Kaddish: the holy and the dead

Kaddish (Kadish) refers to the prayers for the dead. But this meaning is only a derivative meaning of kadish. The first meaning of kadish is “holy” (kadosh). “Kadosh” is the second most important word in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible); the first is YHVH (Yahweh, Yehovah). What is the most significant attribute of God? Everlasting? All powerful? All merciful? All compassionate? All loving? All knowing? All present? No, none of these. It’s God’s Holiness. All of God’s other attributes flow from his Holiness. The Bible is the sacred history of God’s overarching will for man: “Be ye holy for I am Holy.” And that is what the Bible – the sacred history of God’s dealings with man – is all about : “I am the LORD your God; be holy, because I am holy.”

“Holy” (Kadosh) only appears once in all the 50 Chapters of Genesis: “And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.” What is the heart of human holiness? Rest – in the Rest of God. It is fitting that the intention behind the “Kadish” prayers for the dead – and all prayers for the dead – is “rest in peace”. These prayers for the dead, however, have no support in the Old Testament or in Jewish tradition (the Talmud and Mishnah). Roman Catholics may argue otherwise and appeal to the apocrypha and their tradition. ( “Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.” Maccabees 2).

Kaddish is one of the most poignant prayers in the Jewish liturgy. For this reason it provides deep insight into the roots of Judaism.

The origin of the Kaddish prayer is not certain. One theory is that it came into use after the Crusades. The medieval rabbis, in contrast, claim that the Kaddish originated in the time of Rabbi Akiva (circa 50–c.135 AD). Others claim that the Kaddish originated after the destruction of the first Temple and was said after a lecture or discussion of Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, called the” five books of Moses).

In a world shot through with paradox and mystery, the Kaddish is the great prayer of consolation “nechamah, of hope “tikvah” (the Israeli national anthem is HaTikvah – The Hope) and of peace “shalom”. Above all, it is a prayer of submission to God’s judgments and will, which are always good and pure. Kaddish is regarded as a spiritual rescue from the dead. “The dead are in need of spiritual rescue; and the agent of spiritual rescue is the son; and the instrument of spiritual rescue is prayer, notably the Kaddish” (Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), pp. 126-27). The “son” is the son of the deceased. Prefiguration of the the Garden of Gethsemane?

The Kaddish as a mourner’s prayer is about death. The strange thing about this prayer is that death is not even mentioned in the prayer. We shy away from death. Yet life – in its deeps – is mainly about death, the obsession with death. For most Jews, even Orthodox ones, the ultimate tragedy is death. Why? Because they don’t believe in the after life. The reason why they don’t believe in the after life is because they say that the Jewish Bible’s “salvation” is not about “eternal life” beyond the grave but about peace and happiness in this life. This view is not universal among practising Jews, but it is prevalent. You will notice that the Kadish prayer says nothing about the after life, but is about extolling God and praying for blessings in this life.

Here is the Kadish prayer with short comments in italics:

Mourner: Magnified and sanctified be His great name. (Yisgadal v’yiskadash shmai raba).

(The greatness and holiness of God is the introduction to prayer. This is the theme of the whole Kaddish).

Congregation: Amen.

Mourner: In this world which He has created in accordance with His will, may He establish his kingdom during your lifetime, and during the life of all the House of Israel, Speedily, and let us say, Amen.

(“Your” lifetime. Who is this referring to? Not the deceased – his life is over. It refers to the [living] mourner).

Mourner: Let His great name be blessed for ever and to all eternity!

Cong: (Repeats above verse.)

Mourner: Blessed, praised, glorified and exalted, extolled, honored, magnified and lauded, be the name of the Holy one, blessed be He.

Cong: Blessed be He.

Mourner: He is greater than all blessings, hymns, praises and consolations, da’amiron b’olmo; v’imru, Amen. Which can be uttered in this world; and let us say Amen.

Cong: Amen.

Mourner: May abundant peace from heaven descend upon us. And may life be renewed for us and for all Israel; and let us say, Amen.

(What about abundant peace and renewal for the deceased?)

Cong : Amen.

Mourner: He who makes peace in the heavens, may He make peace. For us and for all Israel ; and let us say, Amen.

Cong: Amen.

There is nothing about the deceased in this prayer. Nothing about giving him/her rest. In what sense is the prayer for the deceased? The prayer is actually a prayer not only to God but for God, and for the deceased and for the living. Some rabbis say that the death of a single person creates a gap not only in the hearts of the living but in the heart of God.

The rabbis say that the Kaddish echo’s Job: “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him” (Job 13:15), and that those few words of trusting God for your eternal redemption summarises the whole Tanakh (Old Testament). But if one goes by the words of the Kaddish, it seems that it would be more accurate to say: “Though He slay him (my father, the deceased), yet will I trust Him (my God).”

One doesn’t, however, only go by the words of a prayer, but by its intention. The intention of Kaddish is a call to God in the midst of sorrow of the death of a loved one. But it is also prayer of adoration, of thanksgiving for His mercy and for his promise to redeem Israel. The Kaddish, it is believed, guarantees the survival of the Jewish people and Judaism.

Thus, the Kaddish is much more than a prayer for the dead. It is recited at the end of all major prayers as well as at the conclusion of a service. The “chachomim” (sages) teach that the devout recital of the Kaddish tempers God’s wrath. That is not all. The chachomim say that the whole universe is preserved by the power of Kaddish. It also redeems the departed soul. As I mentioned, the paradox is that although the Kaddish is about death, that awful word is never mentioned.

The Kaddish is never a private prayer. Others also experience pain, loss, death. Holiness is community, where God cares for every individual life. When Kaddish is said in community, it causes all those present to proclaim the greatness of God and the Kiddush Ha’Shem, the sanctification of the Name. The mourner says, “Magnified and sanctified be His great name;” the congregation responds, “Let His great name be blessed for all eternity.” The mourner continues, “Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted; extolled, honored, magnified and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He;” the congregation replies, “Blessed be He.”

Someone said: “When we speak the name of someone who has died, it’s like bringing a part of their soul back to life.” Rabbi Rosalind Glazer comments:

“While Judaism provides an elaborate structure of memorial practices, ours is not at all a culture of death. At its core, Jewish tradition is life affirming. The recitation of Kaddish may permit survivors a moment to remember their beloved deceased, but the prayer speaks of radical awe in this miraculous and eternal moment. ”
“Furthermore, the underlying power of Kaddish is not merely in the instant of remembrance, but in the building and preservation of community. That a minyan is required to recite it is not a mere halakhic legalism. Minyan allows us to sustain and perpetuate community. It is as essential to the mourner as it is to the thirteen year old who becomes a bat or bar mitzvah. Minyan holds the collective social force of critical mass. In essence, minyan is synonymous with community. This is why so many Hassidic tales extol the virtue of being the tenth person and honor those who fulfill the mitzvah of ‘making minyan.’”

The ideal is that the son of a deceased parent should lead the Kaddish prayer, because this honours both the parents – the living and the dead. There is also the belief among some Jews that when the son recites the Kaddish, this either confirms the parent’s life of good deeds, or achieves repentance for the parent’s sins, and redeems him or her from God’s retribution. Also, the merit of the mourner’s prayers accrues to the deceased. The main emphasis is on the goodness of the parent. This is similar to the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory, where the prayers and penances of the living can reduce the time the deceased spends in purgatory – the fires of purification (pur – Greek for “fire”). I was a devout Catholic for 20 years. Catholicism was very important part of my intellectual and spiritual formation and subsequent life. I say more about this later on.


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