Reprinted with permission from Saying Kaddish: How to Comfort the Dying, Bury the Dead, & Mourn as a Jew (Schocken Books).
Beloved from its earliest days, parts of the Kaddish date from the first century B.C.E. Written mostly in Aramaic–the spoken language of most Jews from the fifth century B.C.E. until the fifth century C.E.–it was recited not only by priests, but by common folk as well.
The Lord’s Prayer, or Pater Noster, is the Christian analog to the Kaddish. Based on verses from the Gospel of Matthew (6:9-13), it was written around the same time. Both prayers extol God’s strength and ask for the establishment of God’s sovereignty on earth. The Kaddish and the Lord’s Prayer are also used in much the same ways: recited at most services and at virtually all funerals, they bind their respective faith communities with universally familiar words and rhythms.
Kaddish originated not in the synagogue but in the house of study (beit midrash). After a scholar delivered a learned discourse, students and teachers would rise to praise God’s name. During the mourning period for a rabbi or teacher, students would gather to study in his honor, and his son was given the honor of leading the prayer. Over time, reciting Kaddish replaced studying as the tribute given to a scholar. Eventually the custom extended to all mourners–not only the survivors of rabbis and leaders. By the sixth century, Kaddish was part of synagogue prayers, and during the 13th century, when the Crusades threatened the Jewish communities of Europe, it became inextricably linked to loss and mourning.
Familiar, accessible, and comforting, Kaddish became part of the folk religion of the Jews. There are many Talmudic stories about the value of having the whole community recite the key words: “May His great name be blessed.”
One of the better-known tales is attributed to Rabbi Akiva, who came across a man suffering terrible torments in hell. The rabbi found the poor man’s long-lost son and taught him to recite the verse, “May His great name be blessed.” With those words, the father’s soul was released and flew up to heaven.
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