The Kaddish


This article appears in different form as part of the Portal on Jewish Prayer and in Keeping God at the Center.






 The Kaddish evolved from a simple line of biblical praise to a liturgical formula for dividing the liturgy into its parts and for celebrating a study session. It, then, developed into a prayer for the dead and has been, and continues to be, used as such, especially in post-shoah Judaism. From there, it penetrated into non-religious Jewish culture as a political and cultural statement. The Kaddish has, thus, penetrated to all corners of Jewish civilization. Its sounds and echoes are to be found everywhere as, indeed, God’s praise and the respect and love of the dead are found everywhere. My essay traces the development of this prayer, citing sources, and commenting upon them. I begin first with recent political and cultural metamorphoses.


In his excellent book on Rabbi Levi Yitzhaq of Berditchev (1740-1810), Samuel Dresner cites the “Kaddish of Levi Yitzhaq” which mixes vernacular Yiddish and liturgical Aramaic: [39]

Good morning to You, Lord, Master of the universe,I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah of Berditchev,I come to You with a Din Torah from Your people Israel. What do You want of Your people Israel?What have You demanded of Your people Israel?For everywhere I look it says, “Say to the Children of Israel.”And every other verse says, “Speak to the Children of Israel.”And over and over, “Command the Children of Israel.” Father, sweet Father in heaven,How many nations are there in the world?Persians, Babylonians, Edomites. The Russians, what do they say?That their Czar is the only ruler.The Prussians, what do they say?That their Kaiser is supreme.And the English, what do they say?That George the Third is sovereign. And I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah of Berditchev, say,“Yisgadal v’yiskadash shmei raboh —Magnifed and sanctified is Thy Name.” And I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah of Berditchev, say,“From my stand I will not waver,And from my place I shall not moveUntil there be an end to all this.Yisgadal v’yiskadash shmei raboh —Magnified and sanctified is only Thy Name.”

Dresner, then, goes on to recount a particularly stirring rendition of the singing of this Kaddish:

The soaring strains of this song of divine dissent sounded far beyond the narrow confines of Berditchev, echoing in the hearts of Jews scattered throughout poverty-stricken, persecution-ridden communities in Eastern Europe and, in time, even in far-off America and Israel. It gave voice at one and the same time to the misery and the grandeur, the tragedy and glory, which inhabited the soul of this people. It was as if the song took on a life of its own, moving from its point of origin in time and space as a millennial outcry from the pit of anguish — irrevocable, unfaltering, eternal. Incredible was the song the Jews continued to sing: Despite all the claims of kings of flesh and blood, there is but one King and one Kingdom — the doxology of Israel.

Nor was the mysterious power of this song understood only by the Jews. There were countless others who were drawn to it because they heard in it the deathless hope of the human soul. Paul Robeson, for example, the noted black singer, sang it following World War II at the great rallies for European Jewry and for the State of Israel during the early years of the young state’s struggle for independence and subsistence.

He sang it in 1958 in Moscow at a special concert. The hall was filled to overflowing with military and government officials, persons of influence and culture. Among those presnet were also a large number of Jews. It was well known that Robeson’s repertoire contained many Negreo folk songs, African freedom songs, and several Jewish songs. Robeson’s procedure was to explain the meaning of each song before he sang it. Conscious of the suffering of Russian Jews, he had decided to sing the Berditchever’s Kaddish and listed it on his program. Suddenly he received a note from a member of the sponsoring committee which read: “No one in the audience understands Yiddish. It would, therefore, be out of place to sing any Jewish songs this evening.”

Robeson was perplexed. Yiddish had been listed in the last Russian census as the mother tongue of thirty-five percent of the Jews, who were well represented in the audience. Granting the assumed ignorance of Yiddish, would the African songs that he would sing in the languages of Ghana and the Congo be better understood?

He began his program in his usual manner, explaining each song before it was sung. First, he introduced a series of songs from the Congo and Ghana, indicating their anti-colonial character, which reflected the new spirit of the rising nationalism there.

Then he boldly announced, “And now I shall sing an anti-imperialist song for you which you may not have heard in some time. It was written more than one hundred and fifty yeras ago by a Russian as a protest against the Czar. The name of the author is Levi Yitzhak, and he lived in the city of Berditchev.

So it was that he began to sing Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s Kaddish.

When he came to the words:

What do You want of Your people Israel?What have You demanded of Your people Israel?For everywhere I look it says, “Say to the Children of Israel.”And every other verse says, “Speak to the Children of Israel.”And over and over, “Command the Children of Israel.” Father, sweet Father in heaven,How many nations are there in the world?

a tremor passed through the auditorium, scattered sighs and muffled sobs were heard. And when he began to thunder:

And I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah of Berditchev, say,“From my stand I will not waver,And from my place I shall not moveUntil there be an end to all this.Yisgadal v’yiskadash shmei raboh —Magnified and sanctified is only Thy Name”

weeping could be heard from parts of the auditorium. Tears flowed freely from dozens of faces. The applause, sporadic at first, reached a crescendo which threatened to shake the walls. The song became a rallying cry among the frightened Jews of Moscow for weeks to come.

