Kaddish

 

Non-Jews who attend Jewish Sabbath and especially High Holiday services in synagogue often comment on their interminable character.

In contrast, Jewish ceremonies for life cycle events tend to be short and to the point. (Bar mitzvahs, and bat mitzvahs in liberal synagogues, are a special case: the bar mitzvah boy simply is given a role of honor in a pre-existing long prayer service.) A Jewish marriage ceremony, for instance, rarely takes more than 15-30 minutes before the festivities start.

Thus also, the formal religious part of a Jewish burial does not last very long. Typically, most of the time is dedicated to hespedim (eulogies) of the deceased, usually by family members, close friends, or colleagues.

Burial customs may differ between communities: for instance, while coffins are the norm in most Diaspora communities, in Israel only simple shrouds are used. (Men are often buried in their prayer shawls.) The central parts, however, are quite universal: burial rather than cremation, kria (rending of the clothes) by immediate relatives and spouse, the recitation of certain psalms, mourners assisting in filling in the grave, and the request by the rabbi or head of the burial society for forgiveness from the deceased for any slights, however unintentional.

One prayer, however, is so thoroughly associated with Jewish mourning that it has nearly become a synecdoche for it: the Kaddish (“Sanctification”), or more precisely the version termed “Orphan’s Kaddish” (kaddish yetomim) or Mourners’ Kaddish. Remarkably, not only was that prayer not originally intended as a mourner’s prayer, but it does not contain a single reference to death or the hereafter. [*] Moreover, it is not even in Hebrew (except for a single phrase at the end) but in Aramaic, the lingua franca in the Middle East two millennia ago.  It was, hence, a prayer meant to be understood by all who recited it, including those whose Hebrew had become a little rusty. [The mind wonders, if it should therefore today be recited in the lingua franca of our time, namely, English?]

Versions of the Kaddish prayer occur throughout synagogue services. A short version (the “half-kaddish”) is used to demarcate sections; a longer version (“full kaddish”) was originally used to end the service, though a “coda” of additional prayers has been added later. The “Rabbis’ Kaddish”, which invokes blessings over scholars, is used to mark the end of a study session and, in the synagogue, after readings from the Talmud (Mishna and/or Gemara). At the end of the service, if any mourners are present, the Orphans’ Kaddish is recited.

This is its text rendered in English.

[Aramaic:]

Magnified and Hallowed be His great Name

In the world that He created by His word

And may His kingdom come

In our lives, and in our days, and in the lives of all the House of Israel

Speedily and in our days

And let us say, “Amen”

May His great Name be blessed forever and for the ages of ages

Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, 

Extolled, adorned, adored, and lauded 

Be the name of the Holy One, Blessed be He

Even as He is above and beyond all blessings, hymns, laudations, and consolations

That are uttered in the world

And let us say, “Amen”

May there come great peace from Heaven 

Upon us and upon all His people Israel

And let us say, “Amen”

[Hebrew:]

He Who makes peace on High

May He bring peace upon us

And upon all Israel

[And upon all the world]

And let us say: Amen 

 

“Even as He is beyond”: yes, one of our most central prayers says G-d is beyond, and hence beyond the need form, the prayers of us mere mortals. Does that mean our prayers are futile? Of course not—but they are for our sake, not for His.

Let me leave the last word to Maurice Ravel. And may the memory of D. daughter of A. be blessed.

 

[*] There is another prayer, El Male Rachamim/G-d full of mercy, that explicitly references these and asks G-d to admit the soul of the deceased into His presence and to bind it in the bond of [everlasting] life.

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