The Kaddish prayer is a Jewish affirmation of individual faith in God’s greatness that does not mention death. The word Kaddish means sanctification in Aramaic. It is said as the mourner’s prayer at the end of every worship service, and in other forms at several other points in in the service.
Some say it is similar to the Lord’s Prayer in content and tone. (Many Jews don’t like having their prayers compared to Christian prayers.)
Why Is Kaddish in Aramaic?
Kaddish first appeared when the Second Temple was standing, when Aramaic was the everyday spoken language. So the prayer is in Aramaic, not Hebrew. That gave the people direct access to its meaning, Daniel Landes said in “The Puzzling Power of Kaddish,” (My People’s Prayer Book, Volume 6, edited by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman).
The authoritative Medeival commentator Rashi said Aramaic is a language even the angels don’t speak. It belongs exclusively to the Jewish people, so the s the Jewish people’s unique, exclusive access to God, Landes said. Today, saying it in a language even Hebrew speakers have trouble with simply makes it more special..
The Mourner’s Kaddish
The first mention of mourners saying Kaddish at the end of the service came in the 13th century. It became designated as Kaddish Yatom or Mourner’s Kaddish (literally, Orphan’s Kaddish), Shira Schoenberg writes.
Although Kaddish does not mention death, it is an expression of acceptance of Divine judgment and righteousness at a time when a person may easily become bitter and reject God, Schoenberg says. Another explanation is that by sanctifying God’s name in public, the mourners increase the merit of the deceased person.
Therefore, Kaddish must always be said in the presence of a quorum (minyan) of 10 adults. The minyan is a form of community support for the mourners and an unspoken rule against grieving in isolation, Landes said.
Kaddish is a way in which children can continue to show respect and concern for their parents even after they have died, according to rabbinic teaching, Landes said.
The Mourning Period
There is a mourning period (shiva) for a few days to a week after the death, with morning and evening prayer services with a minyan every day at the mourner’s house, so the they can say Kaddish at home. A request to help make a quorum is practically a command. Occasionally, Jews are forced to pull strangers off the street to make a minyan, and refusing to spend the 30 minutes is considered borderline anti-social.
When shiva concludes, Jewish law and tradition provide ceremonies built around Kaddish with a quorum for the first month, 11 months, first anniversary. and subsequent anniversaries. These customs anticipated by centuries the principles of modern grief counseling that people recover from death most naturally and completely in stages with community support.
Women and Children Saying Kaddish
Rules about women and children saying Kaddish are confusing because rabbinic authorities have disagreed through the centuries, and still do. The trends have evolved.
Orthodox and many Conservative Jews don’t count women toward a minyan. Reform, Reconstructionist and many Conservative do. All but the strictest Orthodox rabbis today allow women to stand for Kaddish for their parents, husbands, children, and siblings from the women’s section of the synagogue. Non-Orthodox synagoges don’t have separate women’s sections.
There is also disagreement about counting children under 13 toward a quorum to say Kaddish for their parent. Some rabbis allow children to say it alone for their parents and siblings; others, only with an adult. Family preference almost always carries great weight on this decision.
In 17th Century Amsterdam, Schoenstein writes, a man asked in his will that his daughter say Kaddish for him. The local rabbnic authority wrote an opinion allowing the man’s wish, but with so many conditions that it was virtually impossible for any other woman.
Many Orthodox women in the old tradition paid surrogates to say it, but the law makes the daughter personally responsible to make sure it’s done, so surrogates leave too much to chance for many women and rabbis.
I learned one piece of law or tradition from Schoenstein that resonated with me: saying Kaddish is so important that a person who doesn’t know how to say it must be led through it word by word.
When my uncle visited his mother’s grave years ago, the Orthodox cemetery attendant stood next to him and shouted each word in his ear one at a time. I was insulted. My uncle knew how to say Kaddish.
Reading Schoenstein, I learned the attendant was practicing a valid interpretation of his responsibility under Jewish law. The Talmud says shaming people is as bad as shedding their blood. Rather than risk shaming my uncle by making him show his ignorance or ask for help, the attendant treated everyone who said Kaddish the same.
Different Kaddish Traditions
When the mourner’s Kaddish is said at the end of a worship service, Reform Jews stand in memory of Hitler’s victims.
The Orthodox and Conservative keep the older tradition where only the mourners rise. Standing and being recognized as a mourner gives people who don’t know about the loss a chance to say a kind word. “It’s part of the ‘grief work’ that helps a person recover from loss,” an Orthodox rabbi explained to me.
That was the first time I ever heard the expression “grief work.” What does it suggest to you?
Kaddish is recited as a call and response between a prayer leader and the worshipers. For the text of the Mourner’s Kaddish in Aramaic, transliteration, and English, with the congregation’s responses identified, click on the following:
There are other forms of Kaddish with different names that appear in different parts of Jewish worship. But when a Jews talk about “saying Kaddish,” they always mean the mourner’s prayer.
Decades after I started saying my Hebrew prayers in the modern Israeli dialect, I continue to say Kaddish in the archaic-sounding Eastern European Ashkenazi pronunciation, so my ancestors would recognize it when they hear me saying it. That personal superstition is a small example of the puzzling power of Kaddish.