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THE COLLECTED WRITINGS OF RABBI PINKY SCHMECKELSTEIN
On Reciting Kaddish
Yisgadal VeYiskadash Shmey Rabbah...
I have been saying Kaddish in recent weeks in the wake of the passing of my uncle, Reb Velvel Henach Naftali HaGadol, also known as the VELHUNG, most noted for his commentary on the shape of Rashi script. The VELHUNG passed away after a long battle with a terrible disease that robbed him of his Toirah, as well as his collection of baseball cards from the Lithuanian Baseball League of 1941.
Kaddish is a strange prayer. It is in Aramaic, and declares fealty to the sovereignty of the Reboinoisheloilum. It is said as part of Davening, and, of course, by mourners themselves. Daily. Multiple times a day. On days when I say Kaddish both as a mourner AND Daven for the Amud, I recite Kaddish about 400 times. It is perpetual. Then I go home and recite Kaddish in my sleep. In a store, when a clerk brings me what I asked for, I reply "Umayn". When a waiter comes to me in a restaurant and asks me for my order, I respond "Brich Hu". And when I achieve my... errr... Makka BiPatish with my Bashert, Feigeh Breinah, I declare "Yehei Shmey Rabbah Mevorach LeOilam U'LeOlmey Olmayah". Shoyn.
What is the history and purpose of this custom, which in many ways is an anchor in ritual and popular participation in the Jewish liturgical service? And why is it an Aramaic prayer rather than a Hebrew prayer?
There is a famous Braisah brought down in Gemarrah Yuma that suggests that Kaddish is said in Aramaic to ensure a special bond between Klal Yisroel and Hakadoshboruchhu, since the Malachim, the angels, do not speak Aramaic. This is according to Rabbi Meir. But according to Rabbi Yehuda, the prayer of Kaddish is explicitly addressed to the angels, who are keeping score as to how many times a person meets his responsibility to say Kaddish for a loved one. And according to a Medrish in Eichah Rabbah, the Angels have an office pool to bet on who will say the most Kaddishes during their year of Aveilus. Almost every year the winner comes from the Lubavitch community: Not only do they insert several additional Kaddishes at the end of their Tfillois, but they also say Kaddish after reciting the obligatory, "Yechi Moreinu VeRabbeinu Melech HaMashiach LeOilum Vo'ed" after key daily events: After Davening, after Benching after meals, after getting some poor schmuck in the street to put on Tefillin even though he is dressed in a Santa outfit, and after Teeth Brushing.
Indeed, there are many types of Kaddish - A fact you do not realize until you have to say it 400 times a day. They are:
-- Chatzi Kaddish: The Half Kaddish recited multiple times by the Shaliach Tezibur -- the leader of the prayer service – To punctuate different segments of the prayer service, as well as to enable congregants to engage in a quick conversation with the person standing next to them.
-- Kaddish Sholem: The Whole Kaddish, typically recited once every prayer service, towards the end of the service. According to a Pnei Yehoishua, the purpose of this Kaddish is so that when a Shaliach Tzibbur accidentally stops halfway though, thinking that a Chatzi Kaddish was in order, members of the congregation can take turns humiliating the Chazan by screaming, “Nu, Tiskabel!!!!” at him at the top of their lungs.
-- Kaddish Yasoim: The Mourner’s Kaddish. This is the “bread and butter” of the year of mourning. Literally. There are people like me who are constantly going to Shul to recite this many, many times a day. Yet others hire a Litvak Yeshiva Bochur or some Hairy Chussid looking to supplement his Welfare, Food Stamps, Medicaid, and Section Eight by reciting Kaddish on behalf of someone who actually has a job.
-- Kaddish DeRabbanan: The Rabbi’s Kaddish. Like the regular Kaddish, it praises the Omnipresent and acknowledges Eternity. However, it also praises rabbinical scholars and their students, and the students’ students – essentially it is a prayer written by rabbis, praising rabbis. In other words, it is a bit like Congress voting to give itself a raise. This is also recited by a mourner, usually after content that includes rabbinic discourse, after a rabbinic lecture, or after an infomercial.
