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?
Answer: Last week, we started discussing Kaddish, which the coronavirus pandemic is preventing mourners from saying. The halachic compendium Kol Bo (siman 114) relates a story of a sage seeing a disembodied spirit who was carrying twigs and was in obvious distress. The spirit said he had been sentenced to Gehinnom in perpetuity and that his only salvation depended on his son reciting Kaddish for him.
The sage revealed the encounter and request to the deceased’s son, who proceeded to say Kaddish for his father. Eventually, the sage met the spirit again, who revealed that he was now finally at rest.
This incident is also related, with slight variations, in the Minor Tractate Kallah Rabbati (ch. 2). The sage is identified there as Rabbi Akiva and the spirit as a sinner who committed every forbidden act. He left behind a pregnant wife, and Rabbi Akiva found the woman just after she had given birth to a son. When the child grew up, Rabbi Akiva took him to shul where he prayed with the congregation (and of course said Kaddish).
In this version of the story, too, the spirit later reappeared and thanked Rabbi Akiva for the peace and tranquility he had helped him achieve.
Rabbi Yechiel Michel Tucazinsky (Gesher HaChayim, vol. 1, ch. 30) lists many other sources where the story is found with minor changes: Tanna D’vei Eliyahu Zuta (ch. 17); Midrash Aseret HaDibrot; Midrash Ruth Ha’ne’elam; Zohar Ruth Chadash; Or Zarua (who cites it in the name of the Zohar Chadash on Parshat Lech Lecha); and the Zohar Chadash on Parshat Acharei Mot.
Rabbi Tucazinsky notes that it is mentioned by many authorities who dwell in particular on the importance of the Kaddish response “Y’hei Shmei Rabbah… – May His great Name be blessed forever and ever.”
In Midrash Ha’ne’elam (to Parshat Acharei Mot p. 81), we find the story in more detail. It states: A certain scholar was on his way to the study hall in Turei Kardunita accompanied by two others when they came upon a ditch from which smoke was rising. They heard a man’s voice calling out, “Woe, woe!” The scholar remarked that this must surely be one of the places of purgatory.
He later saw in a dream that a certain person was being punished for his sins by being thrown into burning fires, fueled with wood that he was forced to chop, not once, but three times a day and three times a night. He asked him, “From where do you come?” To which the other answered, “Upper Galilee.”
He inquired further, “Did you leave behind a son?”
He answered, “I left behind a son, and I was a butcher, and due to the multitude of transgressions I committed while I was alive, I am being judged…. The angel in charge of the burial grounds, all the while that I am being judged, says to me, ‘Woe is the one who swears to uphold the Torah and swears falsely. Woe to the body that did not ever don tefillin. Woe to the hands that engaged in the wasted pleasures of this world. And woe to the feet that went after the wasted pleasures of this world.’
“When they were administering lashes, I recounted all [the evil] that I engaged in. Then I went forth with the angel in charge of my soul and wrote down all my transgressions. My soul and that angel testified against me as two witnesses, whose testimony is sufficient for one to receive the death penalty.”
The Midrash notes, “We see that ultimately it is a person’s own soul that testifies against him.”
When the scholar awoke from his dream, he went to Upper Galilee. When he arrived, he inquired of an individual he came upon, “Have you seen the young son of the butcher who died at such and such a time?” He replied, “The child about whom you inquire goes to the butcher shop and he is as evil as his father. Such and such should come to him, to his father and to the one who nursed him.”
The scholar set out to the study hall where he found a young child citing his lesson – verses from Proverbs (2:4-5): “Im t’vakshenah cha’kasef v’chamatmonin tach’p’senah. Oz tovin Yirat Hashem v’da’at Elokim timtza – If you seek it as if it were silver, if you search for it as if it were hidden treasures. Then you will understand the fear of Hashem, and discover the knowledge of G-d.” (Our sages always found such citations by young children to reveal hidden messages.)
He then set out to the butcher shop where he found the youth engaged in (senseless) play with other youths. He bid him to come with him to the study hall; he then dressed him properly and gave him to a certain teacher who taught him Torah until he knew how to read. He then had him read the Haftara in shul and had him pray until he developed fluency. He eventually became so wise and scholarly that he was called rabbi – master – teacher.
The father of this young child who was being judged so harshly came once again in a dream to the scholar and said, “My master and teacher, as much as you have comforted me, so may you be comforted by the Holy One Blessed Is He. At the moment that my son recites the Haftara in shul, they release me from my judgment. When he leads the congregation in prayer and recites Kaddish, they rip up my harsh judgment completely. And when he acquires the wisdom of the Torah, they give me a portion in Gan Eden.
“And this is the portion that is given to each and every righteous person, and they raise me up to sit among the righteous. Further, each time he acquires more knowledge to the extent that they call him rabbi, they crown me with the crown of the righteous. They then feed and give me drink of the Divine Glory.
“And that is what they say (Berachot 17a), ‘The righteous sit with their crowns upon their heads and enjoy the Divine Glory.’ And each person who enjoys the Divine Glory is like he ate and drank. And I merited all of this honor and distinction because of you, my master.” He said: “You have merited your portion because of this…meritorious is one who has left a son [who is worthy] in this world.”
From the above, we clearly see the value and benefit that Kaddish provides a departed neshamah. But what can we do when pikuach nefesh – threat to life and limb – prevents us from providing this benefit?
I greatly admire and appreciate the readers of The Jewish Press and was greatly awed by a letter to the editor by Rabbi Mordechai Bulua that appeared recently in these pages. Rabbi Bulua offers some solace to those who are distressed by their inability to say Kaddish. We quote:
“As hard as it is for those of us who have to adjust to not davening in shul, it is even harder for those who cannot say Kaddish for a loved one.
“Their pain is indescribable. Saying Kaddish is a sacred obligation. There is no way we can repay our parents for what they’ve done for us once they’re gone. Until now, we’ve at least been able to elevate their souls by saying Kaddish. Sadly, for most chiyuvim, that privilege has been taken away.
”The Gemara (Sotah 49a) says the world’s continued existence is assured only by the kedushah in U’va L’tzion and the communal response of Y’hei Shmei Rabbah recited after the study of aggadata.
“Unfortunately, in today’s world, mourners can no longer say Kaddish, but they can say the kedushah of U’va L’tzion and, in so doing, still be the direct cause of the world’s ongoing existence!
“U’va l’tzion go’el…” May a redeemer soon come to Tziyon so that no one will ever need to say Mourners Kaddish again.”
I would add that we also find a Kedushah in the Birkat Yotzer HaMe’orot that every individual is able to say. Indeed, for every Jew, not only a mourner, these two recitations of Kedushah present an opportunity to be mekadesh shem shamayim (sanctify the holy name of G-d). Perhaps during this trying time we are being given the opportunity to perfect our tefillah service.
(To be continued)