Monday, July 25, 2011

On reciting Kaddish

   A short post this time.

   I’ve gone to recite the Kaddish yatom (kaddish)– the Jewish mourner's prayer – at synagogue several times this month for people that I did not know. A friend’s mother, a friend’s grandmother, and most recently, for a classmate from the University  who tragically died on Sunday morning. May they rest in peace.

   The mourner’s kaddish is an adaptation of a central Jewish prayer, the Kaddish. It is written in Aramaic with Hebrew jargon , and is a liturgical poem praising and glorifying G-d’s name and power. It is adaptable – several versions exist, and some liberal Jews like me replace “Yisrael”-the Jews-with “yoshvei tevel” –those who are upon the earth – at points. But the basic prayer glorifies G-d and the order He represents as a Life Force. It is required that ten Jews (and for the Orthodox, ten adult Jewish men) be present to recite it.

    So why do we recite this prayer to mark the passing of those in our community? Several explanations exist, all of which find legitimacy in the community: legends, stories, long explanations. But there is one explanation I like.

   In reciting a prayer for peace and praising G-d as a powerful force, a force of balance and hope and strength, we seek to not only pray for the soul that has left us, but heal as a community. We seek to make the death into something from which life can come, to honor what the deceased has given us, and to bring ourselves closer to the humanity that unites us all. In reciting it with a quorum, it becomes a community’s efforts to bring order to the world after death disrupts it. Because death rarely affects one person alone.
It sounds kitschy, but that’s how I like to think of it.

   Traditionally one recites it for one’s own relatives alone, but I have stepped beyond to recite it for anyone that someone I know or I have a connection to. I recite it on the anniversary of the suicide of a friend; I recited it for my classmate tonight; I recite it for my mother’s parents every October and March on the anniversaries of their deaths.

   And I know I can never bring them back, and the pain will not necessarily go away forever. But to bring a semblance of order, a semblance of peace, is to honor the one who passed and to give strength to those who remain. And thus I shall recite, year in and year out: “Exalted and sanctified is G-d’s great name, in the world which He created, and may He establish His Kingdom…”

   (Yes, it sounds like the Lord’s Prayer in many regards. Some theologians think it has a common origin. The Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic sounds quite close to the Kaddish at a few points.)


  1. You're such a sweet person. You never cease to amaze me with your kindness, insight, and maturity.

    I've always favored a similar explanation of Kaddish, although with more of a focus on the mourner. For me, the purpose of saying Kaddish (and mourning rituals in general) is for a community to come together around a member who has suffered a loss. By standing and speaking with a mourner, we quite literally create a cocoon in which they can express their grief without intrusion or danger from the outside world. I find marking yahrzeits and praying for non-relatives from your community serves a similar purpose - you held create the cocoon for those who are at various stages of grief and also allow yourself to step into that space and reflect safely on the loss.

  2. This was really cool and sad to read. I didn't know anything about the Kaddish, so thanks for giving me a little taste of knowledge there. Do you find that the ritual or the time taken out to honor the deceased or neither to be the thing that most helps and seems to bring peace. Or do you find peace?


  3. The peace, I think, is more gradual, but the Kaddish I think is a bridge to that. The ritual and the time taken out are so closely tied that I don't really separate them: part of the whole ritual of Kaddish for many Jews is that one has set aside a time to honor those who have passed.

    I actually unfortunately found out today about the passing of a family friend's mother, who I remember as a wonderful and warm woman. I'm going at some point over the next few days to one of the two synagogues here in Singapore to recite Kaddish for her.

  4. Well said. I would add to that reciting a prayer which requires a quorum after a death allows the community to reassert itself as an entity after a loss of one of its members. It is a statement that all is not lost, and I think the text of glorification contained in Kaddish gives guidance as to how the community is sustained. Also, once I eventually finish my book on the subject, you should read it.

    A note on a different matter: I find the use of the term "yoshvei tevel" which cropped up in Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Renewal circles and has made its way to some parts of Reform Judaism quite strange. I recognize that it is an attempt to find "Biblical language" which is respectful of non-Jews, but I find most instances I am familiar where the phrase is used in the Bible, it is used as differentiation by contrast by the prophets. The people Israel is fundamentally unlike "yoshvei tevel" and if they are acting like the surrounding people they are rejecting God. So I find it an unsatisfying addition to prayers. I prefer to add "b'nei adam" instead.

  5. "Yoshvei tevel" is used by R-R-C congregations in Israel mostly for poetic effect, I think. I see where you're coming from though.