Yom Kippur Yizkor 5776-2015: The Power of Saying Kaddish

Of all the classes and seminars I took in my 5 years of Rabbinical School, a session with Rabbi Harold Kushner stands out the most. In my senior year the school brought in prominent Conservative rabbis to teach us the lessons they learned from their years as congregational rabbis. Rabbi Kushner of course is known for his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People which he wrote as a result of his son Aaron dying from the aging disease - progeria.  The book only served to bring publicity to this already excellent rabbi whose sermons were eloquent and whose teaching was superb. He has served as a rabbi of Temple Israel in Natick, MA for nearly 50 years.
In the seminar with us - senior rabbinical students - he told us a story about visiting someone in a nursing home. This particular person he was visiting had suffered a stroke and as a result hadn’t been able to talk. Though he was physically in good shape, he couldn’t verbally communicate. While Rabbi Kushner was there he led a shabbat service on Friday afternoon and when it came time for the mourner’s kaddish this uncommunicative patient was able to say the kaddish out loud. Somehow - Kushner explained - the kaddish was stored in another part of the brain, a part that keeps things memorized - and that part enabled the stroke victim to say those words out loud.
Speech pathologists and neurologists can explain how that patient was able to speak and that is certainly remarkable and powerful. But what is more spiritually amazing to me is the power of the kaddish itself. Somehow the prayer had such an impact and was recited so often that it remained indelibly ingrained in that patient’s subconscious to be tapped when appropriately prompted.
That stroke patient isn’t the only one who finds the kaddish so meaningful. I see so many of us recite the words from memory and many of you make a point to attend as many services as possible during the first year of mourning for a parent in order to recite that prayer. We as a shul do our utmost to ensure a daily minyan - not just because it’s a mitzvah to pray - but because we know we need a minyan - 10 people - in order for kaddish to be recited. What is it about the kaddish that makes it so religiously powerful? What comfort does it bring us? How can words on a page move us to tears? Why does it have such a central role in our service?
The kaddish as we know it didn’t start as a mourner’s prayer. In fact it started as a concluding prayer to a study session. The rabbis centuries ago in the rabbinical academies in Israel wrote the prayer as a way to connect their study of the Torah with God’s presence. Torah study wasn’t an academic or scholarly pursuit. It wasn’t about finding hidden literary secrets or making historical discoveries. Study of the Torah was meant to bring God’s presence to life. Study was the way to bring God from the heavens into the study hall itself. To acknowledge the spirituality of the study hall the rabbis wrote the prayer in the form we know it with an added paragraph asking that rabbis would be privileged to see many future generations studying the Torah.
The rest of the kaddish as we know focuses on many words to describe how great and powerful and holy God is. It reads as follows: “Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world which God has created according to God’s will. May God establish God’s kingdom in our lifetime and during our days, and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon. May God’s great name be blessed forever and to all eternity. Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that are ever spoken in the world. May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us and for all Israel. God who creates peace in the celestial heights, may God create peace for us and for all Israel.”
This format of the kaddish became so popular that it expanded to several places in the liturgy. It moved from just being a concluding prayer for a study session to a transition prayer between parts of the service - as in the “chatzi” or half kaddish and the full kaddish.
But the kaddish became most closely associated with the mourner. It is recited by the mourner at the conclusion of the service and at the cemetery as well at the conclusion of the burial service. Yet we noticed that the English translation makes no mention of death nor does it have anything to do with our understanding of the immortality of the soul. What then does a prayer that doesn’t mention death at all have to do with mourning? Why is the mourner supposed to praise God’s name and how is that so comforting?
When someone close to us dies we are aimless. It’s as if we are in a new world order and we have no idea how to navigate that new reality. One minute the person we love is a physical presence in our life and the next minute they are gone and we don’t know what to do. We need direction as a mourner - we need help to do the simplest of daily tasks. Reciting kaddish provides a sense of routine. The recitation of the words, ancient as they are, recited by all Jews - Ashkenazic and Sephardic, Reform and Orthodox - adds a level of routine and continuity for the mourner that is so desperately needed.
