Sermon – On how we recite Kaddish

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 28 January 2011

A story is told about Rabbi Akiva, the great rabbinic authority of the first and second centuries.  Once upon a time he was walking by a cemetery and came across a dirty, naked man, struggling under a large burden of wood.  R. Akiva ordered him to stop and offered to help him out of his predicament.  To cut a long story short, it turned out that the man had died and was living in a kind of limbo – a dead man, yet every day sent out to chop wood – being punished for his deeds in life. The story goes that the only possible relief for the man would be if he had a son who were to stand before the congregation “and recite the ברכו and the congregation were to answer, and also lead the community in יהא שמה רבא מברך – May God’s great name be blessed forever and ever”.  Only then would he be released from his punishment.

But, unfortunately for the man:  “I never had a son.  I left my wife pregnant and I do not know whether the child was a boy. And even if she gave birth to a boy, who would teach the boy Torah, for I have not a friend in the world?”

Immediately Rabbi Akiva took upon himself the task of finding the man’s son, teaching him Torah and installing him at the head of the congregation to lead the prayers. When Akiva came to the man’s town, he asked about the man’s son, and was told, “He is a heathen — we did not even bother to circumcise him.” Rabbi Akiva promptly circumcised the boy. But he refused to receive Torah. Ultimately after a bit of toing and froing, God finally opened the boy’s heart and Rabbi Akiva taught him Torah. After he had learned, Akiva presented the boy to the congregation and the boy recited the prayers and the congregation answered. At that very moment the man was released from his punishment. For this reason, the story concludes, it became customary that the evening service immediately after Shabbat is led by a man who does not have a father or a mother, so that he can say the Kaddish and ברכו.

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Now, it is a strange kind of story – full of the supernatural, presenting a strange picture of reward, punishment and the afterlife; a story that is perhaps suitable for academic study – that tells us about the superstitions and folktales of our forebears, but which seemingly should have no place in modern religious discourse. And yet, this narrative is hugely important. It helps us to understand one of the best known prayers of our liturgy – the kaddish.

For this story, dated to around the tenth century CE, gives us an insight into the power that the kaddish was understood to have, and, more importantly, it is one of the earliest pieces of evidence that we have of a link between the kaddish and mourning.  It presents an explanation, of sorts, as to why, as in a few moments, we end all our services with a kaddish yatom – a mourners’, or literally the orphan’s kaddish.

Without this story, the association of kaddish and mourning would be far from obvious.  If we were to look at the text of the kaddish itself, we would see no clues that this prayer is associated with loss.  Nowhere does the text itself mention death or remembrance.  Rather, it is a prayer of praise of God.  A sanctification of the name of God. To the extent that the prayer asks for anything, it is a prayer of longing for messianic redemption, calling for God to establish divine rule over the world, and to bring peace.

As we studied in the shiur that preceded this service, it’s origin is probably as a doxology – a hymn of praise that marked an ending – the kaddish came at the end of a piece of learning in the ancient synagogue – a prayer of messianic yearning at the end of the ancient sermon. This end-marking function of the kaddish is one that is retained in its current liturgical use, not limited to times of mourning.  There are a number of different types of kaddish – the same prayer, the same core theme, with little tweaks here and there – but used in radically different ways.  So, for example, there is a kaddish d’rabbanan – a ‘rabbis’ kaddish’ with additions referring to the Sages of Israel, traditionally said after a period of study of rabbinic literature.  And in our liturgy, the chatzi kaddish – a slightly abbreviated version of the prayer, inserted as a break between different sub-sections of the service.  There is another version, the kaddish shalem, the full kaddish, which we do not recite, but which traditionally is used to mark the end of the whole service.

So why the association with mourning, which, as we can see from our story is more than 1000 years old?  One possibility is that it is simply another end-marking kaddish – the end of a life.  But the real power of the Kaddish is something more profound – the fact that we praise God’s name despite our loss.   As a result, the call at the heart of the kaddish – יהא שמה רבא מברך – May God’s great name be blessed forever and ever, came in the eyes of previous generations to have an almost mystical power over the divine decree.

This also explains why the kaddish has traditionally been recited in the way it has – as a call and response – just like the Barchu with which, as we see in the story, it is closely associated.  The significance of the prayer is not in its recitation but in its production of response. According to the sage Joshua ben Levi,  whoever responds sincerely to the kaddish with the words May God’s great name be blessed – any evil decree against them is torn up.

As in the story, the important honour of the kaddish is to be the one who provokes in others this powerful sanctification of God’s name. Hence, the kaddish has traditionally been recited by those in mourning who have the privilege of producing a response from those around them.

As Jews in a progressive synagogue, we have a much broader understanding of what it is to be a mourner – not limiting it by time constraints or specific definitions of who is allowed to say kaddish for whom.  For a period in many Reform communities, all recited kaddish.  According to one explanation, this reflected the fact that all of us would have considered ourselves to be in mourning.  On Yom HaShoah and Tisha B’Av, such considerations still apply.

But in many communities there is a move to return to the essential nature of the kaddish as call and response.  Indeed, at our own Avodah meeting this month, there was a feeling that it is this form that the kaddish has most power, and that we should reframe our kaddish in this way.   Not because this is the Halachah of reciting kaddish – but because the real honour given to those who mourn is the honour of leading the community, not reading with the community.

And so, when we recite kaddish in a moment, we invite those who mourn to join the Shaliach tzibbur in leading the community.  And we invite those who do not consider themselves to be in mourning to respond.  In this way we can reflect the almost mystical power given in our tradition to the call and response effect of the kaddish. In this way, more importantly, we can give the honour to those who mourn of producing in the community the sanctification of God’s name. In this way: יהא שמה רבא מברך – May God’s great name be blessed forever and ever.  Amen