Q. What is the background and meaning of Kaddish?
Everyone knows it has no reference to death, though not everyone knows that its use by a mourner is one of the accidents of Jewish history, and that the Mourner’s Kaddish is only one of several forms which the prayer takes.
Its name expresses its theme, since kaddish in Aramaic means “holy”, and the prayer basically lauds the k’dushah or holiness of God.
The Kaddish is not found in its entirety in either the Bible or the Talmud, but is the combination of many strands drawn together from different sources and periods, with almost every sentence being derived differently.
The oldest sentence is the response, y’heh sh’meh rabba – “May His great name be praised for ever and ever”. Based on a prayer of David (Psalm 113:2) and Daniel (Dan. 2:20), it was used as a pious response in the Temple liturgy. After the Temple was destroyed and study and prayer were proscribed, Jews met secretly and concluded their clandestine study or prayer sessions with this response which recalled the glories of the Temple and expressed the hope for redemption by means of God’s great name.
Stressing the importance of this response, the sages said (Shab. 119b): “He who responds, ‘Amen, May His great name be praised’ with all his might, his decreed sentence is torn up.”
The passage which is now the first paragraph of the Kaddish, i.e. yitgadal v’yitkadash, etc., is largely made up of Biblical phrases – e.g. Ezek. 38:23 – and is distinctly echoed in parts of the Christian Lord’s Prayer. The paragraph beginning yitbarach was introduced in order to illustrate and emphasise the affirmation, “May His great name be praised”.
In the Reader’s (or “Full”) Kaddish there is a special interpolation (titkabal), asking that the prayers of Israel find acceptance by God. This appears to have been added as an independent formula suitable for the end of a service, and at some stage it must have been grafted on to the Kaddish.
The last two lines must likewise have been grafted on. They both – the first in Aramaic, the second in Hebrew – stress the supreme ideal of Judaism, the blessing of peace, and are based on Job 25:2. Perhaps this was originally the parting benediction with which Jews left the house of worship.
How did the Kaddish come to be associated with death? Originally, a discourse would be given after the death of a scholar, and this would be followed by Kaddish. In time, this custom came to be adopted after the death of any Jew, and finally we find that the Kaddish is said without there necessarily having been a discourse.
A number of scholars have written moving explanations which rationalise the now universal association of Kaddish with mourning. Israel Abrahams writes: “The father’s memory is honoured by this public participation of his child in the honouring of God at the mouth of the assembled people. From this idea the step is easy to the belief that a Kaddish has some redeeming efficacy.
“Besides this, there is the further fact that the Kaddish is Messianic; it points forward to the establishment of the Kingdom of God, before which event is to come the Resurrection. Indirectly, then, the doxology contains the assurance of immortality, of a near hope of the day when the reign of death shall be over, and life eternal be established.
“Some, too, see in the Kaddish a touching expression of reverential submission to the divine will. At the very moment when death had laid its cold hand on the mourner’s heart, he stands forth to pronounce before the congregation the greatness and holiness of God”.