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Why do we say the Mourner’s Kaddish?

03/07/2019 02:59:16 PM


Rabbi Daniel Dorsch

Typically, there are two schools of thought in Judaism that attempt to answer this question: one approach is mystical, the other is psychological.
The mystical approach argues that we say Kaddish because it helps to elevate the soul of our loved ones toward communion with God. It is clearly a deceased centered approach. Specifically, this theory goes, we say Kaddish for eleven months because that is the time that it takes the soul of a righteous person to ascend. Could you say Kaddish for a little longer if you are, perhaps, a little concerned that your loved one did not live so righteously? Yes, this approach argues: You may say Kaddish for up until a year, which is the time it would take someone who has been completely wicked to be elevated. However, in order not to insult that person, the longest one may say Kaddish is a year minus one day (no one could really be that terrible, the theory goes).
A second approach to why we say Kaddish is one that I first learned from my childhood rabbi when my own mother passed away: It is mourner centered rather than deceased centered. To paraphrase the Kol Bo on Mourning, Kaddish is not about the elevating the soul of deceased, but rather, about elevating the soul of the mourner. There are many people, acknowledges the Kol Bo, who live their lives disconnected from synagogue life and the Jewish community. They would otherwise be tempted to remain alone in their despondency, wallowing in their own misery. However, reciting Kaddish forces all of us to remember that Jews are not supposed to mourn in isolation. We must, therefore, say kaddish with a minyan of ten Jewish adults. We must join the morning minyan or evening minyan crowd. It is likely that soon after, we start joining in morning breakfast at Bagelicious. Before you know it, you’ve found a group of people who care about you to raise us up out of our despondency.
Is there one approach that is better than the other? Personally, I will tell you that I tend to favor the psychological approach because in my own moment of grief, it worked for me. To paraphrase Psalm 115, I believe that ritual is not about the dead, but the living, as the dead can no longer hear nor praise God. However, I also do not suppose that the first approach is incorrect. In fact, I know that there is something otherwise very comforting about creating and taking back a sense of control after an otherwise powerless situation.
The important thing, I would argue, is not why you say kaddish. It is that you come to say Kaddish. Be supported in your time. Elevate the soul of your loved one. It makes no difference why. It is a timeless ritual that for thousands of years has provided comfort to Jews in their moment of grief.
Mon, May 20 2019 15 Iyyar 5779