Kaddish: Denominational Differences

The Jewish denominations choreograph the Mourner's Kaddish in different ways.

Though much of mourning is a private experience, saying Kaddish for a loved one takes place in public. After the week of shiva, mourners step out of their homes and quiet spaces, joining with others in a synagogue to recite this memorial prayer.

There are a variety of Kaddish practices in different communities. These practices most often diverge along Jewish denominational lines.

Kaddish in Reform Communities

In most Reform communities, mourner’s Kaddish is recited once at the end of every prayer service. Typically everyone rises and recites mourner’s Kaddish together–including those who are not in an “official” period of mourning for a relative. Rabbi Mark Washofsky in his guide to contemporary Reform practice suggests the reason for this practice is that “after the Holocaust, there are many Jews who have no one but ourselves to say Kaddish for them.” In some Reform communities mourners rise first, and say the names of their loved ones, and then everyone else rises and joins in the Kaddish together.

Various Reform responsa have permitted Kaddish to be recited even in a situation where a minyan (quorum of 10 adults) is not present. Some Reform congregations, especially in small communities, embrace this leniency and recite Kaddish with a group of fewer than 10 present. Other Reform communities stick to the requirement of 10, stressing the essential Jewish value of public worship. In general, in Reform communities, Kaddish practices are more intuitive, based on a particular mourner’s feelings and needs, rather than specific rules about who should say Kaddish, in what context, and for how long. Kaddish is a powerful anchor to tradition for Reform Jews, but this translates into different practices for different mourners.

Many Reform communities only have services on Shabbat, though some Reform congregations do meet for prayer daily–and these synagogues offer the option of daily Kaddish.

Kaddish in Conservative and Orthodox Communities

In Orthodox services mourners stand to recite Kaddish, and the rest of the congregation typically stands along with them (but quietly). In Conservative services it is more common for mourners to stand and recite Kaddish while the rest of the community sits (also quietly). In both Conservative and Orthodox services mourner’s Kaddish is recited once or more than once at the beginning of services, and once or more than once at the end of services. The total number of Kaddishes is likely to be a bit higher at an Orthodox service, where a number of short prayers are added at the beginning and end of services, and Kaddish is often recited in conjunction with these.

Women and Kaddish

In Reform and Conservative communities there is no difference between men and women when it comes to reciting Kaddish. In Orthodoxy, the issue is more fraught.

In traditional Orthodox communities it is rare for women who are mourners to recite Kaddish. This is consistent with the reality of public prayer, in Orthodoxy, being an exclusively male activity. However, in some Orthodox synagogues women are permitted to recite Kaddish when they say it together with a man, or when they recite it quietly. And there are a handful of modern Orthodox synagogues today where women are encouraged to recite Kaddish, out loud and even when there is no man reciting it together with them.

The debate about women saying Kaddish is not just recent. In the late 17th century, Rabbi Yair Bakhrakh, known as the Havvot Yair, dealt with a case of a man in Amsterdam who died, leaving only daughters. Before his death, the man requested that a special minyan be set up to enable his daughters to recite Kaddish. Scholars and lay officials allowed this to take place. Bakhrakh conceded that Kaddish may be recited by a woman, provided that a minyan of 10 men is present. Kaddish, he wrote, is essentially a sanctification of God’s name–and the mitzvah (commandment) to sanctify God applies to both men and women. However, in final analysis, Bakhrakh wrote that even though there is no halakhic problem with women reciting Kaddish, they should not do so, because it would be an innovation that could weaken allegiance to existing traditions.

Rabbi Yehuda Ashkenazi, a halakhic authority from 18th century Germany (author of the Ba’er Heitev), ruled in opposition to Bakhrakh, arguing that in a private minyan a daughter may recite Kaddish for her deceased parent. Originally, the custom was for only one mourner to recite Kaddish at any given time in synagogue. When more than one mourner was present, the question would arise as to who had first claim. Ashkenazi required a private minyan for a woman to recite Kaddish because he believed that a woman reciting Kaddish did not have the right to displace a man. Those in favor of women reciting Kaddish argue that, given the reality that one person’s Kaddish no longer supplants another’s, Ashkenazi’s ruling can be extended to allow women to say Kaddish in contemporary synagogues where the prayer is recited in unison by all mourners, or in a synagogue where no man reciting Kaddish is present.

This position has been quoted in the name of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who remembered that in Vilna, Lithuania women would stand at the back of synagogue (there was no women’s section) and recite Kaddish together with male mourners. If no man was reciting Kaddish, a woman mourner would say the prayer aloud, alone.

Other Orthodox authorities forbid the practice of women saying Kaddish, on the grounds that it is an unprecedented change to Jewish tradition. For example, former Israeli Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau argues that: “Reformers might follow and draw the conclusion that women might act as hazzan (prayer leader)… Therefore we cannot allow women to say Kaddish in any way.”

Among Orthodox synagogues today, some are more welcoming to women who desire to say Kaddish, while others do not offer a comfortable place to do so. These differences often reflect the synagogue’s more broad attitude towards women in public roles. In any case, for women wishing to recite Kaddish in an Orthodox synagogue, it is advisable to do a bit of research about each specific synagogue’s norms, to determine whether it would be a supportive community or not.

Sign up for a Journey Through Grief & Mourning: Whether you have lost a loved one recently or just want to learn the basics of Jewish mourning rituals, this 8-part email series will guide you through everything you need to know and help you feel supported and comforted at a difficult time.

Looking for a way to say Mourner’s Kaddish in a minyan? My Jewish Learning’s daily online minyan gives mourners and others an opportunity to say Kaddish in community and learn from leading rabbis.

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