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Question: The Covid-19 pandemic has put an end to almost all public gatherings; hence, much of Jewish congregational ritual has come to a halt. Is there a way to make up for everything we missed?

M. Goldman

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Answer: Last week, we discussed various difficulties people are encountering in burying their dead and saying Kaddish. Kaddish is a key component of aveilut. This prayer of sanctification serves both the mourner as well as the departed soul.

The Rema (Yoreh De’ah 376:4), citing multiple sources, writes: “It is the custom to recite Kaddish for one’s father for 12 months, and it is also customary to recite the Haftara and lead Ma’ariv at the conclusion of Shabbat, as that is when the souls return to purgatory. When the son prays and publicly sanctifies the holy name, he redeems his parent from purgatory.”

He notes that a person should say Kaddish for his mother even if his father is still alive, and then concludes: “On the [anniversary of the] day when one’s father or mother died, one should fast.” From the Taz and Beit Lechem Yehudah, we learn that one should say Kaddish on this day as well.

The earliest source for saying the Mourner’s Kaddish, writes the Gesher HaChayim (vol. 1, ch. 30), is Mesechet Soferim (19:11). It states: “[On the Sabbath] after the completion of Mussaf, the chazzan goes behind the doors of the synagogue to seek out the mourners and all the relatives. He recites the blessing [of nichum aveilim] followed by Kaddish.”

Rabbi Yosef Caro in his Beit Yosef commentary (to Tur, Yoreh De’ah 376) similarly notes that a person who has lost a parent should recite Kaddish Yatom.

In Parshat Va’yechi (Genesis 49:1-2), we find the following: “Vayikra Yaakov el banav vayomer he’asfu ve’agida lochem eit asher yikra etchem be’acharit hayamim – And Jacob called to his sons and said, ‘Gather yourselves that I may tell you what shall befall you at the end of days. Hikovtzu vesham’u Bnei Yaakov vesham’u el Yisrael avichem – Gather yourselves and hear, sons of Jacob, and hear Israel your father.’”

In explaining this passage, the Targum Yerushalmi (ad. loc.) relates that Jacob had wished not only to bless his sons as he approached his transition from this world to the next; he also wished to reveal to them what would transpire to them at the end of days (basically, to reveal when Moshiach would come), but this information was suddenly hidden from him.

Seeking to understand why, Jacob said to his sons, “My grandfather had Ishmael and the sons of Keturah, who were unfit. Similarly my father had my brother, Esau, who was unfit…. Perhaps from amongst you there is one who is unfit?”

To reassure him of their fealty to Hashem, Jacob’s sons immediately responded, “Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokenu Hashem Echad – Hear O Israel, Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is one.” To which Jacob responded, “Baruch Sheim k’vod malchuto l’olam va’ed – May His great Name be blessed forever and ever.”

Jacob’s response, slightly transposed, can also be read (in Hebrew) as “Yehi shmo hagadol m’vorach l’olam va’ed” and (in Aramaic) as “Yehei shmei rabba m’vorach l’olam u’l’olmei almaya.” This Aramaic rendition of Jacob’s response forms the core of Kaddish, the sanctification of Hashem’s name.

The composer(s) of this great prayer derived its opening words from Ezekiel 38:23: “V’hitgadalti v’hitkadashti – I will be exalted and I will be sanctified.”

The Gemara (Berachos 3a) states, “R. Yosi said…that when Jews gather in their synagogues and study halls and respond, ‘Amen yehei shmei hagadol m’vorach… – May His exalted Name be blessed in this world and ever after,’ G-d nods his head and exclaims, ‘Praised [fortunate] is the King who is praised in His house.’”

Tosafot (Berachos 3a, op. cit.) offers two explanations for why Kaddish is in Aramaic as opposed to Hebrew. First, it is a prayer reserved solely for us to deliver to Hashem. Thus, it had to be in Aramaic, which the ministering angels don’t understand. Tosafot is not satisfied with this answer, though, so Tosafot suggests an alternative one: At the time Kaddish was composed and made part of our prayers, the masses were not conversant in Hebrew. They only spoke Aramaic.

The Rema writes, “It’s customary for a person to say Kaddish or lead the prayers only for a period of 11 months so that he doesn’t designate his parent as being wicked since the judgment of the wicked is for 12 months (Midrash Shmuel 31:21).” Thus, if a son recited Kaddish for 12 months, it would appear as if his parent needs extra protection due to some possible unforgivable sin and he would thus publicly shame his father. Therefore, a rule was enacted that everyone should only say Kaddish for 11 months.

(To be continued)

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Rabbi Yaakov Klass is Rav of K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush; Torah Editor of The Jewish Press; and Presidium Chairman, Rabbinical Alliance of America/Igud HaRabbonim.