Yet another cultural metamorphosis of the Kaddish is to be found in Leonard Bernstein’s third symphony entitled Kaddish. Bernstein wrote the music and the words, finishing the whole on November 22, 1963, the day that President Kennedy was assassinated. The symphony, which recognizes the tension between praise of God and its traditional use in the time of mourning, develops the theme of praise and the crisis of faith as follows: [40]

The Symphony develops in three parts: Part One consists of an Invocation and a first Kaddish prayer. Part Two is entitled “Din Torah” (Trial of God) and contains Man’s first accusation and a second Kaddish. Part Three comprises a wild Scherzo, the Speaker’s second dispute with God, a third Kaddish, and the reconciling Finale.

“Invocation,” recited by the Speaker, is the first plea that God listen to the prayer that could be the last Kaddish ever: “I want to pray, and time is short.” The chorus then chants “Kaddish I” in Aramaic with its last verse in Hebrew.

In “Din Torah” the Speaker brings forward the squabbles and doubts of Man and his disbelief in the validity of God’s “eternal covenant.” He asks: “Where is faith now, yours and mine?” and the chorus responds “Amen.” The Speaker then asks for forgiveness. He “was mad with fever” and forgot that God too is vulnerable — “My sorrowful Father, if I could comfort you, hold you against me, rock you and rock you to sleep….” “Kaddish II” follows as a soprano solo with boys’ choir. The music takes on the character of a lullaby — Andante con tenerezza. This has a doubly tender, warm effect, as the choral “Amen” interrupting the Speaker’s “madness with fever” leads into a tumultuous eight-voiced pell-mell texture in which each voice sings in a different rhythm, metre and tempo, starting forte and dying away to pianissimo before “Kaddish II.”

In the “Scherzo” the Speaker paints a vision of the Kingdom of Heaven just as the Creator planned it, but “there is nothing to dream, nowhere to go, nothing to know” … The Speaker here ends in calling on God to believe in Man: “Father! Believe!” The boys’ choir begins to intone “Kaddish III” and the Speaker repeats his entreaty to God to believe in Man so that he may find the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. “Kaddish III” continues, to the words “while the rainbow [of the covenant] is fading, our dream is over. We must wake up now; and the dawn is chilly.”

The mood of the “Finale” turns to reconciliation: “Beloved Majesty; my Image, my Self! We are one, after all, you and I … Forever we will recreate each other! Suffer and recreate each other!” The work ends with another “Kaddish” by soprano solo, boys’ choir, full chorus and orchestra, and a dramatic and forceful “Amen.”

 How does one account for the penetration of the Kaddish into even the secular dimension of Jewish culture? The prayer, usually understood as a prayer for the dead, is probably one of the best known Jewish prayers, even among the most assimilated; how is one to account for this?


return to head of document

The beginnings of the Kaddish prayer are shrouded in mystery. The standard encyclopedia articles are remarkably unclear on its origins. Perhaps the best study of the Kaddish is Leon Wieseltier’s Kaddish [1] which is a rambling but scholarly and poetic reading of the classic sources together with Wieseltier’s ruminations during the year he recited the Kaddish for his father.

One begins, it seems to me, with the central phrase of the Kaddish which reads: Yehéi Shméi rabbá mevarákh le-álam ule-alméi almayá. It is in Aramaic and is to be translated as follows: “May His great Name be praised forever and ever and ever. [2]

The biblical period: There are many statements praising God in the Tanakh. The Hebrew text of Ps. 113:2 reads: “May the Name of the Lord be praised from now and forever,” but the Aramaic Targum to this verse does not resemble the central phrase of the Kaddish. The Hebrew text of Job 1:21 uses only the first half of the verse from Psalms while the Targum there is close to, but not the same as, the formulation in the Kaddish. The Aramaic text of Daniel 2:20 echoes the same theme but, again, in a very different formulation. Finally, there is no indication in the Hebrew Bible that any of these verses were part of a liturgy. There, thus, appear to be ideational roots for the Kaddish in the Tanakh but no exact quotation or specific liturgical usage. The central phrase of the Kaddish is, rather, a re-sounding of the biblical phrases.

The talmudic period: The Kaddish was so well known by the time of the Talmud (third to fifth centuries C.E.) that only the details of its use and its theological importance are discussed. On the matter of liturgical use, Sifri to Dt. 32:3, in discussing various antiphonal responses, notes: “From what verse does one know that the proper response to ‘May His great Name be blessed’ is ‘forever and ever and ever’? From the verse ‘Bring greatness to our God’ (Dt. 32:3).” This text uses what is apparently a Hebrew translation of the central phrase of the Kaddish. From this we learn, that the central phrase of the Kaddish was presumably recited antiphonally probably in a liturgical setting, the cantor saying the first half and the congregation responding with the second half.

The Talmud (Sota 49a) speaks about “the Yehéi Shméi (‘May His great Name’) of the aggadata (i.e., of the teaching).” Though the meaning of this short reference is not clear, the medieval commentator Rashi interprets it as follows (ad loc): “So, too, ‘May His great Name be blessed’ which one responds after the aggadata which the preacher preaches in public on every Shabbat. [This was] their custom: they would gather the people to hear [Torah] because it is not a day of work.” From this we learn that the great medieval commentator thought that, during the talmudic period, there was a custom to preach Torah to the people on Shabbat, after which ‘the Kaddish of the aggadata’ was recited.