-- Kaddish D’Ischadasa: The Kaddish After Burial. This one is a lot of fun. Trust me. You have just buried a loved one, you are standing at the graveside, and then the rabbi asks you to recite this Aramaic tongue-twister in front of a bunch of crying relatives. About a half an hour before I needed to say this, the rabbi slipped me a Viagra; he said that “performance anxiety” was common the first time…
-- Kaddish Achar Hashlamas Masechta: Kaddish recited after completing a tractate of the Talmud. This is quite the opposite experience from the Kaddish After Burial. This comes at the end of a very long, complicated page of Aramaic, which, among other things, lists all of the sons of the Sage Rav Pappa. With that many children, it is a wonder he ever had time to get out of the house.
There are also a few lesser known forms of Kaddish
-- Kaddish D’Nittel: Special Kaddish recited on Christmas asking Santa for the most expensive gifts in the store.
-- Kaddish D’Gemoorrah: Kaddish recited after completion of a long cycle of events. This is typically said by Ashkenazim during half time of the Superbowl and during the seventh inning stretch during World Series games, and by Sephardim after the finals of a Soccer tournament.
-- Kaddish D’Kiddush: Kaddish recited upon completion of a bottle of good single malt Scotch or good tequila at a Kiddush after Shul on Saturday. When you can no longer pronounce the Aramaic without completely slurring your words (“Yehei Shmayay Robot… ummm… Robert…. Whatever…”) then it is time to go home and sleep it off.
Of course, the fundamental question one asks about Kaddish is “why?” Why do we say Kaddish in the first place? What is the purpose or intent of this tradition? To answer this properly, we need to review the history of prayer in general and Kaddish in particular.
Once upon a time, there was no Tefillah in Klal Yisroel. There – that is the truth. Worship was done by the priesthood on behalf of the nation and on behalf of individuals. This was the purpose of the first Bais Hamikdash, the Holy Temple, and all of the local Mikdashim. (Sure, you were told growing up that there were no other Israelite temples than the one in Jerusalem, but a quick trip to Arad and other archaeological sites will prove otherwise.) Perhaps there was an occasional festival that was celebrated by the broader populace, like Pesach – celebrated by the popular sacrifice of the Karban Pesach, Shavuois - celebrated by eating from the first fruits, and, of course, Shabboskoidesh, the weekly Sabbath, celebrated by refraining from work and trying to avoid being caught while checking in on Facebook.
However, during the Babylonian exile, the Jews needed to live religious life in Babylon, Alexandria and elsewhere without the Temple. Public reading of the Toirah, and likely prayer, became a part of the life of the common Jew. This phenomenon flourished during the Second Temple era, resulting in the emergence of the synagogue (itself a Greek word), and was more formally institutionalized after the destruction of the second Bais Hamikdash, reflecting the need to have a mechanism to engage the Divine, as well as a place to discuss politics, sports and the local Hot Chanies with your friends on Saturday mornings.
As Tefillah evolved over the centuries, the liturgy grew. First it was primarily comprised of Psalms and select Biblical writings. Later it incorporated Rabbinic compositions and then Piyut, liturgical poetry and prose. Among the compositions was the Kaddish. It is likely that Kaddish was originally composed to end a study session – hence composition in Aramaic, the Jewish lingua franca of the Talmudic period. However, at some point, Kaddish was adopted as a prayer for mourners to recite at the end of prayer services. The first extant documentation of a Kaddish for mourners is in the thirteenth century writings of the Or Zarua, who wrote that Kaddish should be inserted at the end of the Prayer book, right before the letters to the editor and the daily crossword puzzle.
Ironically, of course, Kaddish has no reference to death. It has no reference to the afterlife. It is actually an acknowledgement of the sovereignty of the Divine in eternity. So why are mourners required to recite Kaddish? This is the subject of a famous Machloikess.
According to the Netziv, the Kaddish is recited in order to pronounce ultimate faith in the Divine by someone who suffered a personal loss – That no matter what happens in this world, the mourner acknowledges the Aimishteh’s ultimate mastery of the universe. Consequently, the Netziv holds that someone should recite the Kaddish in the months after losing a loved one, going bankrupt, or getting a permanent ink stain, ruining his favorite shirt.
