form of Kaddish arose, the "Burial Kaddish," which adds one paragraph referring to the resurrection of the dead and the restoration of the Temple. (For transliteration of the Burial Kaddish, see below.) It thus became associated with the deepest emotions of man.

  5. The service itself soon incorporated a fifth form of Kaddish, the "Mourner's Kaddish," which was recited for the first year after interment, making it the primary prayer for the Jewish bereaved of every age. While there remains nothing explicit in the Mourner's Kaddish that refers to the grave, or the dead, or to life after death, the recitation of the Kaddish was so well patterned to the mood of the mourner that it became a cherished part of the Jewish people, regardless of denominational attachment.

The Function of the Kaddish

The Mourner's Kaddish performs two pragmatic functions: 1) It blends in with the internal spirit of the mourner, imperceptibly healing his psychological wounds, and 2) it teaches the mourner vital and profound lessons about life and death, and the conquest of evil. It is therefore, no accident of spiritual history that the Kaddish has become so important to those stricken with grief, and that, in the course of time, it became the hallmark of bereavement.

The Kaddish as Consolation

As far back as ancient times, the Kaddish was associated, albeit indirectly, with consolation, nechamah. In the earliest source dealing with the Mourner's Kaddish we find that the leader of the service proceeded to the rear of the synagogue where the mourners were congregated, and publicly comforted them with the mourner's blessing and the Kaddish. It should be noted that the Kaddish recitation coincides, and is precisely coterminous, with the length of time during which tradition enjoins the Jew to comfort mourners bereaved of their parents, namely, 12 months. (Only later did the tradition reduce this period to 11 months.)

In a spirit of consolation and surrender this beautiful litany begins with the admission that the world that is known only to Him, the Omniscient Creator of the universe, remains mysterious and paradoxical to man. It ends with an impassioned hope, expressed in the words of the friends of Job as they sought to comfort him, oseh shalom bimeromav, that He who is sufficiently mighty to make peace among the celestial bodies may also bring peace to all mankind.

Finally, we pray to achieve, in the words of the Kaddish, the nechemata, the consolation of all of the Jewish people, not only for their dead, but for the destruction of their ancient Temple and their holy city, Jerusalem. Indeed, many rabbis maintain that the Kaddish finds its origin in the prayer composed by the men of the Great Assembly, specifically for the consolation of the population following the destruction of the first Temple and their subsequent exile. It is, in fact, in response to this historic tragedy that Ezekiel first cries out the words from which tradition has drawn the opening words of the Kaddish: "I have exalted and sanctified My name and I have made it known in the eyes of all the nations, and they shall know that I am the Lord." The Master of all will bring His people salvation.

Besides the concepts found in the Kaddish, the very words offer implicit comfort. Because of the accentuation and repetition of the positive thoughts of "life" and "peace," these values become impressed upon the bewildered, and those with saddened hearts. It transfers, subliminally, the fixed, inner gaze of the mourner from the departed to the living, from crisis to peace, from despair to hope, from isolation to community.

Indeed, the very crucial moment when man's faith is most shaken, when very likely he feels rebellious against God for the death that has befallen him, he rises to recite the praises of the Creator: Yisgadal v'yiskadash..., magnified and sanctified be He who created the universe... All the laws of nature operate in accordance with His own will. Just at the time when man's focus is on the Kingdom of Heaven, the world of the dead, the destination of his beloved, the Kaddish quietly, and almost imperceptibly, transfers his gaze to God's kingdom on earth, among the living--v'yamlich malchusai b'chayechon u'vyomechon, "May He establish His kingdom during your lifetime and in your days." When man's vision is blurred with images of a breathless frame, with shrouds and coffin and grave, with the ultimate decay and decomposition of the human being, the Kaddish fills the mind of the mourner with "life" and "days" and "this world," by the constant, hypnotic repetition, morning and night, of the words chayim and yamim and olam. When the mourner experiences disorientation and disruption, a sense of agitation and conflict and guilt, the Kaddish mesmerizes him with thoughts of eternal rest and quiet, and emphasizes over and over again the peace that God made in the heavens, and the shalom that He brings to people on earth.

One other major technique of consolation in the Kaddish is the insistence, because it is a prayer of holiness, that it be recited only in public quorum, never privately. The recitation, usually made alongside other mourners, creates a fellowship of the bereaved in a time of profound loneliness and helplessness. It teaches, implicitly, that others have experienced similar pains; that death is a natural, if often untimely, end to all life; that the rhythm of man has followed the same beat since the days when Adam refused to eat from the Tree of Life.

The Kaddish is, thus, a comforting prayer, grandiose in its spiritual conception, dramatic in its rhythms and wordmusic, and profound in its psychological insights.

