What is Kaddish?

In all Jewish communities worldwide, there is a custom to recite Kaddish in memory of deceased parents. However, in reality, there is no mention of death in the prayer at all! There are even many times throughout the prayer services in the synagogue that Kaddish is recited by someone other than a mourner. So, what is Kaddish really?

Kaddish is the prayer in which we affirm that G-d is the creator of the world and we pray that He will be universally recognized and revered. According to the commentary of the Machzor Vitri, Kaddish is a prayer speaking exclusively of the World To Come. At that time, as we say in the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayers, all mankind will recognize the majesty of the Almighty and unify as one group to serve Him. This will be at the time of the ultimate redemption, when the dead are revived.

So, while Kaddish is merely a praise of G-d’s attributes and a prayer that the entire world should recognize G-d’s majesty in the World To Come, it has a unique place for a mourner. First, much importance is placed on צידוק הדין, recognizing that whatever G-d does is for a reason. A mourner needs to recognize that when someone dies, it is because G-d is in control of the world. Kaddish affirms that. (This is also one of the reasons that a mourner or a yahrtzeit customarily receive the Maftir aliya. This is because he can then recite the blessings on the haftarah which contain the words שכל דבריו אמת וצדק, that everything He does is true and just.)

The legal source for Mourners Kaddish is the RaMa in Siman 376 quoting the Kol Bo. The custom stems from a story involving the sage Rabbi Akiva. He was once in a cemetery and he had a vision of a dead man who was being tortured in the next world. He told Rabbi Akiva that he was a horrible person in this world and committed many grave sins. Rabbi Akiva asked him if there is a remedy to his situation. He responded that if only he had a son who would say a prayer of praising G-d in the synagogue. However, he died with no children. He did leave his wife pregnant but had no idea what happened to his child. So, Rabbi Akiva searched ultimately found the child, who knew nothing of Judaism and taught him to pray. The father appeared to Rabbi Akiva in a dream to inform him that his soul was saved.

Kaddish is recited for eleven months.This is because the judgment of the wicked is twelve months, so we want to save the dead from this judgment. However, as not to presume that one’s parent is considered wicked in the eyes of G-d, we only say Kaddish for eleven months. If there is no child able to say Kaddish, one is encouraged to hire someone to say Kaddish for them. In that case, the person saying Kaddish must have the name of the deceased in front of him when he says the Kaddish, or at least, at the beginning of the day. It is then considered as if the relative said Kaddish himself.

-Rabbi A. Gaffen

Continue to Kaddish services