The Meaning of Kaddish
Recently, a tourist on one of my City of David tours asked me to explain the origins of Kaddish and why it is that the text focuses on life, peace, and the glory of G-d, if we say it when remember the deceased. Here is the answer I gave him:
Origins of Kaddish
Kaddish itself seems to be very ancient. The earliest mention of it is in the Gemara, by rabbis who lived during the time of the Second Temple, more than 2,000 years ago. However, there is reason to believe that it originated even earlier, during the period of the Babylonian Exile (586-516 BCE), since one of the key phrases declaring G-d’s eternal glory appears in the book of the Prophet Ezekiel, who was a prophet of the Babylonian Exile.
Meaning of Kaddish/Why we say it for the deceased
The question of why we say kaddish to remember the deceased—since kaddish has no reference whatsoever to death, mourning, or the departed—is a good one. I believe the answer lies in the name “kaddish” itself. “Kaddish” does not mean “remembrance;” it means “sanctification.” In other words, we do not say kaddish in order to remember a loved one, but rather to sanctify G-d’s name in their merit. The Book of Psalms tells us, “It is not the dead who praise the Lord, nor those who go down to the silent grave. But we [i.e. the living] will bless the Lord.” In the normal state of things, we are only able to move closer to G-d and secure our place in the world to come through the performance of mitzvot and acts of kindness in this world. Once we pass on, we have no mechanism through which we can change the fate of our soul in the next world. However, even if we cannot change our fate, our children and those we leave behind can. Enter Kaddish. By saying kaddish, we help the souls of our loved ones to continue to move closer to G-d despite that fact that they are no longer in this world.
How does this mechanism work? The words of Kaddish, especially the response of “May his great name be blessed forever and ever,” have a powerful impact on the spiritual world each and every time they are pronounced. In fact, the sages tell us that when a person responds to Kaddish with “Amen. May his great name be blessed forever and ever,” any evil decrees that exist in heaven will be ripped apart. The Talmud also brings a story of a man who comes to Rabbi Akiva in a dream, saying that his soul is trapped in the depths of Gehennom (Hell), and that the only way he can be released and ascend to heaven is for his son to say kaddish. So Rabbi Akiva finds the son, teaches him kaddish, and the man’s soul ascends to heaven.
What do these anecdotes and statements mean practically? It is impossible to know. But what we do learn from these stories is that Kaddish must be extremely important, and it stands to reason that the recitation of Kaddish somehow has a profound impact on the spiritual world, even though we may not understand how exactly that works.
Hence, when a person stands up to recite kaddish, and the entire congregation responds, “Amen. May his great name be blessed forever and ever,” G-d’s name is being glorified and every person in the congregation is making spiritual waves—all in the merit of the person for whom kaddish is being said.
Beyond the spiritual reasons and ramifications of the recitation of kaddish, I have a sneaking suspicion that there is a more practical reason that the text focuses solely on life, peace, and the greatness of G-d. This reason is as follows:
When a person recites kaddish, be it while in mourning or on the yahrzeit of a loved one, it is a time when he feels a sense of loss, perhaps even hopelessness. It is a time when one’s natural instinct is to question G-d, not to praise him. So, it is precisely at this moment of weakness, when we may tend to lose faith, that we recite kaddish, a declaration of faith. The words of kaddish remind us that G-d is the one in control of the world. Yes, he is the one who takes life away, but he is also the one who grants life to us and to all creation—every single day. The words remind us that we, as Jews, do not see birth and death as the ultimate beginning and end, but rather each individual is a link in the chain of generations, which began with the covenant between G-d and Abraham, and which will continue on long after we have left this world. The only thing that could transform death into an absolute end is if continuing generations of Jews cease to glorify G-d in this world, refuse to recognize G-d as the ultimate life-giver, or deny that the Creator is intimately involved with his creation. Such attitudes and statements would become self-fulfilling prophecies. Thus, Kaddish comes as an antidote that saves us from these destructive tendencies at the very hour when we are susceptible to them. The words, which we recite aloud and in public, remind us of what Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch said,
“What we look at so shortsightedly are only fractions, pieces. He who would look over the whole would see how all fractions are struggling to attain the whole, all discord striving to harmony, all evil working to its own destruction, and all wars to bring about everlasting peace.”
And—if I may be so bold to add—all death leading towards new, eternal life.