The kaddish also is supposed to help the mourner acknowledge that despite experiencing this devastating loss they can still believe in God. As the mourner’s physical world has been shaken the kaddish provides a liturgical venue for the mourner to grapple with their religious beliefs. God is still there as a source of comfort and healing; a refuge in the now stormy seas. The recitation of kaddish on a very regular basis helps to begin to calm those waters.
There is also the communal aspect of kaddish. Every mourner’s grief is deeply personal and private. No one can understand exactly what the mourner is going through. Yet the fact that the mourner can only say the kaddish in the presence of a minyan and that the minyan responds at several points during the kaddish forces the mourner to recognize that he or she is part of the community too. Of course the grief is private but it is shared by all those present. Standing up and praising God’s name and hearing the communal response may be awkward at first but quickly becomes very comforting and healing.
The ritual of reciting the kaddish is very important. It provides the psychological assistance needed in that emotionally trying time and it provides the steady routine necessary - praying 3 times a day - that enables the mourner to get up in the morning and go to sleep at night. It forces the mourner to be part of the community instead of withdrawn. Though these reasons are important enough the rabbis also added a deeper religious meaning related to life after death.
We know that the mourner’s kaddish doesn’t mention death or the hereafter at all. But, the rabbis said that reciting the kaddish every day enables the soul of the deceased to achieve its place in “olam ha-bah” - the next world - in God’s presence. The Torah doesn’t teach us about what happens when we die. It has no concept of the soul. In fact the soul isn’t mentioned anywhere in the Bible. Yet, in rabbinic times, while suffering under harsh Roman oppression and persecution and witnessing the destruction of the Temple the rabbis knew that their people needed comfort. The people must have been asking why bother to be good and to follow the covenant if we all end up being tortured and enslaved. Slowly the rabbis developed the idea of the soul - having read Greek philosophy and understood it from the surrounding culture - and transformed it into a Jewish idea. Each of us is created with a body and a soul. The body is finite but the soul is eternal. Someday - when the messiah (the king descended from King David) appears - our bodies will be reunited with our souls to live in the land of Israel.
This provided great comfort not only to our people 2,000 years ago but to all Jews suffering under harsh and deadly oppression throughout our history. It was a comfort during the Crusades. It softened the blow during the pogroms in Russia. And it even was sung by Jews as they were led to the Nazi crematoria - ...אני מאמין באמונה שלימה בביאת המשיח - “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah and even though the Messiah may tarry I nonetheless will wait for him every day.”
Part of the traditional idea of the soul is that until the messiah appears the soul lives in Olam Ha-Bah. But in order to ensure the soul’s place with God, the survivors must recite kaddish for the year (actually 11 months). Once the year is up we can be comforted in the knowledge that the soul is with God.
Belief in the soul and the future Messianic era is intrinsic to being Jewish. It’s one of the 13 basic principles enumerated by the great rabbi, Maimonides, over 800 years ago and formulated in the beautiful concluding hymn known as the yigdal. Belief in the resurrection of the dead is the 2nd prayer of the amidah recited three times a day. Such was the rabbis’ authority to transform Judaism into a personally meaningful and fulfilling religion that they included this new belief into the system too.
But is there a soul? Can we scientifically prove that part of us lives on after we die? Of course not. Yet this belief serves as an essential element of what it means to be religious. Leading our lives according to ethical and moral principles is important. It certainly provides us with meaning and we are comforted knowing that we are being the best person we can be every day. But is that enough? Don’t we need to know that there’s more to our lives than just the time we have to spend on this earth? Don’t we we need to know that there is something more beautiful, more peaceful, more secure than our earthly existence? Isn’t it comforting to know that our loved one is resting in peace with other relatives and that someday our soul will join them?
Is it childish to believe in the soul? Is it naive and immature to harbor such a fantasy? Perhaps - but I know many people who claim to have felt the presence of their loved ones with them. Not only have people dreamt about their relatives but they have actually heard them talking to them or felt their presence walk or drift by. Though I have never felt this - though I have never had this experience with any of my grandparents who have long since passed away - I can’t discount what other people tell me to be true.
