The first time I recited Kaddish was when my father passed away.
Our shul did not have a daily minyan so I went to a different one where I knew some people. When I was the chazzan there, some said I was too slow and some said I was too fast. Not sure how I could be both too slow and too fast, I decided to relinquish my chazzan role and just recite Kaddish at the appropriate times.
To be honest, during those eleven months I didn’t think a lot about the words I was saying. I just hoped that my father could hear my voice trying to connect to his memory.
Now, more than 28 years later, I am trying to understand as much as I can about the meaning of those ancient words.
Perhaps no other time is as traumatic as when our parents or other loved ones leave this world. At times, death comes with gentleness and a kiss from heaven; at other times it comes with the harsh rod of illness, infirmity and pain.
As long as a loved one is still alive, we have some physical connection. We can touch a hand, kiss a forehead, sit quietly by a bedside. But when the final moment comes, the loved one is gone from our lives forever.
It is at these very difficult moments that we yearn for a bridge between this world and the next, one that can enable us to remain connected to the memories of those who were so close to us.
One such bridge is provided by the Kaddish prayer. While not actually mentioning anything about death, it emphasizes the idea of “Kiddush Hashem,” the sanctifying of God’s name. And perhaps it also conveys the sanctifying of life itself. Our parents or loved ones may have left us physically, but they also left us the responsibility to carry on their legacy. Nothing could be more sacred.
By emphasizing God’s Name, we are also emphasizing our connection with our parents and loved ones. Just as God is always present but unseen, so, too, the presence of our loved ones can be felt even though we can no longer see them or be with them. And yet we are attempting to enter a mystical world we know nothing about and cannot fathom. Nonetheless, we know we must continue the chain, the link with our past and our memories.
In the Talmud (Berachot 3), there is a profound discussion about the meaning and significance of the Kaddish. R. Yose, the Talmudic sage and student of R’ Akiva, enters one of the destroyed buildings of Jerusalem in order to pray. At the entrance, the prophet Elijah waits for him to finish his prayers and then asks him what voice he heard in the building. R’ Yose replies that he heard a dove’s voice saying: “Woe to the children [of Israel] who have been exiled, and for whose sins I have destroyed the holy Temple.”
Elijah responds that there is another voice – the voice of the children of Israel who utter the words, in synagogues and houses of study, “May His great name be blessed forever and ever.” When God hears those words, He nods His head and says: “Happy is the King whose [children] praise Him in His house; woe to the Father who exiled His children, and woe to the children who have been exiled from the table of their father.”
The genius of the rabbis is revealed in this aggadic interlude that reveals so much about the background of the times and the message that Kaddish has for all generations.
In a historical context, the Kaddish was established after the destruction of the Temple. The destruction, or churban, signified an enormous crisis in the nation. The Romans not only defeated the Jews, they destroyed everything that was sacred to them. Thousands of Torah scholars were gone. Communication with God through sacrifices and festivals was gone. Was there any hope for a future? And if there was, how and what would help the distraught people? R’ Yose was mired in thoughts of the destruction that had occurred only a few generations before. He entered the destroyed city of Jerusalem feeling there was no hope for a revival of the holiness of the Jewish people.
But Elijah, representing the hope for redemption and the reaffirmation of faith, proclaimed that Jews still enter the houses of study and synagogues, and they still profess their belief in God, no matter how distant and remote He might seem. Elijah echoed the words of R’ Akiva himself, who declared in tractate Yoma (chapter 8, mishnah 9): “Happy are you Israel before whom you purify yourselves, and who purifies you, your father in heaven.”
Two thousand years later, we still find comfort in those words.
Similarly, when a loved one departs, we experience a personal crisis. We do not know how we will continue after his or her death. We still feel the loved one’s presence and long to hold on to our connection. And then comes the recitation and the words of the Kaddish, which serves as a bridge between this world and the next. By emphasizing God’s Name, we are also emphasizing our connection with our parents and loved ones. Just as God is always present but unseen, so, too, the presence of our loved ones can be felt even though we can no longer see them or be with them.
We find this expression of the Kaddish as a bridge between two worlds in the following excerpts from Rabbi Stephen Savitsky’s moving and inspiring “A Private Conversation with My Kaddish”:
You were my link to the past,
My liaison to my loved one.
You allowed me to say thank you
For the thousands of times I never did.
In you I found comfort;
With eyes closed, uttering striking words
I relived moments of my life
That are now history….
I am convinced that you provided
Joy and satisfaction to my dear father
Every day he awaited my prayer
Affirming all that he lived for and believed in.
Together, the three of us transcended two worlds….
In recently joining with my wife saying Kaddish for her mother, I have found more and more layers of meaning in the ancient words composed by our rabbis. May all those who are saying Kaddish for their loved ones be comforted.