NYP no. 5766.1



When A Parent Instructs A Child Not To Say Kaddish

A convert is anticipating the way in which she will mourn for her elderly and ailing father. He has never been entirely reconciled to her conversion to Judaism, and his own parents, she says, were out-and-out anti-Semites. The father plans to be buried in the family plot near his own father. He has asked his daughter not to recite Kaddish over his grave, citing his own parents. negative feelings toward Judaism. The daughter now faces a conflict between the obligation to honor her father’s wishes (kibud av) and her own Jewish mourning practices. When the time comes, should she ignore her father’s wishes and recite Kaddish at his grave? (Rabbi David Ostrich, State College, PA)


A person’s choice to become a Jew should be an occasion for happiness in our community. Unfortunately, as in this case, that decision can be accompanied by family tension and lingering bitterness. Our Committee cannot directly speak to this woman’s difficult family situation; that is a personal issue that must be addressed in her conversations with her rabbi. Our task is to consider the more formal question she poses: what is the Jewish religious duty of the Jew-by-choice in such a case? We do hope, though, that our words will offer some emotional support to her and to others who face a similar dilemma.

1. The Ger’s Obligation To Mourn Non-Jewish Relatives. We begin with our tradition’s discussion of the relationship between the ger, the Jew-by-choice, and his/her blood relatives. The Talmud declares that “the one who converts to Judaism is like a newborn child,”[1] expressing the conviction that the proselyte begins a brand new life upon joining the Jewish people. In a legal sense, this means that all blood ties between the ger and his or her non-Jewish relatives are rendered null and void.[2] However, the halakhah does not develop this principle to its logical extreme. For example, a Jew-by-choice is not permitted to marry any blood relative that would be forbidden to a born Jew, even though according to the halakhah they are not his “relatives.” Similarly, the ger is required to honor her Gentile parents, even though she is a “newborn child” and they, technically, are no longer her mother and father. The law makes these exceptions to the rule of the convert’s “newborn” status because “let it not be said that a proselyte has descended in holiness.”[3] That is, conversion to Judaism should not serve as a justification for behavior considered shameful by all people, Jews and non-Jews alike. Our Reform tradition applies this reasoning to the case of the mourner as well. Thus, the Jew-by-choice observes the rites of mourning for his or her non-Jewish relatives in the same way that a born Jew would mourn his or her loved ones. This includes the obligation to recite Kaddish for them.[4]

2. May A Parent Exempt A Child From The Duty To Say Kaddish? The ger owes the same moral obligation to his or her parents as does the Jew by birth. We must now consider the following question: what is the duty of any Jew whose parent requests that he or she not recite Kaddish when the parent dies? On the one hand, as our she’elah indicates, it is a mitzvah to honor and to revere our parents,[5] which implies that we should endeavor to fulfill their wishes, especially those they communicate to us toward the end of their life.[6] On the other hand, our parents are not entitled to demand that we violate other mitzvot,[7] and perhaps this means that they may not require that we forego the traditional practices of mourning (avelut).

The view among traditional authorities is mixed. The 19th-century Galician posek R. Shaul Nathanson[8] rules that a child should honor a parent’s instruction not to say Kaddish for him or her. His reason is that the recitation of the mourner’s Kaddish (kadish yatom) is for the benefit of the dead. Traditionally, it is considered a tikun lenefesh hamet, an act of expiation by the son that speeds his parent’s entry into Paradise or the World to Come.[9] Since a person is entitled to reject a benefit that another wishes to confer upon him, the child is not obligated to recite Kaddish against the parent’s wishes. R. Ovadyah Yosef, the contemporary Israeli scholar, takes the opposing view: the child should not honor this request, for had the parent truly considered how important it was that his soul be lifted toward Paradise, he never would have instructed the child not to recite Kaddish.[10] This dispute evokes the Talmudic discussion over the eulogy (hesped):[11] do we honor the deceased’s request that he not be eulogized at his funeral? Is the eulogy “an honor for the dead,” in which case the deceased is entitled to forego the honor, or “an honor for the living,” in which case we would say that the deceased cannot deny his mourners an honor to which they are entitled? The later authorities determine that the eulogy is “for the honor of the dead”; hence, they rule that we obey the deceased’s request that no eulogy be recited.[12] Both Nathanson and Yosef regard the Kaddish as “an honor for the dead” that the deceased may refuse, though Yosef holds that such a refusal cannot be understood as an “informed decision.”

