Monday, March 16, 2020

The Kaddish: Meaning, History, Alternatives

For Starters:  
In an effort to remain connected and offer encouragement and opportunities for Jewish learning and involvement while we are unable to gather together, I plan to send daily messages including, I hope, a video message on the Torah portion at the end of the week. 

I encourage you to reach out to me with questions, comments and needs you may have.  The synagogue and I also plan to reach out to all members to see how they are doing.

The Kaddish:
As mentioned in my previous message, one of the hardest things about not being able to gather with a minyan is the inability to say kaddish by those who need to do so.   To that end, - once we are able to gather again as a community, we will hold a special service at which all those who have missed a yahrzeit or otherwise needed to say kaddish can gather.  

"Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever; wisdom and power are God's."  So we find in the Book of Daniel, 2:20.  This verse parallels the line in the middle of the Kaddish recited by the congregation.  The other passages of the Kaddish, including references to Ezekiel 38:23 and Job 25:2 expanded from that middle point into the various forms of the Kaddish we have now (five forms to be exact - Hatzi Kaddish or Half Kaddish, Kaddish Shalem or Full Kaddish, Kaddish d'Rabbanan or Rabbi's Kaddish, Kaddish Yatom or Mourner's Kaddish, and Kaddish L'itchadata, or Burial/Siyum Kaddish).  

Originally, the Kaddish was recited after a sermon or study session.  Kaddish d'Rabbanan still functions in this way even when it appears within services, and Kaddish L'itchadata is recited as part of the liturgy for the concluding study session of a book of the Talmud.  

Sometime in the Middle Ages the Kaddish became a way to mark transitions in the service and if you look in the siddur at where Kaddish Shalem or the Hatzi Kaddish appear, you'll see this is so.

A Prayer of Mourning:
It was also in this time that the Kaddish became a prayer for mourners to recite.  They did during the year after a loved one died.  That practice shifted to be our present-day one of reciting it only for eleven months.  Why did that happen?  Reciting the Kaddish was thought to alleviate the punishments in the afterlife all humans must endure for their wrongdoing while alive.  The longest such punishments were understood to last was a year for the worst offenders.  So as not to seem to suggest that one's parents or other loved ones were such terrible sinners, it became the practice to say Kaddish only eleven months - enough time to cover the sentences of all but the absolute worst people to have lived!

Additionally, Kaddish came to be said on the Yahrzeit, or Anniversary of a loved one's death.  That the term is in German/Yiddish speaks to when this practice began.

A Powerful Public Prayer:
Why must Kaddish be said with a minyan?  As we saw, the central line of Kaddish is said as a response by the congregation to the words spoken by the leader.  It is therefore a public proclamation of praise to God.  Said privately, it simply isn't doing that.  And even, as I feel, the power in saying it transcends even the meaning of the words - that power is directly linked to being together with others for its recitation.  The effort that must go into gathering the requisite number of people, the push it creates to bring a mourner back into contact with others, even having to stand up and be seen - all these things are the mystical power, the poetic beauty of the Kaddish.

Without a Minyan:  
Having the obligation to say Kaddish and not having a minyan available happens frequently.  A number of practices have arisen to meet that situation.  Some recite Psalm 16 which expresses a message of comfort and trust in God:  Link to Psalm 16.  Others read a psalm a day or a passage of Torah, Bible, or other text on a daily basis.  Here is a great Israeli website for learning a chapter of the Bible a day:  929 Daily Bible Study.  
Finally, some prayer books also include prayers that can be said in the event a minyan is not present.  Below is the text of such a prayer from our prayer book, Siddur Lev Shalem.  If you are saying it at home, change the line, " with my community..." to, "May my prayer today find favor..."

May it not be long until we are all able to once again gather as a community to comfort and to celebrate with our fellow Jews.

Rabbi Aaron Benson

No comments:

Post a Comment