In my last post, I talked about sitting Shiva. Shiva is a wonderful custom that is designed to comfort mourners. Technically, the people who are considered mourners are not everyone who grieves. It is laid out in the Torah, based on the people for whom a Kohain was allowed to make himself unclean by connection with a dead body. According to the Torah in Leviticus 21:2-3, a Kohain may not be near a dead body because it would render him ritually unclean. It makes exceptions for the death of a spouse, son, daughter (also grandchildren), brother, sister, mother or father (also grandparents).
After the week of shiva, there are other traditions of mourning that comfort. Going to the synagogue to pray with a minyan, a group of men and reciting mourner’s kaddish. The reason for going to the synagogue, or praying with a minyan (ten men), is because they represent being in the community of Israel. Because of this requirement of having at least ten Jewish men, the tradition says that whoever joins a minyan to enable someone to say kaddish, participates in the soul of another Jew. Saying kaddish is about the soul.
Mourner’s kaddish is wrongly called, “The prayer for the dead.” Kaddish is actually a prayer that praises God for His greatness. It is a prayer that benefits the living. There are several versions of kaddish, which have different functions in Jewish prayer, and they serve as dividers between the different portions of the Jewish prayer service. Most of those versions have different melodies that are beautiful. Mourner’s kaddish has no melody. It is recited more as a declaration. The other types of kaddish may be said by anyone, but mourners kaddish is the exclusive domain of the mourners (see above). While Jewish tradition teaches that by leaving someone behind who goes every day to bless God’s Name for eleven months, merits the soul of the dead, the practical truth is that saying kaddish daily with a minyan is actually very comforting for the mourner. It adds a rhythm to life, and over time, begins to comfort the heart. I can’t explain it, but I experience it.
I’ve been at services where the entire congregation stood up to recite kaddish with the mourner. I felt it took away from the unique position of the mourner, and they missed an opportunity to provide comfort to those who grieved most deeply. I’ve seen other services where the person said kaddish, and the last stanza, “Oseh Shalom,” which has been put to music beautifully in Jewish traditon, was sung by the congregation. It saddened me, because it took away from the somber nature of mourning, and failed to comfort by making a prayer of grief into a song fest.
Saying Kaddish is a structured prayer that has congregational responses at various places. There is something bolstering about standing to recite kaddish out loud, and the rest of the people giving the structured responses. Its encourages you, like you are not alone in your grief. It also gives you a sense that you are doing something constructive to work through your grief. It gives you the feeling that you are carrying out your responsibility.
The period for saying kaddish as a mourner lasts eleven months. It structures the mourning period, and places a definite end to it. Emotionally, that is helpful. You don’t feel that it goes on forever, and helps you move beyond your grief. When the eleven months are completed, the mourning period is over. You still miss the person you lost, and you still think of them so many times, but you have the feeling that its okay to move on with your life.
Some people either don’t have the confidence to recite kaddish in Shul because of their lack of hebrew proficiency, or because they don’t have the time to go to shul, or in some cases, are not interested in doing it. They sometimes will make a contribution to a shul and they will say it on the person’s behalf. Others don’t see the relevance of the tradition. While there may be valid reasons why a person would contract it out or ignore the tradition entirely, in a real sense, they are missing out on a very comforting tradition.