Nowadays it is common practice that all mourners recite Kaddish together. But this is actually a relatively new phenomenon.

In the past, only one mourner was honored with the task of saying Kaddish. This makes sense, considering that prayers are generally recited either by the entire congregation or by a single individual representing and leading the congregation. Kaddish is no different. The chazzan recites the Kaddish a number of times throughout the prayers, with the congregation answering “amen.” “Mourner’s Kaddish,” which is essentially the mourner acting as the chazzan for that Kaddish, shouldn’t be—and indeed wasn't—any different.

Now, what happens when there are multiple mourners, each vying for the coveted honor to say Kaddish in merit of their loved ones? There is much discussion in halachic literature regarding which mourner gets priority to recite the Kaddish, e.g., a mourner during the first seven days (even if the actual shiva was terminated due to a holiday) takes precedence over a mourner in sheloshim (the first thirty days), etc.

Nowadays, while some retain this original custom, in most communities all mourners recite the Kaddish together.1 How and when did this happen?

Avoiding Strife

One of the first to mention the custom to have all mourners recite the Kaddish is Rabbi Yaakov Emden (1697–1776), who writes in his siddur that “with regard to various laws about who takes precedence for Mourner’s Kaddish among the Ashkenazim, I will not discuss it, as it is only a custom (and how good and right is the Sephardic custom that if there are many mourners, all merit and recite the Kaddish together, avoiding strife and disagreement) . . .”2 In other words, Rabbi Yaakov Emden felt that it would be wise for Ashkenazim to follow the Sephardic custom of reciting the Kaddish together and thereby avoiding strife.

(To clarify, there is a key difference between Kaddish recited during the prayers and the Mourner’s Kaddish. Kaddish recited during the prayers at specific breakpoints such as before Barechu is considered essential for congregational prayers, while the other Kaddeishim, such as the Mourner’s Kaddish, is considered custom, which started later on.3)

The Great Cholera Pandemic

The shift in this Ashkenazi custom can also be traced to the devastating cholera pandemic in the 1830s, in which hundreds of thousands of people died. Rabbi Akiva Eiger (1761–1838), one of the leading sages and rabbi in Posen at that time, writes:

In the month of Av 5591 [1831] when, due to our many sins, the cholera started here in our city, there were many mourners that needed to recite Kaddish. I enacted that the mourners should all recite the Kaddish together. That is how it was for one complete year. When the year was over, on the first of the month of Av in the year 5592 [1832] and, with the help of G‑d the epidemic subsided, I established that they should no longer recite all of the Kaddeishim together, except for once each day, meaning that they recite together the Kaddish at the conclusion of the Shacharit prayers . . .”4

The Ashkenazic Cacophony

Thus, what was once more of a Sephardic custom started becoming more prevalent in Ashkenazi communities as well.

At the same time, there were many who objected to this custom, for a very practical reason: Unlike Ashkenazim, Sephardic communities are used to praying together aloud in unison. So when it comes to Kaddish, everyone is careful to synchronize the prayer, as they would do with all prayers. When Ashkenazim attempt to recite the prayer together, they aren’t careful about synchronizing, causing a cacophony of voices, and there is halachic rule that “two voices or sounds aren’t heard [properly] at the same time.”5 6

The Main Thing Is Answering Amen

Rabbi Moses Sofer, known as the Chatam Sofer (1762–1839), is of the opinion that the main benefit of Kaddish is not the actual recital of the words; rather, it is the great merit of causing the congregation to respond with “amen” or “yehei shmei rabbah.” This being the case, it would seem that only the first mourner to cause the congregation to respond, by either being the loudest or by reaching the responsive part first, would actually receive this merit. It follows that the other mourners would not be accomplishing anything by reciting the Kaddish, as they wouldn’t be the cause for the responsive “amen.” This would result in Kaddish becoming a competition of who could recite it the loudest or fastest, and should therefore not be recited by multiple people at once.7

One Amen for Many Kadeishim

Despite these objections, the widespread custom in most communities has become that all mourners recite the Kaddish simultaneously.

Many explain that according to halachah, even if one recited “amen” after the first mourner reached the responsive part of Kaddish, as long as the others reach that point within a few seconds,8 that one amen is counted for all of their Kaddeishim.9 Furthermore, although ideally one should hear the actual Kaddish, as long as one is aware of what he is responding to, he can respond with “amen” even if he didn’t hear the end.10

At the same time they caution that when many are reciting the Kaddish together, extra care should indeed be taken that all recite it out loud11 together in unison.12

May we merit the day when G‑d will wipe away our tears, and we will once again be united with our loved ones with the coming of Moshiach. May it be speedily in our days!