On the matter of theological importance, the Talmud contains the following three injunctions, all of which stress the importance of reciting antiphonally the central phrase of the Kaddish:

  • ” When Israel enters their synagogues and houses of study and responds “May His great Name be blessed,” the Holy One, blessed be He, shakes His head and says, “Happy is the King Whose people praise Him so in His house! Woe unto the Father Who has exiled His children and woe unto the children who have been exiled from the table of their Father.” [3]
  • ” He who responds “May His great Name be blessed” is promised to be one of those admitted to the world-to-come. [4]
  • ” He who responds “May His great Name be blessed” with all his strength will have the heavenly decree against him torn up.” [5]

In the talmudic period, then, the Kaddish was well-known. At least the central phrase thereof was used liturgically and, perhaps, also after a rabbinic homily. It had salvific value, guaranteeing a place in the world-to-come and relief from an evil decree.

return to head of document

The post-talmudic period: Massekhet Sofrim, a post-talmudic (eighth-century) source, contains three texts which continue the evolution of the use and theology of the Kaddish:

  • ” Chapter 10:7 stipulates that the Kaddish may only be recited in the presence of ten men, similar to the Barkhu prayer. It also notes, “The people of the east and of the west have the custom to say it after the prayer for peace for the three times one recites the Eighteen Benedictions … and even after the reading of the Torah.”

COMMENT: The Eighteen Benedictions is the central petitionary prayer of each Jewish liturgy. It is recited three times a day. The prayer for peace is the last of the petitions. The Torah reading follows the Eighteen Benedictions. Hence, Massekhet Sofriminforms us that, in the post-talmudic period, the full-Kaddish served to signal a major break in the parts of the liturgy. Furthermore, we learn from Massekhet Sofrim that the Kaddish had become so much a part of the public liturgy [6] that it required ten men for its recitation. This source, then, implies a clear location in the organized liturgy for the Kaddish.

  • ” Chapter 19:12 provides that, after the Shabbat Musaf liturgy, the cantor should go out of the synagogue to the mourners who will assemble there. He is to “recite a blessing over them and then recite Kaddish, but he does not say [the full version of the Kaddish] except over [the study of] Talmud or Midrash.” [7]

COMMENT: This text allows us to deduce that there was a regular custom to say the Kaddish after study and that mourners had a special blessing, and perhaps a study session, said in their presence which was followed by the Kaddish.

  • ” Chapter 21:6 provides that, after the Torah scroll is returned to the ark, the cantor says, “May the Name of the Lord be blessed from now and forever” and the people respond, “May His great Name be blessed forever and ever and ever.” Together with 21:7, Massekhet Sofrim also discusses exceptions to the rule, i.e., saying the Kaddish before the Torah is returned to the ark.

COMMENT: This text tells us how the central phrase of the Kaddish and its Hebrew parallel in Psalms were actually recited in the synagogue. The cantor recited the Hebrew of Psalms and the people responded antiphonally with the Aramaic of the Kaddish.[8]

From these three citations we learn that, in late eighth century, the Kaddish was recited after the Eighteen Benedictions, after the Torah was returned to the ark, and under certain conditions also before it was taken from the ark. In addition, it seems that only the central phrase of the Kaddish was recited, first in Hebrew by the cantor and then in liturgical Aramaic by the people. We also learn of a link of the Kaddish to mourners. Finally, we note that the Kaddish has become part of the public liturgy, a minimum of ten being necessary for its liturgical use.

The liturgical integration of the Kaddish is confirmed in the later post-talmudic midrashim. Thus, Midrash Tehillim 6:1 mentions “the seven times that the cantor recites the Kaddish each day,” though these are not specified in the text.

The geonic period: As time progressed, the Kaddish became a regular part of the liturgy. The Seder Rav Amram Ga’on (ninth century) lists the text of the half-Kaddish, the full-Kaddish, and the rabbinic Kaddish, but no mourner’s Kaddish as we know that from later times (on these forms, see below).

In the geonic period (ninth through eleventh centuries), the Kaddish also acquired a profound eschatological meaning as witnessed by the following four sources, all from that period:

  • ” [The angel] whose name is Sandalfon creates crowns for the Master of the Glory from recitations of the Kedusha [the liturgical forms of Is. 6:3 and Ezek. 3:12], the Barkhu, and “Amen. May His great Name …” which the Jews say responsively in their synagogues. He [Sandalfon] then administers an oath to the crown using the Tetragrammaton and he goes up to the head of the Master. Because of this the sages said, “Anyone who does not recite the Kedusha, Barkhu, and ‘Amen, May His great Name …’ causes the crown to diminsh and is guilty of excommunication until he repents and brings a sacrifice before the righteous in the time to come. [9]

COMMENT: The setting of this text is Merkabah mysticism which is replete with angels and other heavenly hosts who approach the Throne. Here, Sandalfon is “creating crowns,” that is, weaving the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, for a godlike figure called the “Master of the Glory.” The letters he uses are generated by Jews on this earth as they recite the central phrase of the Kaddish (and other public prayers) with great fervor. Hence, the author’s conclusion that one who does this helps the heavenly realm and, conversely, one who does not recite the central phrase with fervor inhibits the angels from doing their work of praise and is thereby worthy of excommunication.

