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.
For centuries, people believed that saying Kaddish would shorten the amount of time the deceased spent in Gehenna (hell) before ascending to Gan Eden (heaven). Sons were referred to as “my Kaddish” or as a “Kaddishl,” and people who had no sons sometimes hired men to say the prayer after they died.
Rabbinic authorities argued against this quid pro quo view of prayer. A 16th-century rabbi, Abraham Hurwitz, wrote, “Let the son keep a particular precept given him by his father, and it shall be of greater worth than the recital of the Kaddish.” The same is true also of daughters.
In 20th-century America, the word Kaddish–like shiva [the week of intensive mourning following a death] and shalom [peace]–has found its way into the popular lexicon. Allen Ginsberg’s 1959 poem “Kaddish” introduced it to a largely non-Jewish literary audience. While it [the poem] shocked some Jews with its juxtaposition of profanity and the range of emotions associated with the loss of a parent, it was also a stunning affirmation of Jewishness during an era when most Jews wanted nothing more than to blend into the secular landscape.
Thirty-five years later, audiences heard the entire Kaddish during performances of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-wining play Angels in America. Once again, there was an element: shock as an openly gay man said the traditional words over the body of a closeted gay man. But by that point in history, this artifact of Jewishness was considered so commonplace that the playwright even made a joke confusing Kaddish with Kiddush (the prayer recited over wine). The assumption that the audience was Jewishly sophisticated enough to “get it” was not at all unreasonable, given that television had already acquainted a mass audience with the prayer.
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Pronounced: KAH-dish, Origin: Hebrew, usually referring to the Mourner’s Kaddish, the Jewish prayer recited in memory of the dead.