If you’ve just lost a family member, you may find yourself considering Kaddish, a traditional prayer said by mourners during daily services, which helps the grieving to reconnect to community and society in the aftermath of a serious loss.
I’ve been saying Kaddish daily (unless something prevents me) since my mother’s funeral on May 15. On days when I go twice a day, this represents a 200% increase in my normal weekday synagogue attendance. Sometimes I’m late, and occasionally, I miss it entirely - sometimes because I overslept, because of a work obligation, or because I had the opportunity to do something social that I know my mother wouldn’t want me to miss on her behalf.
The beneficiary of a day school education, I knew most of the words to kaddish already, but I had no idea what the experience of saying kaddish was supposed to be like. During shiva, I tried to keep up with my father and brothers; after that first seven days, on my twice daily visits to the Conservative synagogue that is halfway between my home and my office, my confusion continued. The more times I went, the more questions I had.
I wished I’d had a guide that approached the Kaddish-saying experience with honesty, information and humor. (And pop culture references.) So that’s what this is - a guide in process, which will hopefully help and perhaps pry a wry, reluctant smile from people going through a process of mourning.
- What is Kaddish? The Kaddish is a prayer said by mourners following the death of a blood relative (or spouse). Although some people only say Kaddish during the funeral, or during the week of shiva, there is a widespread tradition to say Kaddish for the entire month (shloshim) following the death of a spouse, child or sibling, or for 11 months after the death of a parent.
- How is the Kaddish like the Mel Gibson movie “The Passion of the Christ”? The Kaddish is in Aramaic. This means that pronunciation will not be easy, even to Hebrew-speakers. Add to that the fact that the text contains some verbal gymnastics that contain counterintuitive sound combinations, and it will likely take a number of recitations until you feel comfortable with the words themselves. (See #4 for more.)
- “Prayer for the Dead.” Contrary to popular belief, the content of the Kaddish does not mention death, grief or mourning. The word kaddish means “sanctification,” and its text speaks to the mourners reaffirmation of faith in God, repeating over and over again that God’s holy name should be praised, as if we’re trying to convince ourselves and others of that sentiment’s truth. Because really, we are.
- For you, a bargain: buy one Kaddish, get one free! There are two types of kaddish that mourners can expect to say within any given prayer service - the Kaddish Yatom (literally, “orphan’s kaddish”) and the Kaddish D’Rabbanan (“the rabbis’ kaddish”). Kaddish D’Rabbanan is longer, and contains additional Aramaic tongue-twisters that call for a world of peace for all who study Torah. It is usually said after someone has presented a piece of Torah learning, or at specific places in the liturgy just after long paragraphs of text that could be described as Torah learning. Only now am I beginning to master twisting my tongue enough to articulate “kadam avuhon divishmaya,” and I’ve begun to love the smell of” talmideyhon” in the morning. (Yes, that was an “Apocalypse Now” reference. In a post about Kaddish. It happens. Next up: Salt-n-Pepa.)
- “Ladies? All the ladies. Louder now. Help me out. Come on, all the ladies...”: If you are a woman, you may want to be aware that Orthodox congregations are not always accepting of women saying Kaddish. Although there’s no real prohibition against women participating in this ritual, we are generally considered to be exempt, as we are from most time-specific Jewish rituals. But beyond the exemption excuse, the focus is on the men saying Kaddish, so some Orthodox shuls won’t wait for women to catch up, and if no men are saying Kaddish, they may skip it unless they’re made aware specifically that a woman mourner is there for the specific purpose of Kaddish. Also, at the daily minyan in particular, a woman there to say Kaddish may be the only woman there. So this may add a layer of alienation that not everyone will be comfortable with. Most Conservative and Reform congregations provide a much more welcoming atmosphere for anyone saying kaddish, but in many communities may not offer daily services.
