The Meaning of the Kaddish
. What is the one thing that every Jew comes to learn--too well, in the course of life--the one prayer--perhaps even more than Shma Yisrael, which a Jew must say morning and evening?
What else if not the Kaddish--this one statement, which we associate with life's most tragic moments. How many recall that , even today, a husband would be concerned that his wife gave birth to a boy, no matter how many girls, just to be sure that he had a kadishel--some one to say Kaddish for him.
But we know this prayer so well--do we understand it--do we know what ot means- what it comes to teach us.
Today, Yizkor, we all say Kaddish, we will examine what the Kaddish has to offer us.
The most important thing I can say--is the Kaddish is not, never was, and never will be a prayer for the dead, but a statement of faith for the living.
Some of you know, I worked in Israel in Jewish education, and one of my areas was teaching Jewish concepts to secular teachers who had little feeling for the subject.
One of the most moving and powerful days on the Israeli calendar is Yom Hazikaron, the day preceding Israel independence day, which will be observed in just two weeks.
It is amazing--on this day, the country comes to a stand-absolute stand. Siren calls, every one stands absolutely still. Cars halt on highway, drivers get out and stand silently.
At every ceremony, standard declaration--the poem found in book of Samuel, King David's elegy for Saul and Jonathan--Aich Naflu Giborim--How the mighty have fallen. Then, followed by Kaddish, with a very special introduction by the great Jewish writer, Shai Agnon.
Main point I made to the teachers--if we must send young men and women out to the battlefield, they must have a sense of purpose, a faith in the need and value their cause. The Kaddish is a declaration of the faith that a Jew has that his actions in life are for a nobler cause.
What then is the Kaddish--it never was a prayer for the dead.
One sentence became a popular refrain among the Jewish people, comparable to Amen, and it is recorded in various versions already in parts of the Bible--it has come down to us in Aramaic, the language of the Jewish people of the time after the close of the Bible, some 2500 years ago--It is
Yehey Shmeh Rabba mevorach leolam ulolmei olmaya--May His Great Name be Blessed for all eternity. This sentence was considered to be the great declaration of faith of Jews of the day. Note as I said, it’s in Aramaic, not in Hebrew--Aramaic is to Hebrew, as English is to German, kissing cousins , but different sounds and rules. By the way, there is a legend, that it is in Aramaic because angels, who are jealous of the Jewish people, know Hebrew , but never studied Aramaic, and so they can't interfere with the prayer when it is recited.
In the course of time, it became the practice , at the end of a days lesson in the yeshivah, for the teacher to declare a statement of consolation and faith in a messianic day, to which the students would respond: Yehey Shmay.
In time, we have the formula, as we know it, created before the destruction of the second temple:
Yitgadal veyitkadash--Magnified and ssanctified be his name, in the world he created by his will, may his kingdom reign, in our lives and in our days, speedily and soon, Amen.
Anyone who has examined the Lord's Prayer of the Christian scriptures recognizes where the phrases" Hallowed by thy name, thy kingdom come" originated, in the Aramaic of the Jews of Israel of 2000 years ago.
By the year 600, the Kaddish was added, not just to the end of the lecture of the academy, but also to the end of the Torah reading, before Barchu, and at the end of the worship service. By the 9th century, it achieved the format and usage that we have today.
. But what about the deceased, what about mourning. From the time the very first phrases were formulated, till we see the Kaddish as we know it, it was used only for the academy and only as a prayer in the service. No one used it for a reference to death.
In the course of time, when a great scholar would die, at the end of the shivah, another great scholar would get up and deliver a lesson in his memory, and then conclude the lecture with the Kaddish, Kaddish derabanan, the scholar's Kaddish.
What started with great scholars soon spread to lesser scholars. What continue with lesser scholars soon spread to every man--why should he get the honor--don't I deserve it too!
Finally, what was said at the end of shivah, and then said by the mourner in memory of the deceased, soon spread , not only to the end of a lesson in the academy, but to the end of every service.
What, finally gave Kaddish its connection with the dead?
There is a legend, in which a man was so evil and wicked, that it is said that he was condemned to everlasting torment.
Rabbi Akiba learned of this, sought out the man's son, taught him a prayer, and the man's soul was released from its torment. There are 17 different versions as to what it is that the child learned to say, but not the Kaddish!
