RR 165-168

Kaddish and Yahrzeit for a Child

A child died at the age of four. After the funeral the father asked whether he should observe mourning for the child, say Kaddish and keep the Yahrzeit.

Whether the regular mourning customs should be observed for a child has been widely discussed in the legal literature, but as yet the law is far from clear. There is a wide variety of opinions and even a divergence in the basic principles involved.

What is sure is the status of very young infants with regard to mourning. If an infant dies before it is thirty days old, it is considered equivalent to a stillbirth (Nefel). Therefore no regular funeral rites need be observed (cf. “Magan Abraham,” Orah Hayyim 526, n. 20).

A child who dies when older than thirty days must have the usual burial rites, but how much mourning should be observed is widely debated in the law. Basically, it is seriously questioned whether a father has any duty at all to say Kaddish for his son. The essential duty of saying Kaddish devolves upon a son for his father. All relatives other than sons who recite Kaddish do so not out of legal duty, but only by custom (see Isserles’ full note on the question of Kaddish at the end of Yore Deah 376). This opinion is based upon the statement in the Talmud (b. Sanhedrin 104a) to the effect that a son can bring merit (and deliverance) to a father, but a father cannot “save” a son (i.e., in the judgment after death). Furthermore, according to the tradition, no one is subject to judgment after death before the age of twenty. If, then, Kaddish is for the sake of redeeming the departed, it is not even necessary if the departed had not reached the age of twenty! (See the question in Ezekiel Landau’s “Nodah b’Yehudah” II, Orah Hayyim #8.) However, Landau in his answer doubts the validity of the argument that a person who dies before twenty does not need to have Kaddish said for him; for if the argument were valid, then the orphan children of a young father who dies before he is twenty would not need to say Kaddish for him, which, of course, is not so. Nevertheless, most of the opinions agree that anyone under twenty does not need Kaddish said in his behalf. (Cf. Joseph Schwartz, “Vayitzbor Yosef,” #21.)

But there are strong psychological reasons involved in the saying of Kaddish and the keeping of Yahrzeit. These psychological reasons go beyond the legalistic denials of a father’s duty to say Kaddish for a son and the notions about a person under twenty not needing the redemptive effect of Kaddish. There is a strong emotional need in a parent to say Kaddish for a son. Therefore, in spite of the law, the custom arose for a father to say Kaddish. However, this is recognized as being only a custom. Therefore, in the numerous disputes between a number of mourners in a synagogue as to who has the right to recite Kaddish (and, for example, the orphan’s right to recite the Haftara or to lead the Saturday evening services), it is always stated that orphans have the right to protest the privilege given to a father, since his Kaddish is not required by law. (Cf. Jacob Reischer, Shevus Ya’acov, II, Yore Deah 93, and Beth Lechem Yehuda, Z’vi H. Azriel, of Vilna [eighteenth century], to Yore Deah 376.)

However, all this indicates that the custom has been firmly established for a father to say Kaddish for his son. But how old must the deceased child be for the father to say Kaddish? Since this is merely custom, not law, it is not surprising that the customs vary.Chaim Cheskia Medini (“S’de Chemed,” Avelus 151) cites (with disapproval) the custom not to say Kaddish for a child who died unmarried. Nissim Ashkenazi (“Ma’aseh Avraham,” #59) says that the custom in Smyrna is not to say Kaddish unless the child was Bar Mitzvah (except, of course, the Kaddish at the grave). Isserles says that it should be said only if the child was twelve months old (Yore Deah 344 : 4). Medini says (loc. cit.) that Kaddish should be said if the child had reached the age of understanding and intelligence.

Clearly, the state of law and custom allows the parents to make their own decision. If the child was to them an intelligent personality, or if they feel the need to say Kaddish and keep the Yahrzeit, then, although it is not strictly required of them, they may certainly do so.