  • ” Because of the “Amen” which the sinners recite, they will rise from hell. How is this so? The Holy One, blessed be He, sits in heaven and teaches. All the righteous sit before Him, while the whole heavenly family [of angels] stand. The sun and the constellations (probably: the planets) are on His right, and the moon and the [other] stars are on His left. The Holy One, blessed be He, teaches them the reasons for the [commandments] of the new Torah which He will give to Israel through the messiah. Afterwards, Zerubavel stands up and says the Kaddish, and his voice carries from one end of the world to the other. Everyone comes and responds “Amen.” Even the wicked of Israel and the righteous of the nations of the world who have been left in hell answer “Amen” from hell until the whole world shakes and their words are heard before the Holy One, blessed be He. He asks, “What is this noisy sound that I hear?” and the angels of service answer, “Master of the universe, everything is known and revealed to You. These are the wicked of Israel and the righteous of the nations of the world who have been left in hell who answer ‘Amen’ from hell.” Immediately, God’s mercies are aroused and He takes the keys of hell in His hand and gives them to Gabriel and Michael and says to them, “Go and open the gates of hell and bring them up from hell” … Michael and Gabriel stand over them, wash them, anoint them, and heal them from the punishments of hell, dress them in good and beautiful clothes, take them by the hand, and bring them before the Holy One, blessed be He…. [10]

COMMENT: This midrash clearly shows the eschatological implications for the recitation of the central phrase of the Kaddish. It redeems the wicked (and the righteous gentiles) from hell and brings them fully into the presence of God. This may be one of the sources for the idea that reciting the Kaddish for someone who has died actually brings benefit to the deceased. Further, this is clearly a rabbinical Kaddish, i.e., one that is recited after study. Note, however, that it is recited after a study session in which the teacher is God.

  • ” … for the time has already come that the wicked kingdom should be torn up from its place and the sound be heard from the synagogues and houses of prayer where they say with all their force, “Amen, may His great Name be blessed forever and ever and ever.” Then, the Holy One, blessed be He, will shake all the heavens and cause two teardrops to fall into the ocean. The righteous will enter and the messiah will enter into that [heavenly] tabernacle …. [11]

COMMENT: A text in which the fervent recitation of the Kaddish brings the messiah.

  • ” … “And if all the world were mine, I would give it willing to escape one hour, to be outside [hell], to cool myself, for my soul and body are burning” … “What sin have you committed to merit this terrible judgement?” … “And could someone save you from this judgement?” “No, but if I had a son who could say in public Barkhu and all of the Kaddish, I would be saved at the end of my year.” [12]

COMMENT: This source is probably at the origin of the idea that reciting a mourner’s Kaddish by a son actually helps the soul of a deceased father, though it seems not to have been the practice to recite a regular mourner’s Kaddish in geonic times.

Finally, the sources indicate that Rav Hai Gaon (eleventh century) used the extended form of the rabbinic Kaddish at the graveside but apparently did not use a recurring mourner’s Kaddish. [13]

The geonic period, then, saw the full integration of the Kaddish into the prayerbook. Its primary twofold purpose is clear: (1) to divide the liturgy into its parts, the half-Kaddish serving as a half-stop, and the full-Kaddish serving as a full-stop; and (2) to terminate a study session in which law or general homilies were taught, in which case the rabbinic Kaddish was recited. The geonic period also saw the extension of the Kaddish into the area of eschatology and messianism. The Kaddish for mourners, however, had a different status. The extended rabbinic Kaddish seems to have been used at the graveside but not beyond that, although some midrashic sources indicate that that might be beneficial to the deceased.

return to head of document

The middle ages: By the middle ages, the regular liturgical recitation of the Kaddish was clearly known and accepted. Thus, Maimonides’ Code of Law includes the text of the prayerbook which, in turn, includes the Kaddish in its various forms. The mourner’s Kaddish as we know it was, however, still unknown to Maimonides, though some sefardic authorities continued to use the extended rabbinic Kaddish at the funeral. [14] It is not until the late middle ages that the mourner’s Kaddish became a part of the sefardic liturgy. [15]

The situation among the ashkenazim with respect to the mourner’s Kaddish was different. The eleventh and twelfth century texts, written during the crusades, cite and expand the geonic midrash on the efficacy of reciting the Kaddish for a father and rule that the extended Kaddish is to be recited at the graveside and, further, that a son is to recite the Kaddish for his parents, even if he is a minor. [16] One source indicates that the obligation to say the mourner’s Kaddish applies to the six direct relatives: mother, father, brother, sister, spouse, and child. [17] Another source indicates that it was customary to recite the Kaddish on the yearly anniversary of a death (the Yahrzeit ). [18]

Rabbi Moses Isserles, the sixteenth century authoritative ashkenazic commentor to the Shulhan Arukh, sums up the law the follows:

  • ” It is found in the midrashim that one should say the Kaddish for a father. For that reason, it is custom to say the Kaddish for a father and a mother, the final Kaddish, for twelve months…. and when the son prays and says the Kaddish publicly, he redeems his father or his mother from hell…. There are places where it is the custom that other relatives say the Kaddish if there are no children to mourn their parents. And there are places where, even if there are children to mourn their parents, other relatives also say the Kaddish though they do not say all the Kaddishes as the children do. And one follows the local custom in this…. It is also custom that one recites the Kaddish for a parent for only eleven months [not twelve] so that it not seem as if one’s mother or father were completely wicked, for the judgement of the completely wicked lasts twelve months. [19]

COMMENT: This law from the central legal document of Judaism sets the basic rules for the recitation of the mourner’s Kaddish: that one should do so to redeem the soul of one’s parent from hell; that this is incumbent, first, on the son but other relatives may recite the Kaddish for the deceased; and that the duration of the Kaddish recitation period is eleven months. These rules still govern the recitation of the mourner’s Kaddish among ashkenazic world Jewry.