Nevertheless, out of that legend, arose the belief that when a man's son is engaged in some prayer, this serves as a testimony of merit for the deceased.
By time, the Kaddish became associated with that prayer, until it became, by the end of the middle ages, the prayer of obligation for a mourner, even though it is not found in a single book of Jewish law, not even the shulkhan arukh! Only in the Polish commentary, the Mapah, of Issereles, do we find the explicit instruction to recite Kaddish over the course of the year--that is not until 400 years ago-- what we call the beginnings of the modern era.
The custom of saying Kaddish took on one more flourish---by ancient Talmudic tradition, the souls of even the most wicked are condemned to hell for only twelve months. There is no such thing as eternal damnation--but who ever could imagine a Jew who was so wicked as to deserve all twelve months in gehena! Therefore ,the custom arose of the son saying Kaddish only for eleven months—after all--how wicked could a father be if the son thought enough of him to say Kaddish.
So, as you see, Kaddish became a prayer said for the dead, by accident--it never was intended, and never is intended as a prayer for the dead
Now , what is its significance--
It is most appropriate for recitation at the funeral, or in the house of mourning, or at the conclusion of study, or the conclusion of worship precisely because it is a prayer of faith and hope--never a prayer centered around death--Jews believe that Lo hametim yehallula--the dead can not praise God, nor those who go down in silence but we, the living, praise god.
What does make it appropriate-- it describes faith in God's sanctity, and in God' rule, faith in the kingdom of God. In the version which is used by Yemenite Jews, and also for us, only at the funeral service itself, it speaks of Balma dehu atid leithadta--The world in the future which will be renewed, life will be given to the dead, to everlasting life, the rebuilding of Jerusalem, the rebuilding of the Temple, and the end of idolatry form the earth. The theme is that of the Jews faith in the triumph of God over idols, of good over evil, of life over death.
Central to the Kaddish is that word "kadosh"-Kaddish"-it ties in with the theme of Kiddush hashem--sanctifying God;s name. Kaddish is a public declaration--always in a minyan, a public of ten, never less, because it is a universal declaration of faith.
A Jew is asked , in every act in life to be engaged in Kiddush hashem--making God' name holy. That is the function of public worship, since anyone could just as well pray in private. Public worship enables us to share our faith and our hopes with the world around us. Hence, Kaddish must be in minyan to be of purpose since it is a public pronouncement.
Its function is to teach us always to be willing to speak out in public for our causes, for our beliefs, for that which we value. It also enforces on us the recognition that we are part and parcel of a community--we pray not by and for ourselves alone, but by and for our fellow human beings.
Now, there is one other legend, which gives us an insight in the meaning of the Kaddish for us.
In the Talmud, there is a description of God sitting in heaven, and groaning: Every moment that the children of Israel enter the academy and declare Yehy shey rabba--the Holy One shakes his head and says:Happy the king who is praised in his house--but now that the palace , the ancient temple has been destroyed. He cries:
Woe to the father who had exiled his sons and woe to the sons who were exiled from the father's presence."(Ber3a).
There is a peculiar commentary to this sentence on that page in the Talmud, referred to by the grandsons of Rashi, the Tosafot.
The phrase Yehy Shamy Rabba should be translated: In the future , God's name shall be made great---today, Amalek, hatred, maliciousness and will ful hatred, prevent God's name from being great, from being complete. God himself, in the struggle against the evil that mankind is capable of, mourns, and he is in need, of what we say in the Kaddish "Tushbechata venehamata"-even God is in need of our encouragement and consolation--that evil will be eliminated from the human heart.
This very thought brings us right to the very first time that the idea of Kaddish appears, the prophet Ezekiel speaks of a final cataclysm, in which the forces of evil among the nations of the world, Gog of Magog, will be finally destroyed, and then, only then, Hitgadalti ve hitkadashti v nodaati leeynei goyim rabim--then shall I be magnified and sanctified, and and be known to all the nations."(Ez 38:23).
Our Kaddish then is the descendant of this declaration of faith in the ultimate triumph of the kingdom of God by the prophet Ezekiel. We have many variations on a theme, from a short, hatzi, Kaddish. To full length Kaddish shalem, , to Kaddish yatom, mourners Kaddish, to Kaddish derabanan, to the Kaddish deithadta. But all carry this theme for us, and teach us what is expected of us as Jews, both ion our prayers and in our lives--not to look back to the dead, but to look forward, and strive to the future.