CURR 180-181


How old is the custom of reading the names of those whose Yahrzeit comes up during the week? Is there a traditional basis for hiring somebody to say Kaddish for the deceased? (From Rabbi Wolli Kaelter, Long Beach, California.)

As to the first question, our Reform congregations, at least up to the last thirty years, had the custom of reading the names of the deceased and the Yahrzeits as part of the Kaddish. Later some large congregations abandoned the practice simply because there were too many names to be read each week. Others, in order to keep the sense of Yahrzeit from fading from our people, are experimenting with informing the members of the Yahrzeit and reading the names of the deceased whose relatives have signified their intention to be present at the service. Other congregations, usually smaller ones, continue the older Reform custom of reading the names as part of the Kaddish. The question that is asked is: Does this reading of the names have any basis in the Jewish tradition?

Clearly this custom of ours is related to Yizkor or haskoras neshomos. The haskoras neshomos, as all scholars agree, began in the Rhineland after the Crusades. It was conducted on Yom Kippur and obviously the names of the martyrs were read, because we still have lists extant of the martyrs. The Rhineland congregations kept a Memor Buch, obviously for this purpose.

Then the custom of haskoras neshomos was extended in eastern Europe from Yom Kippur, also to the last day of each of the three festivals (cf. Isserles to Orah Hayyim 284:7). The question now is whether on these Yizkor services during the year a list of names was ever read (as we do at Memorial Services and as some of our congregations do at Sabbath services). First, we know that in eastern Europe there is a custom that lists of names of the deceased are read. There is a discussion of the whole question in Greenwald, Kol Bo Al Avelus, p. 339 and then later on p. 400 ff. Maharash Engel was asked the following question in his Responsa V, 24: There is a custom in many congregations that if a person leaves money to the Chevra Kadisha for this purpose, his name is read on the holidays and a light is lit on his Yahrzeit. The question asked of Engel was, since oil is now expensive (it was during the First World War) may they light one light and read a whole list of names of those whose Yahrzeit it is that week? He gives this permission, but adds that we must be sure that the names of all the donors should be read whose Yahrzeit it is. Solomon Schick, in his Responsa Rashban (Orah Hayyim 213) speaks of reading all the names in a memorial list and says it is not necessary (as some claim) to list the men and the women separately.

Now all this concerns either the Yizkor at holidays or the Yahrzeit day of the deceased. Could such memorial services take place on the Sabbath? Yes, for those who died during the week (Maharil quoted by Beer Heteb, Orah Hayyim 284). There is no question that they may (see Kol Bo 339, 13, which gives various references to this effect; cf. also Azulai Birche Joseph to Orah Hayyim 284:15). However, this is not quite our custom. The names of the dead mentioned were always in the regular Yizkor place, after the Torah reading in connection with the general memorial prayer, av horachamim, never in connection with the Kaddish, as is our custom.

Therefore it seems clear that our custom of reading memorial names on the Sabbath in the Kaddish is original with Reform, but it has these many roots, as is mentioned above.

Now, as to the second question, how far back the custom can be traced of hiring somebody to say Kaddish (this will occur especially with families in which there are no sons surviving). The earliest statement I have found on this goes back to the fourteenth century. Jochanan ben Mattathias who was virtually the last rabbi in Paris before the expulsion (i.e., fourteenth century) is quoted by Joseph Caro in his Bes Josef to Yore Deah 403, and he speaks of people hiring a melamed to say Kaddish. Later references are fairly numerous (Magen Avraham, Orah Hayyim 132:2, near end). For example, it is discussed by Ezekiel Landau of Prague in his Responsa Nodah b’Yehuda, II, 8. Finally there is a full discussion of the whole question in Israel, in the magazine Ha-Posek, published by the late Rabbi of Tel Aviv, Hillel Posek. The question arose because the shammas of a Shul in Tel Aviv was hired to say Kaddish for as many as ten people at a time. Therefore he asked David Assaf, who is rabbi of Haifa and has written a book on funeral customs, whether this situation should not be changed. In the magazine Ha-Posek, beginning with paragraph 780, he has a long responsum which covers all the literature. He does mention, however, that while the custom is well founded among us Ashkenazim, the Sephardic Rabbi Ben Zion Uziel (in his Mishpotey Uziel, Orah Hayyim 2) objects to it on the ground that no one should take pay for what is a mitzvah. At all events, it is a well established custom.

What is the basis for the folk custom of sitting shiva for a child who has converted to Christianity? (Asked by Rabbi Morris M. Task, Bayonne, New Jersey)

The basic source of the custom is in a statement in Isaac of Vienna’s Or Zorua (twelfth century). In the laws of mourning (at the end of the volume, 428) he transmits a report that Rabbenu Gershom (the Light of the Exile) sat shiva for his son who was a convert to Christianity. This statement is quoted by a number of the early authorities and I give you the references for completeness’ sake: The Mordecai to Moed Katan 886, Meir of Rothenberg in his Responsa (edited Budapest, 544) and a later authority, Joseph Caro in his Bes Josef to Tur, Yore Deah 354. In all these references the authorities cited are careful to say that the law is not according to Rabbenu Gershom. Now, therefore, if the original reference to Rabbenu Gershom in Or Zorua meant actually that Rabbenu Gershom sat shiva when his son was converted (i.e., because of the conversion) even so, the chief authorities say that this is not the law.

However, a careful reading of the texts reveals that there is a misunderstanding. Rabbenu Gershom did not sit shiva when and because his son became an apostate. What he did was to sit shiva for his son when the son died, in spite of the fact that the son had become an apostate years before. That this is the meaning of the passage in Or Zorua is clear from the following: All the discussions in Or Zorua itself and in the later sources which quote the incident, quote it in the following setting: The tractate Semachos, Chapter II, says that we must have no mourning of any kind for sinners and those who abandon the community. Therefore the law is that there must be no mourning, i.e., no shiva, etc., for apostates. Nevertheless, Rabbenu Gershom sat shiva for his apostate son when the son died, and the authorities all say that we do not follow his precedent. In other words, we do not sit shiva when an apostate dies.

How did the misunderstanding of the passage in Or Zorua arise? Why was it wrongly taken to mean that Rabbenu Gershom sat shiva when the son was still alive but had converted? This was due to a peculiarity of the text in Or Zorua. It says that Rabbenu Gershom sat shiva for his son, K’sh’nish-tamede. Obviously, as Chones indicates in Toldos Haposkim, page 208, the text should read “sh’nish-tamede. ” All the relevant contexts prove this (see Mordecai to Moed Katan 886). The incident, therefore, is that when Rabbenu Gershom’s son, an apostate, died, he sat shiva for him, which he should not have done. The wording of the text led people to the erroneous belief that he sat shiva for his son while the son was still alive and had just converted.