When I started saying kaddish [the mourner's prayer] in September 1999 I was the lone mourner at Ramath Orah [Goldman's synagogue in New York]. To be sure, there were others saying kaddish, but they were not technically required to do so. They were saying kaddish, in effect voluntarily, for other relatives--grandparents, aunts, uncles--and some were saying kaddish for friends. The only person required to say kaddish is a child for a parent. Where there are no children, another close relative--spouse, sibling, grandchild, parent--may assume the responsibility, but it is not required.
Kaddish, an Aramaic poem that praises God, is one of the oldest parts of the synagogue liturgy. It is also one of the most powerful and most enduring. Dating back to the first century, it was probably recited in the very first synagogues established after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 c.e. The central lines of kaddish are mentioned in the Talmud, which was written and edited in the third to the sixth centuries. The early rabbinic sources show kaddish associated with the study of sacred texts--it was said at the conclusion of Torah study-but by the Middle Ages, it became linked with mourning. At a certain point in the synagogue service, the head of the congregation would go outside where the mourners sat and say kaddish for them. Later, it was mourners who led the prayer. In his book "When a Jew Dies," Samuel C. Heilman writes that saying kaddish publicly "turns this prayer from a sterile mourner's monologue into a dialogue of praise of life." Rabbi Maurice Lamm, the author of "The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning," calls kaddish "a self-contained, miniature service that achieves the heights of holiness."
At a time of great loss, the natural inclination is to question, rebel, reject, and diminish God. But the tradition calls on the mourner not merely to praise God, but to lead others in this ancient praise poem. "Yitkadal veyitkadash sh'mei rabah," it beings. "May His great name grow exalted and sanctified forever and ever." Kaddish was written in Aramaic, the lingua franca of Talmudic times, so that it would be understandable to all. Today, the Aramaic means little to most Jews, but the words and rhythms and alternating responses of kaddish retain their emotional power. Whenever I visit a Reform congregation, I am struck by the fact that kaddish is still said in Aramaic, even though almost every other prayer is said in English.
Contrary to what one might expect, kaddish makes no explicit mention of the dead. The prayer begins with an acknowledgment of God's rule over the earth "as He willed." We may not understand God's will--especially at a time of loss--but we submit to it even when it goes against our very nature.
Kaddish continues with a plea for the ultimate redemption--the messianic era--when God's kingdom will be recognized by all. Addressing the congregation, the mourner prays that the redemption will come about "in your lifetimes and in your days and in the lifetimes of the entire family of Israel, swiftly and soon." The congregation replies with the words: "May His great name grow exalted and sanctified forever and ever," a phrase that is then repeated by the mourner. The call and response of kaddish--in effect, the public acknowledgment of ultimate faith in God--is so essential to the prayer that kaddish can be said only as part of public prayer, in a minyan made up of ten worshipers, all of whom reply with a loud "amen" at five specific points.
Kaddish has a few different forms and variations, but all have these essential elements: Aramaic, call and response, praise of God, submission to God's will, and hope for redemption. A special kaddish is said at the graveside after burial. Two other variations, called Half Kaddish and Full Kaddish, are said during the synagogue service by the person leading the prayers. The Mourner's Kaddish and the Rabbi's Kaddish are reserved for the mourners. In its various forms, kaddish is said several times during each of the three daily services. In any of its variations, it rarely takes more than a minute to recite. The Mourner's Kaddish, for example, is just seventy-five words long. But despite its brevity, it is one of the most poignant prayers in the liturgy.
The most powerful story associated with kaddish is the legend of Rabbi Akiva, which is examined at great length--and from every angle--in Leon Weiseltier's book, Kaddish. The story has Rabbi Akiva, the great Talmudic sage, walking past a cemetery late at night and seeing an apparition, his complexion black as coal, carrying a load of wood "heavy enough for ten me." Rabbi Akiva orders the man to stop, "Why do you do such hard work?" Rabbi Akiva asks.
"Do not detain me lest my masters be angry with me," the spirit responds. "I am a dead man. Every day I am punished anew by being sent to chop wood for a fire in which I am consumed."
"What did you do in your life?"
"I was a tax collector," the spirit responds. "I would be lenient with the rich and suppress the poor."
"Have you heard if there is any way to save you?"
The spirit responds that his only salvation would be if he had a son who would say kaddish and have the congregation respond: "May His great name grow exalted and sanctified forever and ever."
As the spirit disappears into the night, Rabbi Akiva resolves to find the man's family. He journeys to the man's town and inquires about the much-hated tax collector. The townspeople curse the man's name but point Rabbi Akiva to an ignorant and illiterate lad, the accursed man's son. Rabbi Akiva takes the boy under his wing, teaches him to pray, and eventually brings him to the synagogue, where he says the kaddish prayer. The congregation responds: "May His great name grow exalted and sanctified forever and ever:' That night, the tortured soul appears to Rabbi Akiva in a dream, blesses him, and tells him that he has been released from his eternal punishment.
Weiseltier concludes: "The themes of the story? That the dead are in need of spiritual rescue; and that the agent of that spiritual rescue is the son; and that the instrument of spiritual rescue is prayer, notably kaddish." The message? We, the living, cannot bring back the dead, but we can redeem death. God's will is done, but so is ours.
And so we say kaddish, which serves, in Heilman's lovely phrase, "like a bell tolling morning and evening, the reminder that life has changed."