What is Kaddish?

We said Kaddish for our dad this past year. Some writers responded to their year of saying Kaddish by writing books about it. Four good ones are shown above.

We published a popular book about prayer a in July 2011, so we don't feel the need to go ahead and write another one about our Kaddish year.

In fact in that book, we resolved our main understanding of the meaning of the Kaddish. We have not changed our mind. Here is some of what we said in "God's Favorite Prayers" as explained by our archetypal mystic, Hannah, on pages 59-61:
Hannah invites us to examine next the well-known and practiced Kaddish prayer, a second case of the entry level mystic’s prayers.

There are several varieties of Kaddish recited in the synagogue, enough to confuse the beginner. One of them, called the Half (chatzi) Kaddish, because a few sentences are left off of it, is recited by the leader of the services as a framing mechanism to mark the end of each major section of the liturgy. And, coincidentally, the term ‘half’ (chatzi) relates to the Hebrew word for a dividing or framing action.

The second Kaddish variety, called the complete one (shalem), marks the very end of the services proper.

The best-known Kaddish in the synagogue though is the mourner’s Kaddish (yatom), the one that is employed as a mourner’s doxology (i.e., a praise of God). The practice of associating this prayer with a mourner first appears in the thirteenth century. The synagogue authorities endorsed the custom that mourners during the first eleven months after losing a close relative ought to rise and recite a Kaddish on their own. In the case of this Kaddish Yatom, the mourner rises in his place in the synagogue and recites the doxology at a few appointed times in the daily, Sabbath, and festival services.

I ask Hannah, What is it that the prayer tells us? And, in particular, what makes the prayer an apt mystical enactment for the mourner who recites it? She explains that the substance of the prayer is not at all philosophical or deep. It is a litany, as a mystical prayer is wont to be, of the right words of praise of God in the correct order. She shows us the mystical component of the Kaddish, those lines that cite for us the adoration that is recited by the angels in heaven.

Hannah explains then that reciting the Kaddish provides an appropriate vicarious association for the mourner—to stand and recite a prayer on behalf of the departed souls of the dead:

Magnified and sanctified may his great name be in the world he created by his will. May he establish his kingdom in your lifetime and in your days, and in the lifetime of all the house of Israel, swiftly and soon—and say: Amen.
May his great name be blessed forever and all time.
Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted,
raised and honored, uplifted and lauded
be the name of the Holy One, blessed be he,
beyond any blessing, song, praise and consolation
uttered in the world—and say: Amen
May there be great peace from heaven,
and life for us and for all Israel—and say: Amen.
May he who makes peace in his high places,
make peace for us and for all Israel—and say: Amen.
(Koren Siddur, p. 178)
This lilting and poetic passage does have a certain unique cadence, yet it seems to us in its words to be no more than a standard glorification of God, nothing about death or dying or the deceased. I ask again, why then is this prayer especially apropos for a mourner? Hannah proposes that it is because reciting this heavenly angelic Aramaic praise is the epitome of a mystic’s liturgy. It is a stand-in enactment by the mourner on behalf of the departed loved one. The mourner stands in place in the synagogue and recites the words.

But acting in the mode of the mystic archetype, the mourner advances to the next level of mystical prayer. She is not just addressing God with the outpourings of her personal anxiety and vexation, but imagining that she is standing aloft in heaven, representing the soul of her beloved departed, knocking on heaven’s door to seek entry for that spirit into a secure, eternal place close to the divine light and near the warmth of God. 
I pressed Hannah on this matter. I asked her to clarify to us what is going on when she recites the Kaddish. Is she addressing God from her pew, using the words authorized by the angels on behalf of the deceased? Or is she imagining her ascent to heaven to plead there for the soul of the departed?

Hannah did not know the origins of the Kaddish as a mystic’s prayer on behalf of the soul. Alan Mintz explained that this association began in the Middle Ages (Hurban: Responses to Catastrophe in Hebrew Literature
In the generations immediately following the First Crusade the ceremony of remembering the dead began to be practiced not only in the case of renowned rabbinical martyrs of public persecution but also simply for all who died natural deaths, entirely irrespective of the conditions of persecution. A bereaved son would recite the Kaddish, an Aramaic doxology, for the memory of his recently departed father or mother, in the conviction that such recitation had the power to save the deceased’s soul from tortures beyond the grave. The practice gained headway in the thirteenth century and by the fifteenth a new custom emerged: the Yorzeit, the recitation of the Kaddish on the anniversary of the death of a relative. And soon there was further established the Yizkor or Hazkarat Neshamot, the Kaddish together with various supplications for the souls of the departed, recited on the Day of Atonement and the last days of the Pilgrimage Festivals. Taken together, this amounts of a kind of cult of the dead that began in medieval Ashkenaz and later spread to all of world Jewry.
Mintz commented further about the deep personal attachment that Jews have to this prayer:
The astounding tenacity of this outlook is observable in the simple sociological fact, known to all, that in the process of secularization, and especially in the acculturation of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe to America, the recitation of the mourner’s Kaddish with its attendant rites is the very last particle of tradition to be given up.
Without knowing anything about the historical development of the Kaddish, the entry-level mystic in the synagogue does engage in some prayer, emulating the angels and sending praises and petitions heavenward. She also may practice an intermediate form of mystical prayer, an imagined ascent to stand in another realm and importune her case before the angels and before God....
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