Why Do We Say Kaddish?
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Given the subject matter of Kaddish, one possible answer is that we say Kaddish for God. Israel’s late poet laureate S.Y. Agnon retold the explanation of the rabbinic sages, that unlike a king of flesh and blood, who, when ordering armies into battle, does not distinguish one soldier from the other, in the eyes of the King of Kings, – God – each and every individual matters. For God, every human being is created in the divine image and is thus of infinite worth. The loss of any human being, by extension, is a contraction of God’s glory and a diminution of the divine name. What are we doing when we say Kaddish? Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’meih raba. We are offering consolation to the Creator of all. (Lamm, The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, p. 156) One explanation why Jews place stones at graves, not flowers, is that unlike flowers, stones never fade. Another explanation is that in the ancient world, when a shepherd went out with his flock, he carried a satchel with a number of stones corresponding to the number of sheep in his charge. Were a sheep to be lost, a stone would be removed from the satchel and placed on the ground. The Lord is our shepherd, and we are God’s flock. We not alone in our grief: God grieves as we do; God is with us in our sorrow. God consoles us as we mourn the irreplaceable loss of a person of infinite worth, and we console God with Kaddish.
For whom is kaddish recited? A second answer is community. More than any other prayer, the recitation of Kaddish is associated with the presence of a minyan, a quorum of ten. There is no prohibition against praying in private, but there is something about Kaddish – its associations, its call and response structure, that seems especially designed for community. I have often thought that the very incomprehensibility of kaddish is the point: When a loved one dies, there are no words to be said or to be heard, so we say something in Aramaic, an incantation, something to say when we have nothing to say. But it is more than that. Kaddish requires that those strange words be said in the presence of other people. As we peer over the edge, sometimes quite literally into the abyss, it is Kaddish and the requirement to be in the company of others that pulls us back. We are commanded to find community, and the community is instructed to find us.
You may be familiar with the sculpture that used to stand in Tel Aviv’s Beit Hatefutsot called “The Minyan,” a scene of nine people gathering for prayer. The idea behind it came from Abba Kovner, the famed Lithuanian partisan turned Israeli poet. Though Kovner survived the Vilna Ghetto uprising, many of his family and comrades perished in the Shoah. When Kovner arrived in Israel, he was alienated from God, secular to the bone, wanting nothing to do with organized religion. One day while he was walking through the Old City of Jerusalem, a man pulled on his sleeve and invited him to join a minyan at the Western Wall – to be the tenth. For the first time, Kovner explained, he felt he counted, that he belonged, that he was needed in the Jewish community. The minyan sculpture, Kovner explained, has only nine participants because it is meant to remind you that you are needed to complete the minyan, that the community cannot go on without your help. (Epstein, A Treasury of Jewish Anecdotes, p. 128) For whom do we say Kaddish? For community. It teaches us that even in the face of death, we are needed, and as a community we need to seek out those in need.
For whom is Kaddish recited? It is, of course, recited on behalf of the dead, something we say to elevate the souls of our loved ones as they enter into God’s eternal embrace. Anyone who has ever observed a year of mourning has asked at some point why Kaddish is recited for eleven months, not twelve. The answer goes back to a mystical incident recorded about the great sage Rabbi Akiva with regard to a well-known sinner whose punishment after death could only be abated by way of his son’s recitation of Kaddish. From here the tradition developed that the recitation of Kaddish by the living confers merit upon the deceased as their souls stand in judgment. However, because we would never think our own loved ones were in the category of the fully wicked, who need of a full year of prayers on their behalf, we contract our year of Kaddish by a month. While such theological gymnastics may strike us as odd if not downright superstitious, we do ourselves and our loved ones a disservice if we are too quick to dismiss the role of Kaddish for our dearly departed. The late, great Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz offered a slightly less mystical explanation for the importance of Kaddish in elevating a person’s soul:
“The aggregate of a person’s actions and accomplishments in this world define his or her life. However, the tally of a person’s achievements does not necessarily conclude at the moment of death. A complete evaluation of a person’s accomplishments must also include all that is accomplished as a result of the person’s inspiration and actions. Therefore, when those who remain alive do good deeds, they contribute to the deceased’s balance of accomplishments. For although the deceased is no longer active in this world, his or her actions continue to inspire positive deeds and actions. That is why the recitation of Kaddish elevates the soul: Because G-d is being exalted in this world as a result of and in the name of the deceased.” (A Guide to Jewish Prayer, p. 295)
It is a beautiful thought worth considering always, but especially at this time of Yizkor. Like a manuscript discovered posthumously, the final chapter of a person’s life only comes to light after their death, and it is each one of us – the living – who has the power to publish that chapter by way of our own deeds. We say Kaddish for the same reason we give tzedakah, act kindly, or do any other deed in memory of a loved one. It elongates the shadow of our loved one’s souls well beyond the length of their years.
