American Reform Responsa
QUESTION: What is the origin of the Kaddish? For what length of time should the surviving family recite Kaddish? For whom is it obligatory to recite Kaddish?
ANSWER: The most frequently recited prayer of the traditional synagogue service is the Kaddish. It was originally not a prayer commemorating the dead, but a great doxology which served as a way of separating various segments of the service (Ismar Elbogen, Der Juedische Gottesdienst in seiner geschichtlichen Entwicklung, 1924, pp. 92ff). It was also used at the conclusion of segments of the study of Rabbinic literature, and only later became a prayer recited at the burial service.
Originally, the Kaddish was recited as the congregational response to a sermonic discourse with the main emphasis on the words “Yehe Shemeh Rabba…” (Sota 49a), and so the Talmud knew the Kaddish by these words (“May His great name be praised”). It seems, therefore, that the origin of the Kaddish lies in Beit Midrash (house of study) rather than in the synagogue (J. Heinemann, Hatefila Bitkufat Hatana-im Veha-emora-im, p. 173, and “The Background of Jesus’ Prayer in the Jewish Liturgy,” The Lord’s Prayer and Jewish Liturgy, ed. J. Petuchowski and M. Brocke, pp. 81ff).
The first connection between the Kaddish and the mourner came about in the following fashion: At the conclusion of the Musaf service on Shabbat, the leader of the congregation would comfort the mourners and then recite the Kaddish (Soferim 19.12). However, we do not find the Kaddish recited by mourners themselves till the 13th century (Machzor Vitry, ed. Horvitz, p. 74). Isaac Or Zarua stated that this was customary in Bohemia and the Rhineland, but not in France (Or Zarua, 754). The practice of reciting Kaddish for the dead may have been influenced by a medieval Midrash which stated that such a prayer could help the soul after death (Seder Eliyahu Zuta, ed. Friedmann, p. 23, note 52; Menorat Hama-or 1.1).
It became customary to recite the Kaddish for an entire year following death, as the Talmud stated that the piety of a son could help the deceased father or grandfather (Sanh. 104a); therefore, sons were to be instructed to say the Kaddish properly (Sefer Chasidim, ed. Margolis, 722). It was felt that the tortures of the nether world could last twelve months (Mishna, Eduyot II.10; R.H. 17a). Both thoughts together led to the recital of the Kaddish by a son for twelve months (Kol Bo, 114). Eventually, that custom was changed to a recital of only eleven months, as the Mishna just cited asserted that the wicked are judged for a year, and no one wished to imply that his/her parents were wicked (Isserles to Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De-a 376.4; Aruch Hashulchan, 376.15). Most Reform congregations have rejected this line of reasoning and returned to a recital of the Kaddish for twelve months (Gates of Mitzvah, p. 62).
At first, only a son recited Kaddish for his dead father, but, according to Ashkenazic custom, a daughter was similarly permitted to recite Kaddish (Chavat Chemed, 60). Isserles stated that in some places it was customary to recite Kaddish for all of one’s dead kin (to Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De-a, 376.4). Certainly, this would extend to the seven relatives for whom one would observe mourning. They are: father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter, and husband or wife (Lev. 21:2 provided a primary list which was expanded in Mo-ed Katan 20b; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De-a, 374.4). Some would extend this list even further, and, certainly, we could agree that it may be so extended as prompted by individual feelings. We would include scholars or people who had particular influence on an individual’s life.
In some communities it has become customary for the entire congregation to stand and recite the Kaddish in commemoration of the martyrs of the Holocaust. Kaddish for the dead should be recited at daily services at the synagogue whenever such services are held on a regular basis, privately at home, or at the weekly synagogue services, for a period of twelve months (Isserles to Sh.A., Yoreh De-a, 376.4).
Traditionally, the recitation of Kaddish has required a Minyan (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim, 55.1), as public prayer was preferred over private prayer (Sh.A., Orach Chayim 90.9). It
emphasized the presence of the Shechina in a community of worshippers. During the period of mourning, the presence of a congregation will help overcome sorrow. By reciting Kaddish in a congregation, “we declare the merit of those whose parting we mourn, that they have instilled in us loyalty to God and devotion to His service and the serene acceptance of His Will, so that in the presence of the congregation when we think of the departed, we praise God’s Name in serenity of heart” (S.B. Freehof, Reform Jewish Practice, vol. I, p. 170). It is for this reason that friends of the family will join in a service (with or without a Minyan) at the house of mourning during the Shiv-a (Gates of Mitzvah, pp. 62ff). The year of regular Kaddish recital begins with these services.
The prayer–as a doxology–praises God, and thereby lets the mourner reaffirm his faith in God despite all that has happened. It has become a prayer which expresses acceptance, loyalty, and devotion to God, and as such has become part of every Jewish service throughout the world. The Kaddish may, therefore, be appropriately repeated by all at any and every service; and any worshiper may stand during its recital. This is especially appropriate if done in commemoration of the Holocaust. Through this prayer, we express sorrow for unknown martyrs who have died and sympathy toward friends who have suffered bereavement.
Walter Jacob, Chairman
Leonard S. Kravitz
W. Gunther Plaut
Harry A. Roth
Rav A. Soloff
If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.