I recently observed the Yarhzeit (yearly anniversary of the passing of a relative) of my mother, of blessed memory. Part of the observance is saying Kaddish, a prayer that is said by mourners and by the prayer leader. Kaddish was instituted almost 2,000 years ago and is mentioned in numerous places in the Mishnah and Talmud. Kaddish is written in Aramaic, the spoken language of the Jews in Israel and Babylon when the Mishnah and Talmud were written. Kaddish literally means “sanctification;” the theme of this prayer is the sanctification and praise of God. When we look at the words of the Kaddish prayer, we note that there is no hint of sadness or mourning, nor does it mention the deceased in any way.
May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified (Congregation – Amen) in the world that He created as He willed. May He give reign to His Kingship in your lifetimes and in your days, and in the lifetimes of the entire Family of Israel, swiftly and soon. Now we respond, Amen.
(Cong. – Amen. May His great Name be blessed forever and ever.)
May His great Name be blessed forever and ever.
Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled, mighty, upraised, and lauded be the Name of the Holy One, blessed is He (Cong. – Blessed is He) beyond any blessings and song, praise and consolation that are uttered in the world. Now let us respond: Amen.
(Cong. – Amen)
May there be abundant peace from Heaven, and life upon us and upon all Israel. Now let us respond: Amen. (Cong. – Amen)
He who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace upon us and upon all Israel. Now respond: Amen. (Cong. – Amen).
Why is this prayer said by mourners and those observing a yahrzeit? One possible explanation is that by publicly calling upon the congregation to praise and acknowledge God, Kaddish bestows merit on the deceased and atones for wrongs that he or she may have done. It is also a way for the mourner to counteract any act of the deceased that may have brought dishonor to God’s name or reduced people’s awareness of God. In addition it is a form of acceptance of God’s judgment by affirming belief in the greatness of God and recognizing Him as King. These explanations are possible, but, to be honest, do not sit well with me.
Perhaps we can offer another explanation. Kaddish does not mention death or the deceased individual at all and it focuses entirely on the greatness of the Creator. Maybe this is an attempt to comfort the mourner by helping him realize that although the physical world is transitory, a greater, infinite reality exists beyond the reach of our senses. As one writer expressed it: “Kaddish is total identification with the ultimate when the immediate seems to collapse before our eyes.”
Saying Kaddish takes faith and courage, and certainly, soon after the death of a loved one, can be a very difficult thing to do. At the same time, however, saying Kaddish is also an act of healing and comfort, which may explain why many Jews who are very distant from formal observance nevertheless say Kaddish. At times, when we seem very far from eternity, there is comfort in being part of a historic tradition going back thousands of years, in being part of a community, connected to God, the Eternal One.