We Reform Jews take a different approach to the theology of Kaddish. We do not believe that we elevate the souls of our dead to Paradise by reciting Kaddish for them. Rather, we recite Kaddish because it is the primary liturgical expression of traditional Jewish mourning. For us, it evokes the unbroken link of memory that binds every Jewish generation to its past. Its recitation is the way we declare our faith, even at the darkest moments of loss, in the eternity of Israel’s covenant with God, in the triumph of hope and “in the coming of the Divine kingdom.”[13] We no longer hold, therefore, that the recitation of Kaddish is “for the honor of the dead”; it is, however, vitally important for us that we say it. As such, this ritual indisputably serves “the honor of the living,” and the dead, according to the Talmudic principle, are not entitled to deny us the “honor” – we would prefer to say “responsibility” – of mourning as Jews. Thus, we recite Kaddish whether or not our loved ones request us to do so, or even if they forbid us from doing so after they are gone.

3. To Honor One’s (Non-Jewish) Parent. A Jew is therefore obligated to say Kaddish and to mourn a parent even though the parent has instructed the child to the contrary.[14] Our duty to honor our parents does not empower them to demand that we cease to act as Jews. This parent, however, is a non-Jew who for his own very heartfelt reasons does not want his daughter to recite Kaddish over his grave. She might argue that her practice of mourning is her own business, one that flows from her sense of Jewish religious duty, and that this duty overrides any obligation to honor his wishes. Yet this non-Jewish father has every right to believe that the commandment “honor your father and your mother” prohibits his daughter from drawing him against his will into a world of religious duty and observance that is not his own. We are speaking, after all, of his funeral, his burial place in a non-Jewish cemetery. Seen from this perspective, the daughter who stands at that place and recites Kaddish is no longer simply “minding her own business” or “mourning in her own way”; she has invaded her father’s “space” with Jewish ritual in direct contradiction to his wishes.

We think that the daughter should honor her father’s request and not say Kaddish at his grave. We base our conclusion primarily upon two reasons.

First, to say Kaddish over the father’s grave in violation of his explicit instruction would smack of religious coercion. As we have noted in another context, our experience as Jews in a free society has made us quite sensitive to actions that, however unobjectionable they appear to some, strike others as an unwanted intrusion of religion into their lives. We reject those actions when others perform them; we should avoid them as well.[15]

Second, since the funeral service will be a non-Jewish one, taking place in a non-Jewish cemetery, it is arguably inappropriate to introduce Jewish ritual into that setting. Such, after all, is our own policy: although we in the Reform movement permit the burial of non-Jews in our cemeteries, we insist that the burial service be a liturgy of our own devising, that no non-Jewish liturgy be used, and that no non-Jewish religious symbolism be displayed during the service or on the tombstone.[16] We believe that this is a reasonable standard, and we also believe it to be reasonable when non-Jews apply it to their services. It is only right to accord to this father the same understanding that, were the situation reversed, we would ask of him.

Note that we are speaking of the non-Jewish funeral and the father’s grave. It is there that the daughter should honor her father’s wishes. Elsewhere, however, her decisions as to how she shall mourn are very much her own. If, for example, her father had requested that she never say Kaddish for him, even while observing shiv`ah or at a synagogue service, she would be under no obligation to honor that request. In those Jewish settings, her wishes and her sense of religious duty would prevail over his. Fortunately, the father’s request does not seem to extend beyond the boundaries of the cemetery in which he is to be buried.

Conclusion. We have argued the following points.

  • The Jew-by-choice owes the same duty of honor to his or her parents as does the born Jew. This includes the obligation to mourn them when they die.
  • A Jewish parent is not entitled to instruct his or her child not observe the rites of mourning or recite Kaddish. The child, though obliged to “honor” the parent, has no duty to fulfill such an instruction.
  • The Jew-by-choice should honor his or her non-Jewish parent’s request that Kaddish not be recited and other Jewish rites not be performed at the parent’s grave in the non-Jewish cemetery. At his or her home or in any other Jewish setting, however, the ger should recite Kaddish and mourn as a Jew, even if the parent had requested otherwise.Our teshuvah attempts to chart a compromise between two sets of duties: the duty of every Jew to mourn our loved ones in a Jewish manner and our duty to honor our parents. These duties usually do not conflict, since our parents are not entitled to demand that we abandon our Jewish practices in order to please them. In this case, the dying father does not ask that his daughter abandon her Judaism. He has asked her, however, not to recite Kaddish at his grave, because he is struggling with his own issues of filial responsibility and because he perceives the introduction of Jewish ritual into that non-Jewish setting as an encroachment upon his own religious integrity. Although his daughter does not share that perception, we think it is a reasonable one and that he is entitled to make that request.