There is quite some discussion in Jewish law, medieval and modern, about whether a daughter must, or can, say the Kaddish for her parents. The sixteenth-century authority, Rabbi Yair Bachrach, permitted it under certain circumstances. Modern authorities differ in interpreting his ruling and, hence, differ on whether a woman may say the Kaddish in public today. Non-orthodox authorities always permit a woman to say this prayer. [20]

The modern period: The original custom was to have one mourner designated to recite the mourner’s Kaddish. This led to conflict in the community when more than one mourner was present. Questions of precedence developed. Who had the greater right: one who was reciting the Kaddish for a parent, or one reciting for another relative? one who was reciting the anniversary Kaddish (Yahrzeit), or someone in the first thirty (obligatory) days? And so on. Contemporary orthodox authorities drew on the sefardic custom and ruled that all the mourners recited the mourner’s Kaddish together. [21]

In summary: The Kaddish was probably originally composed only of its central phrase, which is itself a re-sounding of Ps. 113:2 and analogous biblical and targumic texts. In this form it was used during the talmudic period. In the post-talumdic period, the Kaddish developed into a public liturgical text which was used to conclude a homily or study session. At the same time, various forms were developed whose purpose was to signal transitions in the liturgy, the half-Kaddish signifying a minor division and the full-Kaddish signifying a major division. In geonic times, the Kaddish began to be used at the graveside and then, first in medieval Europe and later elsewhere, it was recited by mourners for various periods. Finally, in the modern period, the rule was established that all mourner’s would recite the mourner’s Kaddish together so as to avoid conflicts of precedence and some mourner’s being denied the privilege of reciting this prayer. The custom today among traditional Jews is to follow these usages.

return to head of document


The words, the ideas, and the usage of the Kaddish are not commensurate with the full meaning of the prayer. The words are words of praise for God, not dissimilar to many other passages in Scripture and in the Siddur (Prayerbook). The ideas are not uncommon, and the usage as a division of the liturgy into parts, and even as a prayer for the dead, is not striking in and of itself. Yet, the Kaddish evokes deep feelings and arouses the congregation to moments of spiritual awareness. How is this done?

Theodore Reik, in a compelling essay on Kol Nidre the prayer which opens the liturgy for Yom Kippur, [29] points out that the words of this most moving of prayers are a legal formula, recited three times, for absolving one from oaths. Indeed, the “prayer” is no prayer at all but the act of a rabbinic court sitting in the last hour before the Day of Atonement. And yet, Reik notes, the congregation is often moved to tears at the recitation of Kol Nidre. Reik accounts for this by looking at the music for, in European tradition [30], the text is chanted in a plaintive melody recognized by most ashkenazic Jews and has even been rendered for cello by Ernst Bloch. It is the melody, not the words, Reik maintains, that evokes the feeling. It is through the music that the congregation, subsconsciously, becomes aware of its status as sinners, as children who have done wrong before their Father and who seek forgiveness and reconciliation with Him. This constitutes the theme of Yom Kippur and it is given its expression in the music of Kol Nidre, even though the words do not fit the music.

The same is true of the Kaddish as a divider of the liturgy into its sections, for the melody changes according to the liturgical calendar. Thus, the melody for the half-Kaddish, as the introduction to the Silent Devotion of the Musaf of Yom Kippur, brings the hearers into the Presence of the King and Judge of all humanity. The same half-Kaddish with yet another melody opens the service of the closing of the gates on Yom Kippur, sounding our last chance for repentance, forgiveness, mercy, and life. And, with yet another melody, the half-Kaddish which is used to announce the beginning of the prayers for rain and, later in the year, for dew, also brings us to those moments in which life and sustenance hang suspended against drought and deprivation.

The full-Kaddish too, as the closing of a signficant part of the liturgy, changes its melody with the liturgical calendar. Thus, the Musaf service on Yom Kippur, which includes the reliving of the successful purificatory sacrifices as they were practiced in the great temple when it yet stood, concludes, in European tradition, with a melody for the full-Kaddish that is particularly joyful. This melody reappears, with its full-Kaddish, on Rosh HaShana as we celebrate the universal kingship of God and again on Simhat Torah as we celebrate the renewal of the God’s revelation among us.

There is also a non-musical, ecstatic dimension to the saying of the Kaddish which is, again, not connected to the words or to the liturgical purpose of the text. Indeed, the recitation of the central phrase of the Kaddish can be a path to mystical fulfillment, as H. Weiner reports: [31]

  • ” “Amen,” shrieked the man next to me. He was doubled over, his face red, yelling at the top of his lungs, “Amen. May His great Name be blessed forever, and ever, and ever.” For a moment I thought he was ill, but then I saw that all the worshippers were carrying on in the same way. The room resounded with a cacophony of shouts. My guide noticed my bewilderment. One of R. Arele’s teachings is that the response, “Amen, may His great Name …” be recited, as the Talmud suggests, in an utter abandonment of soul, as if one were willing at that moment to die in sanctification of the Name…

I have been present myself in R. Arele’s synagogue, more than once, and it is as Weiner describes it — a recitation of the central phrase of the Kaddish with full vigor and force, as the sources recommend. And it is, indeed, an abandonment of the soul in mystic desire, perhaps in mystic fulfillment.