When Mourners Console the Master

A great hasidic sage noted that the death of every one of God's creatures causes a gap in the armies of the exalted King. The Kaddish, he said, is recited in the hope that that gap will be filled. It was left to Israel's poet laureate, S. Y. Agnon, to interpret this with a beautiful analogy.

The King of Kings, Almighty God, is not like a human king. When a king of flesh and blood orders his armies into battle, he sees only the large effects, the massive logistics and the great goal. He does not know the individual men. They are not distinguishable one from the other. They are human machines that carry rifles, and perform a function. If he loses half a regiment, he sincerely regrets the mass death. But he mourns no individual human being.

Not so is the King of Kings. He is Master of the world, yet he cares for each individual life. Men are not machines or ciphers. They are human beings. When God's soldiers die He mourns, as it were, each man. When a man dies, His own Name is diminished, His own sanctity lessened. His Kingdom experiences a terrible vacancy. God suffers, as it were, just as the human mourner suffers.

When we recite the Kaddish, we offer God consolation for His loss. We say yisgadal: Thy name has been diminished; may it be magnified. Yiskadash: Thy sanctity has been lessened; may it be increased. Yamlich malchusoi: Thy kingdom has suffered a sudden loss, may it reign eternally.

This astonishing interpretation of the Kaddish—which sees it as the mourner's attempt to offer consolation to the Master of all men—is itself a consolation to the bereaved. The knowledge that God cares for every man, and that He suffers in the loss of every one of His creatures made in His own image, is a source of warmth and comfort.

The Kaddish as Education

Beneath the surface, the Kaddish declaration expresses a thought basic to an understanding of the Jewish attitude towards life: the acceptance of seemingly undeserved pain and unreasonable tragedy in life as being the just—even if paradoxical—act of an all-wise God. The Kaddish prayer is, thus, found in ancient sources bracketed with the tzidduk ha'din, the prayer justifying God's edict. This prayer is recited at the moment of burial, and proclaims, "The Lord hath given and the Lord hath taken. May the name of the Lord be blessed."

The Kaddish echoes this theme: "May His great name be blessed for ever and ever." It is the spirit of recognition that Almighty God knows our innermost secrets; that He reliably and justly rewards and punishes us; that He knows what is best for mankind, and that all His doing is for the eventual benefit of the whole human race. It is only by virtue of this acceptance of death as the just and inexorable terminus of life that life can be lived to its fullest. It is only through the difficult, but necessary, acknowledgement that only the Creator of the universe understands the design of His creation, that we avoid becoming disabled by the dogged questioning of imponderables that can wear out our very existence. Thus do we recite in the words of the Kaddish, "Magnified and sanctified be His great name, in the world which He created according to His will." It is a world whose ways bypass our understanding and conform only with His will. How can our limited intellects fathom His exalted greatness or plumb the endless depths of the Divine mind? If tragedy strikes, if our families are beset by evil circumstances, we have faith that the just God has acted justly.

The Significance of Kaddish - A Reflection of Parental Esteem

The true function of the Kaddish goes even deeper. Beyond the psychological healing which it encourages, beyond educating the mourner to adjust to tragedy, is there not some mysterious influence, some wondrous power that affects so marvelously the soul of the mourner? How is the Kaddish related to mourning for parents?

Put simply: the Kaddish is a spiritual handclasp between the generations, one that connects two lifetimes. What better consolation is there for the mourner than the knowledge that the ideas and hopes and concerns and commitments of the deceased continue on in the life of his own family? The son's recitation of Kaddish represents a continuation of that life; it snatches the deepest worth of the individual from the cavernous jaws of death.

How does that happen? Jewish tradition recognizes the important influence of the father upon the son during the lifetime of the parent. The "merit of the Fathers" is a bold and important theme in rabbinic literature. It should be remembered that collectively, the Jew asks God for mercy in recognition of the righteous deeds of the patriarchs of old whose descendants we are. Tradition also recognizes that the sins of the parents—impure motives, ill-begotten wealth, purposeless living, and so on—may make themselves felt in the lives of the children for many generations. The child's psyche indelibly bears the imprint of the parent, whether we think it just or not. For all that, however, Jewish thought never considered the parent able to redeem an erring son by virtue of his own good deeds before God. Abraham could not save his wayward son, Ishmael. Isaac could not save his avaricious son, Esau.

Curiously, though, in the complicated calculus of the spirit, the reverse is possible! The deeds of the child can redeem the life of the parent, even after the parent's death!

It is a neat reversal, a "merit of the children." The ethical, religious and social virtues of children place haloes on their parents. The Talmud declares, bera mezakeh aba, the son endows the father. Elsewhere, Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai says, mah zar'o bachayim, af hu bachayim, so long as his children live, so long does the parent live. They who leave worthy children do not die in spirit. Their mortal remains are interred in the earth, but their teachings remain among men.