    It is indeed unfortunate, from our standpoint, that the father has never become “entirely reconciled” to his daughter’s conversion. We hope that, as his death approaches, a way can be found to resolve, at least in part, the issues that have divided them. And we believe that, by honoring her father in acceding to this request, the daughter would take a significant step toward that end.


    1.         B. Yevamot 22a and parallels.

    2.         For example, a ger may testify in court concerning his brother; Yad, Edut 13:3 and Shulchan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 33:11.

    3.         B. Yevamot 22a. On marriage, see Yad, Isurey Bi’ah 14:12 and Shulchan Arukh Yoreh De`ah 269:1. On honoring one’s Gentile parent, see Yad, Mamrim 5:11 and Kesef Mishneh ad loc.

    4.         Contemporary American Reform Responsa, no. 121 (http://data.ccarnet.org/cgi-bin/respdisp.pl?file=121&year=carr). At least one Orthodox posek rules likewise; see R. Aharon Walkin, Resp. Zekan Aharon 2:87. The codes, it should be noted, exempt the ger from the obligation to mourn for a blood relative, including a parent (Yad, Avel 2:3 and Shulchan Arukh Yoreh De`ah 374:5). This stance is justified on the basis of the dictum, cited above, that “the one who converts to Judaism is like a newborn child” (Kesef Mishneh to Avel 2:3). For our part, we would argue that this ruling conflicts with the halakhah’s explicitly stated desire that the ger live according to the same standard of holiness as the born Jew; see the sources in the preceding note. It therefore makes no religious sense to us to require the Jew-by-choice to honor his parents when they are alive but to exempt her from the requirement to mourn them when they are dead. Rather, we encourage this Jewish person to express his or her feelings at such a moment in the way that all Jews express them. We think this position is preferable to forced efforts to reconcile the halakhah, as traditionally interpreted, with modern sensibilities; see, for example, Maurice Lamm, The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning (New York: Jonathan David, 1969), 82-83.

    5.         Exodus 20:12 and Deuteronomy 5:16; Leviticus 19:3.

    6.         “It is a mitzvah to fulfill a dying person’s instructions”; B. Gitin 14b and parallels; Yad, Zekhiah 4:4-5; Shulchan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 125:8.

    7.         B. Yevamot 5b; Yad, Mamrim 6:12; Shulchan Arukh Yoreh De`ah 240:15.

    8.         Resp. Sho’el Uumeshiv v. 3, 1:259.

    9.         On the history of the Kaddish, with a discussion of the origins of the mourner’s Kaddish, see Ismar Elbogen, Jewish Liturgy (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1993), 80-84.

    10.       Resp. Yabi`a Omer 6, Yoreh De`ah 31, par. 4.

    11.       B. Sanhedrin 46b.

    12.       Yad, Avel 12:1; Shulchan Arukh Yoreh De`ah 344:10. Whether we would rule that way is another question, but one that we need not address here.

    13.       See Gates of Prayer, 628.

    14.       See Shulchan Arukh Yoreh De`ah 344:10 and commentaries. Some authorities take the view that all the rituals of avelut, including shiv`ah, sheloshim, etc., are “for the honor of the dead” and that the dead may exempt the mourners from the obligation to observe these practices. Others disagree (see Kol Bo `al Avelut, 301, par. 7), and we side with them. We see the practices of mourning as important religious expressions for the mourners, quite apart from what the deceased would have wished.

    15.       See Questions and Reform Jewish Answers, no. 93, “A Circumcision without Parental Consent” (http://data.ccarnet.org/cgi-bin/respdisp.pl?file=93&year=narr). The case there involved a mohel’s surreptitious recitation of the berakhot of milah at a medical circumcision of a Jewish boy whose parents had explicitly requested that no religious ritual take place.

    16.       Rabbi’s Manual (New York, CCAR, 1987), 250-251; Simeon Maslin, ed., Gates of Mitzvah (New York: CCAR, 1979), 57; American Reform Responsa, no. 99 (http://data.ccarnet.org/cgi-bin/respdisp.pl?file=99&year=arr).

    If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.