- “Alms for an ex-leper?” Every minyan has different customs - some pass around a tzedakah box at a specific time (and it depends on the minyan which time), and some put the tzedakah box on a side table and expect you to approach it at a specific time (and it depends on the minyan which time), so stay alert, changepurse at the ready, or you might miss it.
- Bow to your corner; bow to your partner; do-si-do: The bowing. Oy, the bowing. Which way? On which phrase? Steps back or no steps back? If you go according to the Artscroll siddur, it’s take three steps back, then say “oseh shalom bimromav” while bowing to the left; bow to the right and say “hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu”; then bow center with the grand finale “v’al kol yisrael v’imru amen.” But what you will see is every person bowing every which way at every which phrase, and you will wonder what they know that you don’t, and end up following the person who seems the most knowledgeable. But all the while, they’re looking at you, thinking they must be doing it wrong, and following you because you seem the most knowledgeable. At the end of the day, it probably doesn’t really matter. But don’t quote me on that, because I’m not that knowledgeable, after all.
- “Help me, help you.” Over the course of your time saying kaddish, your needs may change in terms of what you want, expect and need from a daily minyan. Some days, you won’t be in the mood for morning talk. And that’s a hard thing to extricate yourself from, so sometimes you might flee at the end of the service, or get caught up in a conversation about your loss, and inevitably, the listener shares his or her story of loss, as well. You may not always feel like talking when you’re walking a thin line between functional and less-than-functional. But talking to others can be helpful in contextualizing yourself on a continuum of human loss, in concretizing the idea that things get better with time, that coping becomes more natural, but that the person’s impact remains even after he or she is physically gone from this earth. The months of mourning are about finding that balance between tending to one’s own emotional needs and trying to find a way back into society - it’s a process that you can’t expect to go through quickly, so talk to others when you can, but also take the time to do what you need to do.
- Into the Words: Whether you’ve been to daily prayer services once or a thousand times, when you’re a mourner, the experience is different. You may pore over the liturgy eagerly, saying each word and reveling in the opportunity to learn about a service that wasn’t previously part of daily life. Or, you may sit, prayer book open, waiting for your cue to Kaddish. If you’re actively reading the text in the siddur, you’ll probably find hidden traps in the liturgy that make you think about your loss unexpectedly, that challenge your ideas about God and justice and healing and faith, especially if the loss was sudden, and/or due to either a short or a long illness. All that is evoked by the power combination of a text that covers lots of human experiences, and the human experiential baggage that each of us brings to our spiritual experiences, daily and after a loss. There may be tears, and many minyanim know this, placing boxes of tissues in accessible places: this kaddish has been brought to you by Kleenex.
- Kaddish as pop star: The Kaddish has become a staple of popular culture: from Allen Ginsberg’s poetry to television episodes of X-Files, Homicide: Life on the Streets and Northern Exposure, to films as diverse as Rocky III and Yentl. (For more about Kaddish in popular culture, see Wikipedia.)
- Bonus item: Kaddish: A ritual worth killing for?: Sometimes, making sure there’s a minyan for Kaddish takes extreme measures. Or at least, my mother imagined it might in her (fiction! it’s fiction!) book, Murder at the Minyan (now available in paperback everywhere, and electronically in Nook and Kindle editions). Synagogues - at least most synagogues I know about - don’t go to this extreme. But with a rabbi for a father, my mother knew it was important to the community to be able to provide this service, and that there might conceivably be someone, somewhere, who’d take the responsibility of ensuring a minyan way too far. (During shiva, the book elicited many comments from the rabbis who visited - and we were sure to reassure them that the book was fiction.) This darkly comic sensibility, sensitive to the tradition but with a sense of play and implicit criticism that things can sometimes be taken too far, is part of the package of me, an inherited lens through which I view my participation in minyan and in life every day.
(For those of you keeping track, pop culture references included: "Apocalypse Now," rap group Salt-n-Pepa, "Monty Python’s Life of Brian," square dancing, "Jerry Maguire," the off-Broadway parody show, "Forbidden Broadway," and "Apocalypse Now," again.)