While it is true that no individual can intervene with God in behalf of the life of another—neither parent for child, nor child for parent—a person may surely modify the significance of another person's life and grant it meaning and value. As the tree is judged by its fruit, and the artisan by his product, so a parent achieves personal significance by the moral success of his child. Of David, who had left a son worthy of himself, the Talmud refers to his death as he "slept," indicating the continuity of life. Of Joab, who had no son who could inherit his greatness, it says "he died," implying finality. The reflection of the child upon the parent is true in life, and it is true after death as well.

It is precisely in this regard that the Kaddish reaches its deepest value. The Kaddish serves as an epilogue to human life as, historically, it served as an epilogue to Torah study. Was that life marked primarily by goodness and dignity and nobility, or by shame and disgrace, by folly and weakness? In either case the Kaddish is effective. The sages state that the son's recitation of Kaddish confirms a parent's life of goodness on one hand, and effects repentance for a parent's life of sin, on the other.

Indeed, the rabbis declare that one is obligated to honor parents in death as well as in life. The Kaddish is the verbal demonstration of the deep and abiding honor that Jews were bidden to give parents since the day the fifth commandment was pronounced on Sinai. The very duration of the Kaddish recitation for parents is ample testimony to that respect. Because the wicked soul is said to undergo judgment for a full year, the child, in reverence for his parent, ends the Kaddish at eleven months, bearing witness, in one month's eloquent silence, to the goodness of those who bore him.

It is not the recitation of Kaddish alone that is emblematic of the parent's teaching, but also the fact that the mourner elicits a response of holiness from others, causing others to proclaim the greatness of God with him-which the sages term, Kiddush Ha'Shem, sanctification of the Name. The mourner announces, "Magnified and sanctified be His great name," and his neighbors respond, "Let His great name be blessed for all eternity." The mourner continues, "Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted; extolled, honored, magnified and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He," and the congregation replies, "Blessed be He." The Kaddish is, thus, a public sanctification of God's name. It is a self-contained, miniature service that achieves the heights of holiness, and it is this great spiritual triumph that reflects on the life of mother and father, and confirms the correctness of their teachings.

If, on the other hand, parents have strayed or sinned, and have desecrated the name of God (chilul ha'shem), the Kaddish which is the sanctification of the name, (kiddush ha'shem), is considered true repentance for the deceased, and it redeems them from retribution. The Kaddish is not an explicit prayer for this redemption of parents, but its recital is an indication that good has come forth from them, and it is thus redemptive.

The fundamental and most frequently recorded incident regarding Kaddish is the mystical vision of the great sage, Rabbi Akiba. This incident is found in numerous sources the Talmud, Midrash, Zohar, and other literary works, which attests to its wide acceptance and its popularity. Rabbi Akiba had a vision of a well-known sinner who had died and was condemned to intolerable punishment. The sinner informed the rabbi in the vision that only if his surviving son would recite Borchu and Kaddish would he be redeemed. The rabbi proceeded to teach the youngster these prayers. When the youngster recited the Kaddish, he saved his father from perdition. The child endows the parent!

Moreover, this concept of the "merit of the children" is associated historically with the central core and response of the Kaddish. Tradition records a dialogue between the aged patriarch, Jacob, and his 12 sons. Jacob had been anxious about the future. He was not sure whether some of his children might not follow in the footstepsof their uncle, Esau, or their great-uncle, Ishmael. Will one of his sons defect from the faith of his fathers? When in great constrenation he confronted his sons, they declared together, "Hear O Israel (Jacob), the Lord our God, the Lord is one." With great relieft at being assured of the merit of his children, Jacob responded in full gratitude, "Blessed be His name whose glorious kingdom is forever and ever." This response has been enshrined as the verse immediately following the Shema, Baruch shem k'vod malchuto le'olam va'ed. In its Aramaic form it is almost identical with the central response of the Kaddish, yehai shmai rabah mevarach, le'olam u'lalmey olmaya, "May His great name be blessed for ever and ever." The Kaddish is a firm handsclasp between the generations!

When death stalks our homes it brings an end to physical life. The current is cut off. That is all. But the spirit is mightier than the grave. The thoughts and emotions, the ideals and attitudes of the heirs attest to the undying influence of the dead. The recitation of the Kaddish is a public demonstration that a parent's life was not lived without furthering, in some sense, the cause of the good. It is no exaggeration to say that the spiritual handsclasp of the Kaddish has helped assure the continued survival of the Jewish people, the Jewish religion, the synagogue and its major institutions.