However, according to the Netziv’s Rabbinic arch nemesis, the Brisker Ruv – Reb Yoisheh Ber Soloveitchik – Kaddish is recited by the mourner for a more spiritual purpose – to power the transition of the Niftar’s Neshama, the soul of the person who passed away, towards the afterlife in Gan Eden. It is like providing fuel for the travel of the soul. However, not all fuels are equal. For example, when I, a great Ruv, say Kaddish, it is like rocket fuel. When a Shmendrick like you says Kaddish, it is like unleaded regular at the local gas station. And when a Reform Jew says Kaddish, Chass V’Sholom, it is like lighting a couple of wet twigs on a cold winter day.
Given the complexity of fulfilling one’s responsibility to say Kaddish at the three different prayer services every day, CHAZAL struggled to find an appropriate metaphor to describe the commitment.
According to the Ba’al HaChavas Da’as, it is like visiting a hotel that has set meals, and making sure to construct your schedule around those meals.
According to the Ketzois HaChoishen, saying Kaddish is like trying to catch an airplane flight three times a day for eleven months straight.
However, according to the Chasam Soifer, it is like having to constantly report in to a needy girlfriend or wife, and it is for this reason that we only say Kaddish for eleven months instead of a full year, so that we can get that woman off our backs already, for Reboinoisheloilum’s sakes.
I am reminded of a famous Maiseh Shehoya about the Vilna Goyn and the Baal Shem Toiv. The Gruh and the BESHT were each traveling to collect money for their respective movements. One Shabboskoidesh they ended up in the same Shul in the town of Yapchik. When the Gruh looked up from his Davening and saw the BESHT walk in, he stormed over to him, screaming at the top of his lungs, “Hey, Charlie, don’t you people believe in Zman Kriras Shmah?!”
The BESHT stared at the Gruh for a moment and the said in a forceful voice, “Reboinoisheloilum! IT knows how to say something that was not written down on a piece of paper by his Rebbe!”
They argued vociferously until the end of Davening. But when it came time for Kaddish, they both stopped immediately and began to recite the Kaddish in unison. The BESHT was saying Kaddish for the passing of his mother. And the Gruh was saying Kaddish following the recent death of his beloved black Labrador Retriever, which unbeknownst to the Gruh, was the source for the fur on the BESHT’s Shreimel.
As Jews, there are many things that divide us. Some are serious and border upon the existential. Some relate to cultural shifts and the balance between tradition and modernity. And some relate to the painful tension between Mistvois Bain Adam LaMakoim and Mitzvois Bain Adam LeChaveiroi.
But Kaddish is one thing that unites us. It reminds us of how infinitesimally small we are. In the words of the Paytan:
“Muh Anu. Meh Chasdeinu. Mah Tzidkoisainu, Mah Yeshuoisainu, Mah Koichainu, Mah Gevuroiseinu
“Mah Nomar Lifanechah HaShem Eloikeinu V’Eyloikei Avoiseinu
“Halo Kol HaGiboirim KeAyin Lifanecha
“VeAnshey HaShaym KeLoi Hayu
“VeChachamim KiVli Madah, U’Nevoinim KiVli Haskel
“Kee Roiv Ma’aseihem Toihu, V’Ymei Chayeihem Hevel Lifanechah
“U’Moisar Ha’Adam Min HaBeheima Uyin
“Kee Hakol Hevel”
“What are we? What are our lives? What is our kindness? What is our righteousness? What is our salvation? What is our strength? What is our bravery?
“What can we say before you, Reboinoisheloilum our Hakadoshboruchhu, the Aimishteh of our ancestors?
“The mightiest of men are like nothingness before you, and the men of renown are as if they never existed
“Wise men are like people without knowledge, and the insightful are like people without any sense
“For the majority of their accomplishments are meaningless, and the days of their lives are nothingness before you
“And mankind’s supremacy over the animals is a fantasy
“Because all of existence is emptiness.”
Gmar Chassima Toivah, You Menuval
Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein
Yeshivas Chipass Emmess