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Kaddish is a prayer with an unusual history. It contains not a word about death and yet is recited as a mourner’s prayer in synagogues of every denomination by Jews ranging from ultra-Orthodox to atheist. It certainly did not start out that way.
Inspired by the prophet Ezekiel, who was looking toward a time of ultimate redemption of the Jewish people, Kaddish was first taken up as a prayer by teachers who would recite it at the close of study sessions as an expression of hope that studying the sacred texts would lead to divine reward. It was also recited after the Torah reading.
The Talmud is the first source to call the prayer Kaddish and to note its recital at funerals. But at this point, it was only invoked after the death of a scholar. Later, Nachmanides writes, it was recited after every burial in order to not put others to shame. The Talmud also tells of a chazzan, or cantor, in Jerusalem who would bless mourners and recite Kaddish to console them.
By the end of the 12th century, it was believed that a child who recited Kaddish would save his deceased parent from punishment in the afterlife. In succeeding generations, during periods of persecution, Kaddish may well have lifted the spirits of European Jews to think of redemption for all.
My own exposure to the power of Kaddish began in 1956. My stoic, secular father took me to synagogue to say Kaddish for my mother. I was 11 years old. These were the days before government health insurance, and he was deeply in debt. He had to work double-overtime in a sweatshop just to keep us barely afloat. And yet he took me dutifully to synagogue. Why? How did a skeptical immigrant, overwhelmed by work and grief and mired in debt, take precious time to make it a priority that I say Kaddish for his beloved wife, my mother?
Like countless non-religious Jews, my father was probably not concerned with the words of the prayer or its history, but rather with paying loving respect to my mother’s memory in the only way that was left to him. That public prayer was no doubt for him a profession of love and caring even after death, especially after death. It was a means of giving expression to the love and the loss, dignity to the life that once was, meaning to a relationship that endured in the heart. My standing there reciting the Kaddish was, to him, her past and her future, an affirmation that we would carry on and struggle to survive, no matter the obstacles. For her. Because of her. Because of our love.
In my own personal journey toward faith and observance over many years, I grew to understand the power of prayer and the need for affiliation with community, to celebrate the good times and to be comforted in the bad times. Jewish traditions, inspired by the Torah and cultivated and shaped over millennia, have stood the test of time. Celebrations and mourning, prayer and study, all lend meaning and depth to the life we have been given. The consolation of Kaddish is one of those rituals that, for my father, must have been instinctively comforting, even in the absence of faith, as it is for me today as a believing Jew.
Perhaps that’s why a prayer that has nothing to do with death and that only late in Jewish history – the 12th century is late when your history extends back 3,500 years – became associated with mourners. It captures the imagination of virtually all Jews across the religious divide. It was a way for the religious and non-religious to transcend death in an act of shared grief and collective strength.
And so this fall, on the ninth day of Cheshvan, for the 60th year, I will stand yet again with the mourners and recite the Kaddish. The prayer constitutes a recognition of the Divine, but also a testimonial to a father’s and a son’s enduring memory and undying love. It transforms that painful day into a triumph of the
Paul Socken is distinguished professor emeritus in the University of Waterloo.