A Personal Perspective Of Saying Kaddish
By Rav Aryeh Z. Ginzberg. Chofetz Chaim Torah Center
It is never easy to say goodbye to a friend, especially one that stood by you every day (actually several times a day) and at a particularly difficult time in your life. That loyal and devoted friend that I’m referring to is the Kaddish.
Chazal, in their great wisdom, put into place a formula for a person who is mourning over a parent that allows him to attach himself to the Kaddish. It is surprisingly comforting. That is, it’s surprising only to those who fortunately never had to experience such a loss in their lives. To those who had, and found solace in the Kaddish, it’s not surprising at all.
In my first year as a rav, I was asked what I thought was a ridiculous she’eilah. Someone who was about to conclude the eleventh month since his mother’s passing, when the saying of Kaddish ends, asked me if he could continue to do so for a little while longer. I told him at the time that I didn’t understand his question. Why would anyone want to prolong the saying of Kaddish for any longer than necessary? Now, 25 years later, I am experiencing the same feelings and I finally understand where his she’eilah came from.
What is Kaddish, why is it such a compelling and comforting tefillah, and why is it said after the passing of a loved one? The specific answers are not clear.
Chazal make reference in many places to the significance of this special tefillah. The midrash brings an elaboration to the Torah’s narration of Yaakov Avinu giving the berachos to his children prior to his passing. Yaakov Avinu wanted to reveal to the Shevatim the keitz, the details of the end of days, but the Shechinah departed from him. Yaakov was worried that maybe this was because his sons did not merit to hear the nevuah and were not worthy to fulfill their mission as the shivtei Kah, the founding fathers of Klal Yisrael. Immediately, the Shevatim in unison called out the pasuk of Shema Yisrael, demonstrating their heartfelt belief and emunah in HaKadosh Baruch Hu.
Upon hearing their proclamation, Yaakov with great joy responded aloud with the pasuk of “Baruch Shem.” The Targum Yerushalmi explains that Yaakov responded with “Yehei Shemei Rabba Mevorach.” At that moment of the greatest expression of appreciation to the Ribbono shel Olam for giving him 12 sons who had all united under one banner of total emunah in HaKadosh Baruch Hu, these are the very words he chose to express those feelings.
The Tur in Orach Chaim (siman 56) finds another source for the immortal words of the Kaddish, from the pasuk in Yechezkel (38:23), “V’hisgadilti v’hiskadishti . . .” that is the expression used to describe the highest manifestation of Hashem’s presence in the world, which will become evident to all in the battle of Gog u’Magog. This special tefillah is so important to HaKadosh Baruch Hu, it is such a declaration of his omnipotence and power, that when He hears Klal Yisrael make that declaration, all prior decrees can be undone. As the Gemara in Maseches Shabbos (119a) teaches us, whoever answers ‘Yehei Shemei . . .’ with all his might, HaKadosh Baruch Hu tears up any evil decree directed to him and even opens up the gates of Gan Eden for him.
With this understanding, one need not dwell upon the various kabbalistic interpretations of this mystical tefillah to understand why it is recited after the death of a loved one. It is at this very time in one’s life, when the foundations of emunah are shaken to the core, that one shows again and again throughout the year, several times a day, that his faith in the Dayan HaEmes is unshakable.
How does this tefillah become the greatest nechamah? I believe it is because as long as we are required to say the Kaddish for that person, we are still connected and bound to them in a deep way. We may not be able to visit them and we may not be able to help them physically as we did before, but there is something that we can still do for them–to say Kaddish–and this becomes our one connection to them that has not yet been severed. They need our Kaddish, and we want to give it to them so we are still connected together several times a day, for at least the period of 11 months after the passing. Kaddish no longer is the obligation or burden that we must perform; rather it becomes our nechamah and our best friend for the first year.
Over the years, I have observed people who had great difficulty committing to anything–learning, family, even work–yet when it came time to say Kaddish for their parent, their commitment was so complete that it became the most important thing in their lives.
Any person who had to go through the experience of saying Kaddish for 11 months has his own “war stories” on the challenges of saying Kaddish every day without fail. I have some of my own. Canceling scheduled flights when the times for the minyan had changed, pulling off the highway on the way to meetings or simchos with the fear of not being able to catch the Minchah minyan in time, turning around midway when traffic concerns would possibly leave me minutes too late, etc.
I’ve davened at the amud in New Square, Monroe, Crown Heights, Yeshiva University, the Satmar beis midrash in Lakewood, and even one Teimani minyan in S’dom, where a kind-hearted person with a lot of compassion stood by my side at the amud and helped me through it as I tried to lead chazaras ha’shatz and pronounce unfamiliar words for the first time in my life.
I have met more Jews from all walks of life and visited more shuls of all stripes in the past 11 months than I had in the 11 years before that. Daily meetings, whether for business or communal activities, revolved not upon people’s availability, but on the proximity of the closest Minchah minyan. In one 24-hour period in November, I davened Minchah at a prestigious law office in downtown Manhattan, a 2:00 a.m. Maariv at the Shomer Shabbos shul in Boro Park, and a 9:30 a.m. Shacharis in Detroit, Michigan. It was exhausting and stressful, but at the same time exhilarating, comforting, and profoundly important. My wife and family adjusted to the routine as well, so in a sense all of our lives revolved around the Kaddish.
Some people have this type of commitment all year round to never miss a minyan. Recently, the talmidim of the late mashgiach from Yeshivas Ner Yisrael commemorated the 40th yahrzeit of their rebbe, Rav Dovid Kronglass, zt’l. He shared with one of his students shortly before his petirah that in more than 40 years he never missed saying Keriyas Shema at the early z’man. How proud he was of this accomplishment. In a casual conversation with one of my young neighbors, he shared that it has been six years that he has not missed davening with a minyan three times a day. What a major commitment and accomplishment!
My father, zt’l, had made such a commitment himself, and regardless of the weather or how unwell he felt, participating with a minyan was nonnegotiable, despite the concerns for his well-being expressed by his dedicated wife.
So, perhaps the challenge for those concluding their period of saying Kaddish is to try to channel that commitment, passion, and dedication into other areas of our avodas Hashem in general, and towards tefillah in particular. No doubt it will continue to be a great zechus for our loved ones.
As I prepare to travel to Eretz Yisrael to visit kivrei Avos at my father’s first yahrzeit, I share with you mixed emotions of saying goodbye to the Kaddish, which has become my loyal and trusted friend these last 11 months. The only difference with this particular friend is that I hope neither I nor any other member of Klal Yisrael will have to make its acquaintance very often. v
This article is written in honor of the first yahrzeit of my father, Rav Avraham Yaakov ben Moshe HaLevi, zt’l.