The mourner’s Kaddish: The recitation of the mourner’s Kaddish has a completely different spiritual dynamic. There are some deaths with which we reconcile ourselves easily: the death of an aging parent or the death of a very sick loved one. But there are some deaths with which we have difficulty: the death of a young parent, the sudden death of a loved one, the unbearable death of a child, and the mass death of our people. In all these, we human mourners, need comfort. We need the closeness of family and the presence of community. We must belong to something greater than our selves. We must fit into a context that transcends our loss, especially when it is severe.

Reciting the mourner’s Kaddish does that for us. It forces us into community, for the Kaddish cannot be recited with less than ten people present. Reciting the Kaddish forces us into a rhythm of regular synagogue attendance, morning and evening. It stops the rush of the day — before it begins in the morning and towards its end. Reciting the Kaddish forces us to take note of sunrise and sunset, the times of prayer, though we moderns do not usually organize our time around these natural phenomena.

Reciting the mourner’s Kaddish also forces us into the presence of our ancestors, for it was their way to say this prayer. It reconnects us with the generations: I said the Kaddish for my father, as he said it for his father and mother, and his father said it for his father and mother, and so on back to some remote point in Jewish time.

Reciting the mourner’s Kaddish also brings us to the presence of God. Our lives are often alienated from God and from spirituality. Reciting the Kaddish is an opportunity to remedy that. If the death has been a hard one for us, reciting the mourner’s Kaddish is also a way of seeking God’s Face in spite of the injustice of the death. The mourner’s Kaddish becomes a form of Tsidduk ha-Din, of allowing us the time to make some kind of peace with the judgement of God. In reciting the text, day after day, for the prescribed period, we come to reestablish relationship with God, even if we don’t fully understand. In reciting the Kaddish over and over again, we come repeatedly to meet God, Person-to-person, Presence-to-presence. We con-template (come into the temple together with) God’s presence. Even if God’s judgement is harsh, perhaps unjust, we are still in covenant with God. Reciting the Kaddish is an act of covenanting. [32]

Finally, reciting the mourner’s Kaddish brings us face to face with the person who died. The tradition teaches that there are three ways to understand this encounter and each person must choose his or her own way in this matter.

The first is that recitation of the Kaddish brings salvation to the dead person. This idea originates in the geonic period in the story of Rabbi Akiva who searches out the son of a dead man who has appeared to him. Rabbi Akiva teaches the son to say the Kaddish and the son’s recitation redeems his father (or mother) from hell. This motif became central in crusader Europe and has remained current in many Jewish circles.

The second way of understanding the encounter with the deceased is rooted in a talmudic statement that “the son brings merit to the father” — not in the sense of redeeming him from hell but in the sense of fulfilling the charge that the father gave to the son in his lifetime. One recites the Kaddish. One studies Torah. One gives charity. As Wieseltier puts it: “The father may pray for his [deceased] son … but the father’s prayer for the son does not have the force of the son’s prayer for the father. For the child is not responsible for the parent as the parent is responsible for the child. A father saying kaddish is showing what he feels. A son saying kaddish is showing what he was taught. The former is exemplifying love. The latter is exemplifying merit.” [33]

The third understanding of the child-parent encounter in the Kaddish reads God, the Father, as the true mourner, not the child. For, as the Talmud notes, when God hears His people reciting the Kaddish, He says, “Happy is the King Whose people praise Him so in His house! Woe unto the Father Who has exiled His children and woe unto the children who have been exiled from the table of their Father.” [34] In this sense, the mourner is also the comforter, and one mourns “together with all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” [35] “The consolations [of the Kaddish] are to comfort God for the exile, for God smites His hands together when He recalls His desolated city and He repairs to the room known as ‘the secret places’ and lets out a lament from there…. For this reason, when the leader of the prayers comes to [the word] ‘consolations,’ he mjust draw it out, thinking intensely in his heart that God will be consoled, and the He will console us, too, very soon.” [36] In its deepest mystical sense, then, the recitation of the mourner’s Kaddish reunites the Godhead which has been fragmented by pain, sorrow, and exile.

After the shoah: In the period after the shoah [37] the mourner’s Kaddish has taken on special meaning. How does one recite the Kaddish for 6,000,000 people? The mathematics is staggering: It takes 45 seconds to recite the mourner’s Kaddish at medium speed. To recite it six million times would take 270,000,000 seconds, which equals 4,500,000 minutes. If one were to do nothing else but recite the Kaddish for twelve hours a day, it would take 6250 days, which is just over 17 years, to recite one mourner’s Kaddish for each of the six million dead — not to speak of the year of Kaddish to which most would be entitled.

But it is not just the mathematics; it is the pain. How does one mourn the pain and the suffering? How does one mourn the oblivion to which so many were assigned — in unmarked graves, in concentration camp latrines, in piles of anonymous ashes? How does one imagine an act that brings their deaths to closure, that sets their deaths in a transcendent context? How can one comfort another for the shoah, and how can one be comforted?

