American Reform Responsa
121. Length of Time for Recital of Kaddish
(Vol. XXIII, 1913, pp. 173-176) Historically of no great significance, one ritual question looms up large in the estimate of the people and is therefore most frequently brought before the rabbi of today for decision, viz.: How long after the death or burial of the relative is the Kaddish to be recited, and on what day is the Yahrzeit to be observed, and the like. An elucidation of the whole practice seems to me, therefore, quite in place. The name Kaddish, which–like the prayer itself–is Aramaic, is found first, as far as I can see, in Mas. Soferim (16.12, 19.19, 21.1). The Talmudic term is “Yehe Shemeh Rabba.” It is the congregational response to the reader’s call to praise the Lord,l and the idea underlying it is the messianic hope as expressed in Ezekiel 38:23: “Vehitgadalti vehitkadashti,” somewhat corresponding to the original form of the so-called Lord’s Prayer in the New Testament.2 In the Babylonian schoolhouse or synagogue it was recited as a doxology at the conclusion of the Agadic lesson or homily addressed to large assemblies, and hence it was recited in Aramaic.3 The more value and importance was attached to this Kaddish recital, the more mystic power was ascribed to it. Originating, no doubt, in the primitive pagan belief that the son must, by some rite (originally by offering food and drink), keep the father’s soul from perdition in the grave, the view took shape in Jewish circles that by having the son or grandson study and teach the Law, the father escapes from the fire of Gehenna.4 And the same magic power was ascribed to the recital of the “Barechu” (Praise the Lord) or of the Kaddish. Quite a number of legends illustrative of this idea circulated in Gaonic times. According to one, it was Akiva, according to another, R. Yochanan ben Zakkai, who saved a poor soul from Gehenna’s fire by teaching the son either the Torah or the prayer “Barechu.”5 However, this very belief in the power of prayer for the dead can be traced to pre-Christian times, as in the Testament of Abraham (Version A, ch. XIV), where the Patriarch is described as saving a soul from Purgatory by his prayer, in which the Archangel Michael joins him. No doubt, the whole conception was adopted by the Jew from his Persian surroundings, and the Church took it over from the Essene circles. Now, inasmuch as the Purgatory fires, called “the judgment of Gehenna,” were believed to last twelve months,6 the Kaddish ought by right to be recited by the son throughout the whole year from the day of burial on. This is indeed given as the custom in Kol Bo, CXIV. But, as Moses Isserles of Cracow tells us in the name of Isaac of Corbeil (13th century), it was felt to be rather unbecoming to a son to regard his father as so sinful as to be subject to the full twelve months’ punishment in Gehenna, and therefore it became customary to cease reciting the Kaddish eleven months after the father’s death.7 Much later, the custom spread to have the son recite the Kaddish also for the mother, and still later for the wife, brother, sister, or son. Originally, then, the Kaddish recital for the dead rests on a view which has no root in our system of belief; but, like all the funeral rites in a later stage, it assumed the character of pious regard for the dead. All the more it behooves us to do away with such customs and practices as still bear the character of crude superstitions. Accordingly, Dr. Solomon of Hamburg proposed atthe Rabbinical Conference of Breslau to have the eleven months’ recital of the Kaddish changed into a recital during the whole year of mourning. Certainly, this ought to be generally adopted by the members of our Conference. As to the Yahrzeit9–its history is also singular. The name, which is found also among the Jews of Italy and of Persia,l0 has been taken over from the Germans, who held a Todtenfeier annually for their dead on the day of their death on which the souls were believed to be allowed to return to look after their relatives.11 The name occurs in Jewish literature first among German authors at the end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th century,l2 whereas the Spanish Jews of the Orient opposed the Kaddish recital on the Yahrzeit as casting reflection on the parental honor in the spirit expressed above. Only Isaac Luria, who was of German descent, defended the custom, saying that it was to elevate the parent’s soul into a higher realm of Gan Eden. On the other hand, it seems to have been an ancient custom to fast on the anniversary of the parent’s death. This is mentioned in Sefer Chasidim and Kol Bo,13 and seems to rest on the baraita:14 “One swears to abstain from food and drink on the anniversary of the death of his father.” No doubt, this day was regarded as one of ill luck, and–like the fasting after a bad dream–it was meant to avert the same. We have here again a custom based on some superstitious notion transformed into a mark of filial piety, and it is as such that it claims our consideration.K. Kohler and D. NeumarkNOTES:1. Sifrei, Deut. 30:6.2. See J.E., s.v. “Kaddish” and “Lord’s Prayer.”3. Sota 49a; Shab. ll9b; Ber. 3a; comp. Tosafot eadem; Kol Bo, VII; Tur, Orach Chayim LVI.4. Tana d.b. Eliyahu Rabba, XVII; Zuta, XII; Sanh. 104a; Sefer Chasidim, Vislinezki, 12. 5. Seder Eliyahu Zuta, XVII; Kala Rab., II; Menorat Hama-or I, A, h; Machzor Vitry, 144; comp. M. Friedman, Pseudo Seder Eliyahu Zuta, pp. 23-25, and Landshut, Maavar Yabok, ch. XXXI.6. Eduyot II.10. Rosh Hashana 17a; compare Tosefta, Sanhedrin XIII.3-5, where it is an object of controversy between the Shammaites and Hillelites.7. Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 376.4, and Darchei Mosheh to Tur, eadem.8. See Protocolle d. Rabbinerversammlung zu Breslau, p. 286. 9. Berliner, Rome II, d. 55; Loew, Ges. Schr. IV, 264, note 1.10. Peterman, Reisen im Orient II, 175.11. Schoenwarth, Liter. u. Sagen aus der Oberpfalz.12. Isaac ofTyana’s Minhagim; Mordecai Jaffe, Lewsh Hatechelet.13. Sefer Chasidim, ed. Wistenetzki, 200; Kol Bo, CXIV.14. Nedarim 12a; Shevu-ot 20b.
If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.