For whom is Kaddish recited? Finally, Kaddish is a prayer said by the living for the living. Many interpret the Kaddish to be the defiant cry of the sufferer, as Job cried out to God: “Though he slay me, yet I will trust in him.” (13:15) This explanation, akin to Rabbi Akiva dying as a martyr with the Sh’ma on his lips, meshes well with the scholarly consensus that the mourner’s Kaddish originated around the time of Crusades, when entire communities were wiped out. Kaddish is the gasp for air, the heavy heave of the living – at graveside, on a yahrzeit, or right here today at the thought of life without a mother, father, son, daughter, sibling, or spouse.
Others do not read defiance into the Kaddish, but hope, as if to say, “Yes, I grieve dearly, but I nevertheless seek God’s presence in my life and in this world.” Y’hei sh’meih raba m’varakh l’alam u’l’almei almaya. May God’s name be blessed and fill this world. In our time of loss, God may feel absent, but we continue to seek to build a world filled by the divine presence. Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya·aseh shalom. May God who makes shalom up there – in the theosphere as it were – make shalom, make us whole, down here in the biosphere. As such, to paraphrase Leo Jung, Kaddish is not so much a prayer for the dead as it is a pledge for the living. Kaddish as the balm for our suffering: Our loss has laid us low, and yet, as partners in God’s creation, we seek to render God’s will evident in this world so filled with brokenness.
The most beautiful explanation of Kaddish I have ever encountered is found in the letters of Henrietta Szold, the founder of Hadassah, who, in 1916, suffered the loss of her beloved mother. With no male heirs to recite Kaddish for her mother, Szold received an offer from her close friend Haym Peretz to recite Kaddish on her behalf. In a striking letter worth reading in full, Szold refused, writing in part:
“It is impossible for me to find words in which to tell you how deeply I was touched by your offer to act as ‘Kaddish’ for my dear mother. . . . It is beautiful, what you have offered to do — I shall never forget it. . . . And yet I cannot ask you to say Kaddish after my mother. The Kaddish means to me that the survivor publicly and markedly manifests his wish and intention to assume the relation to the Jewish community which his parent had, and that so the chain of tradition remains unbroken from generation to generation, each adding its own link. You can do that for the generations of your family, I must do that for the generations of my family. . . . My mother had eight daughters and no son; and yet never did I hear a word of regret pass the lips of either my mother or my father that one of us was not a son. When my father died, my mother would not permit others to take her daughters’ place in saying the Kaddish, and so I am sure I am acting in her spirit when I am moved to decline your offer. But beautiful your offer remains nevertheless. . . .”
For whom is Kaddish recited? For God, for the community, for the living, and for the dead. Yes, but most of all, I think, for the generations. Kaddish is the passing of the baton, the liturgical ligament connecting the work of one generation to the next. As Henrietta Szold said, the recitation of Kaddish means “that the survivor publicly and markedly manifests his [or her] wish and intention to assume the relation to the Jewish community which his [or her] parent had, and that so the chain of tradition remains unbroken from generation to generation, each adding its own link.”
It is for this reason that we recite Kaddish. It is for this reason that we are here today for Yizkor. It is for this reason that we remember today and always.