Written in Aramaic, the Mourner’s Kaddish is an almost 2,000-year-old prayer traditionally recited in memory of the dead. The prayer, which is included in all three daily prayer services and is recited in a minyan of at least 10 adult Jews, makes no mention of death. Instead, it is a prayer dedicated to praising God.
Traditionally, Jewish men are required to recite the Kaddish for a deceased parent, spouse, sibling or child. However, many women recite the Kaddish as well, and it is also permissible to do so for loved ones who are not parents, spouses, siblings or children.
Traditionally Jews recite Kaddish three times a day at the daily morning, afternoon and evening prayer services. However, Jews who say Kaddish have a range of practices — some people go to services daily to recite Kaddish, while others do so only on Shabbat. In some Reform congregations, the Kaddish is said even when a minyan is not present.
Traditionally, Jews are required to say the Kaddish for 30 days after burial for a child, spouse or sibling, and for 11 months after burial for a parent. From then on, one recites Kaddish on a loved one’s yahrzeit (the Hebrew anniversary of their death) and at Yizkor (memorial) services.
This tradition dates back to the Talmud. The prayer was written in Aramaic, because it was the vernacular — the language spoken by most Jews at the time. In Nihum Aveilim: A Guide for the Comforter, Rabbi Stuart Kelman and Dan Fendel write that the prayer originally had nothing to do with mourning. Instead, it “was originally a call for the coming of God’s ultimate reign on earth” and was often said following a study session or sermon, and came to be known as the Rabbi’s Kaddish.
The Mourner’s Kaddish was originally known as the Orphan’s Kaddish and was said only by children for their parents, but now encompasses other mourners. There are also other forms of the Kaddish used in the daily prayers as well as a at funerals.
There are many different theories, but no definitive answer. In Jewish Literacy, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin suggests that “Most likely, people believed that the finest way to honor the dead was to recite the Kaddish, thereby testifying that the deceased person left behind worthy descendants, people who attend prayer services daily and proclaim there their ongoing loyalty to God.”
Kelman and Fendel note that the “positive, affirming and hopeful nature of the text is in contradiction to the often negative, even depressed, outlook of a mourner, which is part of why recitation is so important.”
Since Judaism focuses on life, the tradition often sees death as a lessening of God’s presence in the world. The Kaddish prayer, which focuses on increasing God’s grandeur in the world, is meant to counteract that.
Outside of Orthodox Judaism, the answer is yes. In the Orthodox world, the issue is more complicated, with some communities supportive of women reciting the Kaddish and others objecting to it.
Telushkin notes that reciting the Kaddish is psychologically beneficial because it gets mourners to go out in public and join a community. “After the death of a loved one, a person might well wish to stay home alone, or with a few family members, and brood. But saying Kaddish forces a mourner to join with others,” he writes.
Kelman and Fendel note: “Often, it is very difficult to know what to say to a mourner, and yet when the minyan responds with the appropriate words (at the same time that the mourner is standing), it is as if those words and the voices of those present offer comfort, since the mourner senses the presence of everyone around him or her.”
Saying Kaddish also can provide much-needed routine and structure in a life that has been upended by loss, and participating in a ritual Jews have been practicing for centuries gives one a feeling of being part of something larger.
Reciting Kaddish for a parent “gives the son or daughter an opportunity to receive communal sympathy for this entire time and even to channel his or her own bereftness into positive action,” writes Rabbi Judith Hauptman. “The need to attend services regularly often gives a new focus to the mourning child and fills a void left by the death of the parent, the community’s attention substituting in a certain way for parental attention no longer available to him or her.”
Some people also find Jewish meditation helpful during the mourning period.
You also may enjoy this alternative version of the Mourner’s Kaddish set to the tune of Adele’s “Hello”:
Below are some personal essays and memoirs about saying Kaddish:
Lessons I Learned from Reciting Kaddish for Mom
Kaddish (Leon Wieseltier)
Pronounced: KAH-dish, Origin: Hebrew, usually referring to the Mourner’s Kaddish, the Jewish prayer recited in memory of the dead.
Pronounced: MISH-nuh, Origin: Hebrew, code of Jewish law compiled in the first centuries of the Common Era. Together with the Gemara, it makes up the Talmud.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.