And yet we persist. We gather for Yom ha-Shoah ceremonies, and we recite the mourner’s Kaddish. We gather at the prescribed times for Yizkor, the memorial service for the dead, and we add a special prayer for those who were murdered in the shoah, and we recite the mourner’s Kaddish. We say the martyrologies as part of the penitential services and we think of, and sometimes use special texts for, the exterminated. We gather on Tish´a B’Av, the day that commemorates the destruction of the two temples, and we acknowledge that it has become the day for commemorating the shoah, and we recite the mourner’s Kaddish. It is my own custom that, if there are no mourners present in any service I attend, I recite the mourner’s Kaddish as often as it occurs — for the dead of the shoah. No service should pass without a Kaddish, after the shoah. We also go to visit the extermination camps, and we recite the Kaddish.

And I read about a certain Rabbi Yeruham, who addressed his parishoners when they came to Treblinka: “Our journey through life is at an end. We have been brought here for destruction, fathers and mothers and their children, not a soul will remain. And so I say to you: let us say for ourselves the kaddish that in normal times our sons and our relatives would have said for us.” And a witness later reported: “The great kaddish was heard.” [38]

Even secular Jews, often even Jewish atheists, honor this custom. For these Jews, the mourner’s Kaddish is an expression of solidarity with the victims. It is an identification with the Jewishness that binds the victims to us. And it is a promise of resistance to the forces that brought about the shoah, wherever they may be.

return to head of document


There are six forms of the Kaddish. [22] The text of each and an accompanying explicatory note follow:

the central phrase:

This form was the original form of the Kaddish. It was probably recited antiphonally. Today, it is used as the central phrase of the Kaddish and, in certain circles, is recited with great fervor as, indeed, the talmudic texts prescribe.

Yehéi Shméi rabbá mevarákh le-álam ule-alméi almayá / May His great Name be praised forever and ever and ever.

the extended rabbinic Kaddish:

This is the form which was used to conclude a homily or study session, though today it is used only at the conclusion of the study of a full talmudic tractate. It is also the form that is used at the graveside. [23]

(leader) May His great Name be declared tremendous and holy in the world which He is going to create anew to resurrect the dead, to raise them to life in the world-to-come,to build the city of Jerusalem, to perfect His temple in its midst,to uproot foreign worship from the land, and to establish the worship of heaven in its place.May the Holy One, blessed be He, cause His kingdom and His glory to reignin your lives and in your days, and in the lives of the whole house of Israel,quickly and soon.And say, “Amen.”(congregation) May His great Name be blessed forever and ever and ever.(leader) May the Name of the Holy One, blessed be He, be blessed, praised, glorified, uplifted, raised, beautified, exalted, and extolled,above all blessings, songs, praises, and consolations which we say in this world.And say “Amen.”May the great peace from heaven and life (plenty, salvation, comfort, rescue, healing, redemption, forgiveness, atonement, enlargement, and saving) [24]be upon us and upon all Israel. And say “Amen.”May He Who makes peace in His high places, may He make peace for us and for all Israel. And say “Amen.”

the half-Kaddish:

The half-Kaddish is used as a minor stop, that is, to signal minor breaks in the liturgy. [25]

(leader) May His great Name be declared tremendous and holy in the world which He created according to His will.May He cause His kingdom to reign (and His salvation to sprout and may He bring His messiah closer) [26]in your lives and in your days, and in the lives of the whole house of Israel,quickly and soon.And say, “Amen.”(congregation)May His great Name be blessed forever and ever and ever.(leader) May the Name of the Holy One, blessed be He, be blessed, praised, glorified, uplifted, raised, beautified, exalted, and extolled,above all blessings, songs, praises, and consolations which we say in this world.And say “Amen.”

the full-Kaddish:

The text of the full-Kaddish follows the text of the half-Kaddish and contains three additional lines as follows. It is used as a major stop, that is, to signal major breaks in the liturgy.

(leader) May the prayers and supplications of the whole house of Israel be accepted before their Father in heaven. And say “Amen.”May the great peace from heaven and life (plenty, salvation, comfort, rescue, healing, redemption, forgiveness, atonement, enlargement, and saving) [27]be upon us and upon all Israel. And say “Amen.”May He Who makes peace in His high places, may He make peace for us and for all Israel. And say “Amen.”

the mourner’s Kaddish:

The text of the mourner’s Kaddish follows the text of the full-Kaddish omitting the line “May the prayers and supplications….” It is used to commemorate the dead and is recited at various points in the liturgy. At the graveside, the extended rabbinic Kaddish (above) is used.

the rabbinic Kaddish:

The text of the rabbinic Kaddish also follows the text of the full-Kaddish, substituting the following for the line “May the prayers and supplications….” It is recited after a study session or after a ritual reading of study texts.

