The Orphan’s Kaddish

Kaddish Yatom, an Aramaic prayer glorifying God, is recited by mourners.

Edward Alexander wrote this reflection on the Kaddish (literally, “sanctification,”)  toward the end of the 11 months of mourning for his deceased father. In the article, he confronts the purpose of reciting Kaddish. A medieval story presents the recitation of Kaddish as requesting or even effecting a spiritual salvation for the deceased, but other explanations focus on the recitation of Kaddish as a demonstration that the deceased deserves consideration for having raised a child who would diligently say Kaddish. Whichever the reason, Alexander recited Kaddish for his own father, Harry Alexander (1910-1998), and wrote this article in his memory. Alexander regularly refers to Leon Wiesielter’s book-length reflection entitled Kaddish. Reprinted with permission from  Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Fall, 1999.

Orphan’s Kaddish

“Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world which he has created according to his will. May he establish his kingdom in your lifetime and during your days, and within the life of the entire house of Israel, speedily and soon; and say, Amen.

May his great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.

Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed belie, beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.

May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

He who creates peace in his celestial heights, may he create peace for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.”

The practice of reciting the mourner’s Kaddish seems to have begun in the years just after the Crusades, when a superabundance of mourners led to the tradition of linking personal grief with the collective grief of the Jewish people.

But the medieval rabbis claimed that the Kaddish originated much earlier. The founding myth of the Kaddish is the medieval story of Rabbi Akiva found in Mahzor Vitry (a source for early prayer texts and customs). Walking in a cemetery, he meets a naked man, carrying wood on his head and apparently alive. Stopping him, Akiva asks why he does such onerous work and just who he is. The man replies that he is dead, and that in life he had been a tax collector who favored the rich and killed the poor. Akiva asks whether his “superiors” have told him how he might relieve his condition. The unfortunate man, “black as coal,” says there is probably no relief for him, but that he has heard that if he had a son and his son were to stand before the congregation and recite “Bless the Lord who is blessed!” and the congregation were to answer amen, and the son were also to say “May the Great Name be blessed” (a sentence from the Kaddish) “they would release him from his punishment.” Unfortunately, the man never had a son, although he did leave his wife pregnant when he died. But even if she gave birth to a boy, who would teach Torah to the son of a friendless man?

At this point Akiva volunteered to discover whether the man had indeed produced a son, so that he himself might teach the son Torah and enable him to lead the congregation in prayers. He discovered the son and circumcised him, but the boy was a miscreant like his parents and refused to learn Torah. In distress, Akiva fasted for 40 days; and God responded by opening the boy’s heart to Torah and enabling him to recite “Bless the Lord who is blessed!” to a congregation that responded “May the Great Name be blessed!”

“At that moment,” Mahzor Vitry continues, “the man was released from his punishment [and] came to Rabbi Akiva in a dream, and said: “May it be the will of the Lord that your soul find delight in the Garden of Eden, for you have saved me from the sentence of Gehenna (loosely equivalent to ‘Hell’).”

The main themes of this seminal myth of the Kaddish, as Leon Wieseltier interprets it in his Kaddish, are “That the dead are in need of spiritual rescue; and that the agent of spiritual rescue is the son; and that the instrument of spiritual rescue is prayer, notably the Kaddish.”

But is the Kaddish really a prayer for the dead, or even a prayer at all? A considerable weight of rabbinic opinion says no–the son’s Kaddish does not request a good fate for his father, but demonstrates why the father deserves a good fate: namely, because he taught the son to sanctify God before the congregation. The son is said to “acquit the father” because the father, whatever his sins may have been, arranged for his son to study Torah and to do good deeds.

For years before my father died, I had thought about saying Kaddish for him. This was partly because he had been ill, indeed dying, for many years; I became aware that he was failing in 1990, when for the first time in our lives it was he and not I who proposed leaving shul “early.” Also, he kept returning to the subject of Kaddish, albeit from two different directions. On the one hand, without ever explicitly asking me to recite Kaddish, he would often say “you’re the only son I can depend on to say Kaddish for me when I’m dead.”

But I also remember, only too vividly, how often he would shush me or tell me to sit down when we happened to be in a shul where it was the custom for everybody to stand for, or even join in, the recitation of Kaddish. He had been brought up to believe that it was “bad luck” for a son even to give the appearance of being a mourner while his parents were still alive.

And so now, when I go to shul twice a day to recite the Kaddish for my father’s soul, I can at least feel that I am obeying his deepest wishes without offending his ingrained superstitions. And, of course, by having spent more time in shul in the past nine months than I had in the previous five decades, I am doing for my father dead what I would not do for him when he was alive. As an unidentified friend in Wieseltier’s book says to the author: “The angel of death is the best sexton” (53).

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