Have you ever paid someone to recite Mourners Kaddish? Would you?
The Kaddish could well be the most well-known and ubiquitous texts that exist in our liturgy—it evokes a variety of emotions and seems to unite Jews of disparate levels of observance. Even those who identify as non-observant often make the effort to recite Mourners Kaddish after the death of a family member. But at the same time, it’s also probably the most misunderstood prayer in the entire Siddur.
Here’s what’s not mentioned in the Kaddish: death, dying, mourning, souls, or remembering.
In fact, the Kaddish praises God and declares God’s sovereignty over the world. That’s basically it—a closer look might suggest that the author had his thesaurus open to the word “praise”—there are a lot of synonyms that are used. The Kaddish was originally recited by students in honor of their teachers—thanking God for the gift of their scholarship (kind of like an early version of ratemyscholar.com). The prayer soon went viral and made its way into the fixed liturgy, enshrined in its original Aramaic—the ancient vernacular much like today’s English. The Kaddish was inserted between various sections of the service—with the Chatzi (Half) Kaddish following minor divisions and the Kaddish Shalem (Full) concluding major sections. And yes, eventually, the tradition arose whereby mourners would recite the Kaddish at the end of the service.
The Mourners Kaddish has become a brilliant addition to the service. Its words are nothing more than a public affirmation of God’s greatness—and think of the raw emotion and impact of those words spoken by a person who is in mourning. At the time of their life when they likely feel most lost, angry, and distant from any religious feeling, our tradition has them come to services, stand up in the midst of their fellow congregants, and declare that God is to be praised.
And because the Kaddish is a public declaration, it is only recited when a minyan is present (10 or more people). You don’t recite Kaddish alone at home. This forces mourners to leave their homes and rejoin the community precisely at the time when many would be tempted to isolate themselves. This in turn encourages others to attend services so that the minimum number of people will be there. There are numerous stories of once disenfranchised Jews who started saying Kaddish and never stopped coming to services.
Strangely, a person in mourning might be offered the chance to hire or pay someone—such as a Yeshiva student—to recite the Kaddish each day. This way the mourner knows that the words will be said even when they can’t make it to temple. There’s also the accompanying message that the person who has died—the soul of the departed—somehow benefits each time the Kaddish is recited on his behalf.
This reminds me of something I read recently—some pretty clever entrepreneur started a company that would let you pay someone to stand in line for you. While some chores can be outsourced, praying isn’t one of them. If you can pay someone to recite Kaddish, then why not simply hire a surrogate to attend services all year? (The cynical ones among you might point out that you already did—meet the Cantor and Rabbi.)
If you’d like to donate money to a Yeshiva, by all means go ahead, and do so generously. But don’t relinquish the unique opportunity to be transformed and moved by the recitation of Mourners Kaddish, and to see how those familiar words can affect you personally.
What are some of your own experiences—positive or negative—with Mourners Kaddish? Have you ever been asked if you wanted someone to recite the Kaddish on your behalf? Leave me a comment below…