(leader) Concerning Israel, the rabbis, their students, the students of their students, and everyone who occupies themselves with Torah in this place and in every place, may they, and you, enjoy great peace, grace, lovingkindness, mercy, long life, abundant sustenance, and salvation from their Father in heaven and earth. And say “Amen.” [28]

return to head of document

[*] This appeared in shorter form in Judaism 197:50 (Winter 2001) 35-51. The French version of this appeared as “Le Kaddish, la prière juive pour les morts,” La vie spirituelle (sept. 2000) 539-62. Yet another shorter version appeared in Jewish Spectator (Fall 2001) 29-36.[1] New York, A. Knopf: 1998.[2] For the full text of the various forms of the Kaddish, see below.[3] Talmud, Berakhot 3a; see also Midrash Mishlei 14:3.[4] Talmud, Berakhot 57a.[5] Talmud, Shabbat 119b; see also Midrash Mishlei 10:2.[6] Hebrew, davar she-bi-kedusha.[7] Also cited in Wieseltier, 158-59.[8] In the ancient synagogue, the Torah was read out loud in Hebrew followed, verse by verse, by the Aramaic translation. This is not quite the same as the rule for the recitation of the Kaddish but it means that neither was foreign to the old practice.[9] Otsar ha-Geonim, Midrash Konen, 3.[10] Otsar ha-Midrashim, Peskita 24 and Otiyot de Rabbi Akiva, Zayin; also cited, with variants, in Wieseltier, 36-38.[11] Otsar ha-Midrashim, Gan Eden ve-Gehinnom 10, 25.[12] Otsar ha-Midrashim, Maasiyot 45; Wieseltier (41-43) cites an expanded form in the name of the great talmludic sage, Rabbi Akiva, from the Mahzor Vitry which is an eleventh century source.[13] Wieseltier, 86. On this form, see below.[14] Wieseltier, 156-58 citing this as the custom of Alfasi, twelfth century.[15] Wieseltier, 159 citing Bahya ben Asher, late thirteenth century, that a son recites the Kaddish for his parent.[16] Wieseltier, 52-54 citing the Mahzor Vitry (eleventh century); 44, citing the Kol Bo (twelfth century); 45, citing Sefer ha-Rokeah (twelfth century); and 201, citing Sefer Hasidim (twelfth century).[17] Wieseltier, 101, citing the Sefer ha-Rokeah.[18] Wieseltier, 444, citing Isaac of Corbeil (thirteenth century).[19] To Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De´ah 376:4.[20] See Rochelle L. Millen, “The Female Voice of Kaddish,” in Jewish Legal Writing by Women, ed. M. Halpern and C. Safrai (Jerusalem, Urim Publications: 1998) 179-201 and Wieseltier, 170-91 and 350.[21] Wieseltier, 390-403.[22] The Kaddish must be carefully distinguished from the Kedusha. The latter is the doxology, a liturgical setting for the verses from Is. 6:3 and Ezek. 3:12. The Kedusha itself occurs in several forms but all have no relation to the Kaddish.[23] Wieseltier calls this “the resurrection Kaddish” because of its emphasis on that motif.[24] The section in parentheses is added by the sefaradim.[25] In all forms of the Kaddish, the phrase “above all blessing …” is modified during the ten days of repentance to read: “way above all blessing …” in accordance with the seasonal emphasis on God’s ultimate kingship over the universe.[26] The section in parentheses is added by the sefaradim.[27] The section in parentheses is added by the sefaradim.[28] Minor variations are also made in the last two lines as follows: “May the great peace … and good life …” and “May He Who … make peace in His mercy ….”[29] “Kol Nidre,” in Ritual: Four Psychoanalytic Studies, by T. Reik (New York, Grove Press: 1946) 167-220.[30] Americans follow the European tradition in this. Hence, though I use “European,” I mean “Euro-American.”[31] H. Weiner, 9 1/2 Mystics (New York, Collier Books: 1969) 230, cited in D. Blumenthal, Understanding Jewish Mysticism, vol. 2 (New York, Ktav Publishing: 1982) 138.[32] Wieseltier puts this somewhat differently: “In the company of death, subjectivity is wild. So subjectivity must be tamed. The taming of subjectivity is the work of the kaddish. Three times daily, the inner perspective of the mourner is unmagnified, unsanctified. Psychology is belittled” (266).[33] Wieseltier, 387-88. See also 419-20.[34] Talmud, Berakhot 3a. See above at note 3.[35] The traditional saying of comfort to mourners is: “May the Omnipresent comfort you together with all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”[36] Sefer ha-Rokeah cited in Wieseltier, 426. This whole section (422-29) is beautifully done.[37] Only words referring to God should be capitalized; certainly not words referring to our destruction. Furthermore, “shoah” is better than “holocaust” as a designation of the extermination of the Jews because it is a Hebrew term and because “holocaust” bears the burden of “whole sacrifice” which is clearly not the meaning of the years of night for the Jewish people.[38] Cited in Wieseltier, 471.[39] The text, together with the narrative that follows, is taken from S. Dresner, Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev: Portrait of a Hasidic Master (New York, Hartmore House: 1974) 85-59; reprinted in D. Blumenthal, Understanding Jewish Mysticism, vol. 2, 154-56. For some of Levi Yitzhak’s homilies and a modern response thereto, see D. Blumenthal, God at the Center (Northvale, NJ, Jason Aronson: 1994); transl. H. Krief, Dieu au centre (Paris, Le Cerf: forthcoming).[40] P. Gradenowitz, Leonard Bernstein: The Infinite Variety of a Musician (New York, Oswald Wolff Books, Berg Publishers: 1987) 161, modified slightly.

return to head of document

return to index of Selected Articles

David Blumenthal’s HomePage