A Year of Mourning for Parents

Jews are commanded to honor their parents while they are alive and to continue to show respect when they die--by mourning for nearly a year.

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The key observance for the extended mourning period is saying Kaddish [the memorial prayer] each day in the synagogue. Although one would expect the obligation to last for 12 months, it lasts only for 11. The explanation for this perplexing rule seems to lie in a tradition which states that the most time a person could possibly spend in the netherworld is 12 months. After that, even the blackest soul has atoned for its evil doings and is permitted to make its way to heaven. The recitation of Kaddish helps guarantee safe passage from the lower realms to the upper. Therefore, if a child recited Kaddish a full 12 months, he might be suggesting that his parents would not leave the netherworld until the end of this period of time--that is, that they were inveterate sinners. The custom thus arose of reciting Kaddish for parents for 11 months only (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 376:4).

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Judith Hauptman

Judith Hauptman is a professor of Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. A popular lecturer on Judaism and feminism, she is the author of Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman's Voice.