Not only do individuals have these experiences, but our tradition maintains the idea of the immortality of the soul in order to provide comfort. It’s hard to navigate the evil in the world around us. We can’t predict what will happen from one moment to the next. Not only is life in general hard, but leading life as a Jew carries with it an extra burden. We know about the rise of antisemitism in Europe. We know that we as Jews have lived our lives looking over our shoulder making sure we’re safe. The belief in the soul and the hereafter provides that extra layer of comfort for the community - to ensure that we still believe that God loves us, to ensure that we know that there is a reward to be achieved in the future.
The kaddish then serves many purposes all psychologically helpful to the mourner and to the community. Reciting it in the first year of mourning helps the survivor get reoriented into life. It serves as a spiritual gyroscope, helping us regain our balance, helping us gain our footing so that we can continue living. Kaddish helps us maintain our faith, maintain our connection with community, and maintain our connection with our loved one.
But the kaddish isn’t just helpful and necessary to recite the first year of mourning - it also helps us everytime we say the memorial prayers at yizkor and at the yearly anniversary of the death - the yartzeit. Yizkor and yartzeit are those regimented and allotted times when our tradition forces us to reopen the wounds. Tradition makes us think about our loved ones and ensures that we never forget them. While in private reflection in the midst of community we remember our relatives and try to feel as if they are with us. At every yizkor service, while I am up here on the bima, I close my eyes and think about my grandparents. Pictures and events come to mind as I think about my grandmother who died when I was 2, my grandfathers who died 6 months apart when I was 12, and my grandmother who walked down the aisle at my wedding and died a month after my daughter Aliza was born. Though my memories fade as time moves on I am grateful for these liturgical times in the calendar to relive these memories and I am glad that I have yizkor and kaddish to recite 4 times a year.
Reciting kaddish isn’t only something we do for ourselves. We also remember past members of our congregation. I look around the room and think about people who attended our services regularly who are now gone. I can see them in their seats and hear their voices and I am grateful for all they contributed to the vitality of our community.
At yizkor I also am reminded of the great tragedies our community experienced. Probably the worst tragedy we experienced as a community in my 21 year tenure as your rabbi was the Goff family tragedy. I wonder how anyone manages to survive and even live on after such a catastrophe. What about the human spirit enables the survivor to carry on? This past July marked the 20th anniversary of that horrific and devastating murder of 4 members of the the Goff family. Irma and Scott - the 2 surviving members - were interviewed by Bethesda magazine last May as the yartzeit approached. At the conclusion of the article the writer said the following: “Lots of Irma’s friends have daughters who’ve had weddings in the last few years. Although she tries not to dwell on what might have been, special occasions like that sometimes make her think of her own girls—who they might have married, how many children they might have had. ‘You put something in a drawer, you close the drawer. Every once in a while, you gotta open the drawer and see what’s in the drawer,’ she says. ‘Very often when it’s quiet, I open up a box. I visit. I always talk to them, I always think about them and wonder.’”

Not all of us have Irma’s strength and fortitude. Not all of us have her strong faith and attitude about life. But all of us have that drawer of memories which we open every now and then. Most of us open that drawer when we are alone and feel comforted in the privacy of our homes as we do so. But when we connect to those memories in public as we are about to do in a few minutes, we need help and support. We need words to recite when words may fail us. We need to feel the voices of others around us to know we are safe, to know we are not alone with our memories. That’s what the kaddish can do for us. As we are about to recite the yizkor prayers - let’s take a look around this room. Not one person hasn’t been touched by grief. Not one person hasn’t experienced a death of a loved one. Not one person hasn’t felt the connection with suffering throughout Jewish history. We take comfort that we are with family and friends. We take comfort in holding their hands and crying on their shoulders. We close our eyes and as that stroke victim that Rabbi Kushner talked about, and as we reopen that drawer of memories that Irma so eloquently shared, we too connect to a deeper part of ourselves as we recite the kaddish. עושה שלום במרומיו הוא יעשה שלום עלינו ועל כל ישראל ואמרו אמן - May God who makes peace above, grant us and all of Israel peace. Amen.


  1. Thank you, Jonah. Just finished a year of kaddish for my father, Z"L. It was a profound experience for me. I appreciate your sermon and its message. Thank you and Shannah Tovah! leann


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