Sunday, March 21, 2010

Reflections on Saying Kaddish

Rabbi Gary S. Creditor
Yizkor – Shavuot Second Day
May 18th, 2002


Saying Kaddish is one of the most important and special Jewish observances symbolizing our relationships with our family members. I've always been amazed that so few people accept upon themselves the chiuv, the positive obligation to say Kaddish with even-near proper frequency, when someone close to them dies. So few do it for a full shiva, seven days, and even those who do, many don't finish the sheloshim, the additional twenty-three days making thirty, a full month. While for other relationships conclude their chiuv of Kaddish after the sheloshim, we as children for our parents are obligated for eleven months. This is based on a teaching that when the Heavenly tribunal judges the dead person's soul, acquittal takes eleven months; a guilty verdict takes twelve. Kaddish stops at the end of eleven months, so as not to imply that the soul was anything but acquitted. And while the Yizkor of Yom Kippur is well attended, these other yizkors are not. Perhaps I have been most amazed that so few people come to say Kaddish for yahrzeit. There are only a few things we do on yahrzeit: if we live near enough we visit the cemetery; we give tzedakah in their memory; light the candle; make a hazkarah – recite Ayl Moleh; and, say Kaddish. I can't and shouldn't know about the first three, but the last two we do in shul. In one of my earlier synagogues, people would send in cards requesting a hazkarah be recited, which we did at Shabbat mincha services, with me reciting the prayers for people who I didn't know with their loved ones absent. It was very odd, very strange indeed.

Saying Kaddish for me is very different. When I observed my father's Yahrzeit last week the only difference was that I included his name among those I read. Otherwise I say Kaddish every week, several times. Not only that, there is a chatzi kaddish and kaddish shalem which have nothing to do with mourning and which mourners don't recite, which even have nice melodies. I remember that when I came back from a USY event where we learned that others generally stood up in the Sefardic manner, and I did it in my home shul, my father almost yanked my arm out of my socket and said to me: "When you have to say it, then you'll say it." Then I had a student pulpit before my ordination and leading Kaddish was "part of the job." And so my father sat there watching me lead/say Kaddish in his lifetime. I don't know how he felt, but I felt awfully strange. I was afraid that he would tell me to stop. Then along came the time that I had to say it for real. And once that happens, you have to say it for life.

It was even stranger to stop saying Kaddish. I was used to the routine, several times in the Shacharit service, once in the Mincha and once in the Ma'ariv, except in the month before Rosh HaShanah when we say it again for the additional Psalm. The summer I said it for my father I spent one month in Camp Ramah in the Berkshires. It is a mitzvah for a mourner to lead services so I led a lot of them. Somewhere in the springtime I realized that eleven months would soon conclude. I was at another synagogue for my last Kaddish for my father. And then I said it as a leader of the service but not with the intention of saying it for him. And when I wasn't leading, I strangely sat in my seat.

In my ongoing reading and thinking, I found an article in The Jewish Week of New York, August 16th, 1999 entitled The Last Kaddish, written by Jonathan Mark. In it there were two very special thoughts that I would like to share this morning with you.

The first is that it is very hard to stop saying Kaddish. It is not a relief. I would extend that to say that I can't imagine not saying a yizkor for him, for my uncle, for my mother-in-law, for my grandparents, nor my father's yahrzeit passing without saying Kaddish. For through the saying of Kaddish day by day I wove a deeper relationship with my father, even after his death. For as I stood and repeated the words of Kaddish, which I could do by rote, my mind would often wander and remember events with him in my life, imagine him saying things to me, remembering sitting with him at Menachem's Bar Mitzvah Kiddush meal with our arms around each other. It's hard to imagine that the Bar Mitzvah boy is a father and this week will become a Rabbi. In the tenth month I didn't want the eleventh to come. I didn't want to let go of these moments of togetherness that the saying of Kaddish wove between my father and me. In the article there is a bittersweet phrase:"At the end, mourners fly solo." At yahrzeit and yizkor we don't fly entirely solo. Even if it is just in our imagination, we don't have to be the leader; we can be children again, no matter our age.

The second very special idea in the article a person, Alan Leicht, who just finished his chiuv, obligation of Kaddish, is cited as acknowledging that saying Kaddish faithfully for the whole time is quite an achievement: "that my father's neshama is more in the gravitational pull of the Higher World than of this world." Then he says the following, which I quote in its entirety.

"Over time, the sense of loss was replaced by a sense of closeness, of companionship with my father. I kept thinking that for twelve years for a girl or thirteen years for a boy, a parent is responsible for the soul of the child. Then, in the course of saying Kaddish, the child takes responsibility for the soul of the parent. It takes longer to learn how to be a child than to learn to be a parent. Kaddish is the last step in being a child. That relationship can't exist anymore in the physical reality, but it exists in the reality of Kaddish."

Regardless of our ages, whenever the time comes, we as children have responsibilities for our parents' welfare. And then after death, we have the great mitzvah of responsibility towards their neshamas. Even after death I can do something for them to show the love and affection that we had in life. Somewhere in this mystery, there is a greatness of our ability to do this for them. In a realm above and beyond the physical, there is a connection we maintain, a goodness we can do for them, a blessing which we give to them. That is the special wonder of saying Kaddish faithfully and consistently, shiva, sheloshim, eleven months, yizkor and yahrzeit. That is why it was hard to stop saying Kaddish and never to miss a yahrzeit and yizkor. That is why we shouldn't.

When we make a siyyum, a celebration when concluding a book or section of Rabbinic study, we recite a prayer called the Hadaran which then leads into a Kaddish. It begins with the following words:

"We shall return to you…and you shall return to us. 
Our thoughts are on you… and your thoughts are on us. 
We will not forget you…and you will not forget us, 
Neither in this world nor the World to Come."

Here, in this world, now at yizkor, and on their yahrzeits, let us remember our families. Here and now we return and remember them, and in our faith, their return and remember us.



1 comment:

  1. Rabbi, I just found your blog when doing a google search. It is heh Marcheshvan today. My mother's yahrtzeit is Zayin Kislev. I am not sure if vav Marcheshvan is my last day of kaddish or if vav Marcheshvan is the first day of NOT saying kaddish. (I am visiting in Israel and I know we start saying v'ten tal umatar l'vrachah on zayin Marcheshvan.) Your thoughts? kol tuv, Stuart


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