WHAT IS THE BENEFIT OF MOURNERS’ KADDISH?
There are several different versions of the statement we know as Kaddish. There is the full Kaddish, an abbreviated one we call Hatzi Kaddish, a longer Kaddish d’Rabbanan we say after Torah study and a couple of others. The best-known version, to most of the Jewish community, is what we call the Mourners’ Kaddish or Kaddish Yitom. This is the version recited during the mourning period for a loved one, at Yizkor and on Yahrzeits (the anniversary of a death). It is interesting to note that the “mourners’” Kaddish is the same as the full Kaddish but without the short paragraph requesting a positive answer to our prayers. When one is in mourning then, clearly, prayers have not been answered and it would be cruel to rub salt into the open wound. I would like to look at this Kaddish and share some thoughts and feelings.
Let me begin by pointing out that, even though popular culture refers to Kaddish as a memorial prayer of a prayer for the dead, it is neither. Nowhere in the text is there any mention of death or of the deceased. Every Kaddish, including the version recited by mourners is a testimonial statement of God’s greatness. Yitgadal v’yitkadash shmei rabbah means Magnified and Holy is the great Name. The theme of the first two, major paragraphs, does not really vary very much from this sentiment. The ends of the full Kaddish include requests for the acceptance of our prayers and for peace. The language of Kaddish is not Hebrew, but Aramaic except for the second of the two prayers for peace. Its nature as public testimony, a congregational/communal statement, is what makes a minyan necessary for its recitation aloud. So, if the recitation of Kaddish is a communal testimony why is there one specifically for mourners and who benefits from the recitation?
There is a widely held, to me somewhat mystical, belief that it takes the soul of a person who has died a certain amount of time, it is often said to be eleven months, to reach heaven or olam habah or whatever we choose to call our eternal reward in the here-after. It is also believed that the recitation of Kaddish by a survivor will aid the soul in this journey. Perhaps this is because if one is expressing his or her attachment to God in the face of bereavement then it might be inferred that the deceased’s life or lessons had a beneficial effect upon their spiritual outlook. That is why the eleven-month period is prescribed, especially for a parent. There is a custom that has developed of cutting this eleven-month period short by one day for fear that over-extending it would suggest that the soul needs additional help, thus dishonoring the deceased. So, in this scenario, it is the deceased who reaps the benefit.
But what of the mourner him/her self. I can say, based on personal experience and observation and conversation, that our mourning practices, including Kaddish, have a healing effect. There is the sense of “helping” the deceased in the journey. There is the comfort of hearing the rest of a congregation supporting me in a difficult time by saying amen to my expression of faith. There is the sense of community with the other mourners who are saying Kaddish with me. This sense of not being alone but even in grief being part of something bigger is, in my experience, extremely comforting. It really is like a verbal group hug. In this respect, it is the mourner who benefits. I would like to point out that this is all intensely personal and experiential. I understand that many of us are not on a position to attend daily minyanim or any service regularly. I also understand that unfamiliarity with the service can make us feel uncomfortable. That said, I can tell you that a great many people have told me that even occasional attendance and even following only a part of the service still provided comfort. It is also true that most minyanim, most congregations, will be welcoming, helpful and understanding. I urge every mourner, regardless of ones level of knowledge, not to deprive yourself of this healing experience.
In a different respect the congregation also derives some benefit. Congregants are given an opportunity to be supportive and comforting, (menachem avel), and feel as they are making a contribution to the greater good. Other congregants and my own children may find that my ability to remain connected to the tradition in the face of pain and bereavement is a source of inspiration and reinforcement. Also, and don’t sell this short, there is something reassuring in the knowledge that when I need the support of my community it will be there for me.
Actually, I believe that all of these approaches have a ring of truth. The benefit of the recitation of the mourners’ Kaddish accrues more universally than might appear at first blush. Jewish tradition is like that for me. It is the source of comfort, moral guidance and connectedness for spiritual and mental health.