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What Kaddish Means
Beyond language, Kaddish is more than the sum of its words. First and foremost, it is an experience of the senses. Like music, there is no understanding Kaddish without hearing and feeling it and letting go of the words.
One of the great ironies of Kaddish is that it was written in a vernacular language so that it could be understood and led by scholars and laborers alike. Today, of course, Aramaic is far more obscure than Hebrew.
That the recitation of words long dead can remain a source of consolation testifies to the fact that Kaddish transcends language. Its comforts are rooted in preverbal ways of knowing. Like a mother's heartbeat against the infant ear, Kaddish makes an elemental sound -- natural as rain on a wooden roof and as human as a lullaby.
In addition to being a profession of faith and a doxology, it is also mantra and meditation. In rhythmic repetition of syllables and sounds, the list of praises (glorified, celebrated, lauded) builds into a kind of incantation:
v'yit-pa-ar v'yit-ro-mam v'yit-na-sei
v'yit-ha-dar v'yit-a-leh v'yit-ha-lal
sh'mei d'ku-d'sha b'rich hu
l'ei-lah min kol bir-cha-ta v'shi-ra-ta
da-a-mi-ran b'al-ma, v'im-ru amen
On some level, the words are pretext. The real meaning, the subtext, is embedded in the repetition of "yit" and "ah," in consonants and vowels. Kaddish whispers "Amen, Amen" like a parent who murmurs "Hush, hush."
Kaddish is an essentially aural experience -- perhaps another reason the rabbis were so insistent it be recited within a minyan. Only with acollective voice is there enough energy to lift up the lonely mourner, the angry mourner, the mourner too hurt to even say "Amen." The minyan chorus implicitly reassures the wounded soul, "You are not alone."
Syllable by syllable, shoulder-to-shoulder, Kaddish is a sigh that affirms the core beliefs and dreams of the Jewish people: God is beyond us. Understanding is beyond us. Holiness and beauty are all around us, but beyond us, too. We have work to do. There is hope. Peace is possible.
Peace. Please. Peace.
Kaddish -- Word by Word: Even though the words are secondary, they are not incidental. Kaddish is a love song to God, praising the Holy One in a myriad of ways. Although extolling God sounds as though it should be a joyful activity, the Hebrew word for worship, avodah, also means work, and perhaps no act of worship requires more effort than one that asks mourners to praise God.
The death of a loved one -- especially an untimely death -- confronts even the most faithful Jew with doubt. The bereaved mother of a five-year-old child is supposed to stand and "magnify and sanctify" alongside a seventy-year-old son who has lost a ninety-year-old mother.
Exalted and hallowed be God's greatness
In this world of Your creation.
In the mouth of the mourner, these words affirm that even death is part of God's creation. Kaddish asks Jews to hallow death -- to take what might appear random, meaningless, and cruel, and speak of it as part of the sacred whole. This is an enormous challenge -- perhaps even a lifelong struggle. Many view it as a goal.
Kaddish also pronounces acceptance of God's judgment. There is no lamentation and certainly no argument in the prayer, which recalls Job's response to all the terrible things that befell him. In the ultimate statement of acceptance, Job said, "Though God slay me, yet will I trust in God."
That was Job. The rest of humanity finds it harder to trust God completely in the face of loss and suffering. Even so, all human beings must ultimately accept death. There is finally no way to answer to "Why him?" "Why now?" Acceptance is a refuge from insanity; a way to find surcease of pain even when there is no way to make sense of the loss.
Nevertheless, mourners are not expected to provide the final affirmation that is "Amen." When Kaddish is given its traditional call-and-response reading, the mourner says "v'im-ru," which means "and you should say." The bereaved thus elicit an "Amen" from the community that rallies around mourners for just this purpose. The "Amen" that comes from a mourner's mouth is spoken with quotation marks around it.
And Your sovereignty revealed
In the days of our lifetime
And the life of the whole house of Israel
Speedily and soon.
Although Kaddish gives voice to acceptance, it is not a statement of submission. In a way, it is a petitionary prayer. It seeks nothing less than the redemption of the whole world -- the perfection of God's creation. And not in the sweet by-and-by either, but soon, "in the days of our lifetime."
The request for revelation of God's "sovereignty" speaks to the timeless hope for the day when justice will prevail and all people will live in peace. For most Jews, this vision of the end of days, of a messianic time, depends upon human action rather than divine intervention. By doing what God asks -- working for peace and justice, performing mitzvot -- human beings can bring about the kingdom of heaven on earth. Kaddish reminds mourners of their obligation both to dream of such a world and to build it -- without delay.
This is not an easy message to hear or accept when your world has been shattered. Still, Kaddish is given to mourners precisely because they are most aware of the fragility of life. The bereaved know better than anyone that there is no time to waste in making God's presence manifest in the world, both in praising God's name and in the work of repairing the world.
May You be blessed forever,
Even to all eternity.
May You, most Holy One, be blessed,
Praised and honored, extolled and glorified,
Adored and exalted above all else.
Blessed are You.
Beyond all blessings and hymns, praises and consolations
That may be uttered in this world . . .
This long list of attributes -- counted by various authorities as seven, ten, or even fifteen -- points to God's inscrutability and humanity's inability to describe the Holy One, regardless of how many praises we heap up.
The words have been given many translations: glorified and celebrated, lauded and praised, acclaimed and honored, extolled and exalted, blessed, upraised, elevated. This is followed by another series, again variously translated as songs, praises, psalms, consolations, blessings, hymns.
Kaddish puts this accumulation of affirmation into the mourner's mouth, maintaining the connection, however tenuous, between the bereaved and the Holy One. Someday, when the bereaved can once again taste the food on his plate and delight in the birdsong outside her window, these praises may no longer seem like an affront. Having recited Kaddish during their residence in the valley of the shadow, there need be no shame for having doubted or even cursed God's name in that dark place.
May peace abundant descend from heaven
With life for us and for all Israel . . .
May God, Who makes peace on high,
Bring peace to us and to all Israel.
Kaddish ends with a fervent double plea for peace, first in Aramaic and then, with nearly the same words, in Hebrew. "Oseh shalom bim-romav" comes from a line found in the Book of Job, where tragedy is ultimately transformed into a hard-won blessing.
The repetition of shalom, the most familiar of all Hebrew words, echoes like a promise of peace after the petition for peace. There are many kinds of peace. Kaddish speaks to both inner peace and to the peace of the whole world. And because of the connection between Kaddish and the ties that bind families together, it is also very much about shalom bayit -- peace within the home, within the family.
Every death leaves unfinished family business; saying Kaddish in memory of a loved one is one way that mourners forgive the dead and themselves for words spoken in anger and for words of love and forgiveness never given voice. Kaddish helps replace grudges and guilt with shalom -- peace for the mourner, peace among the mourners, peace for all the mourners of Zion.
Afterlife: There is no mention of heaven in the Kaddish. Even though it is recited "in honor of" the dead, and in spite of the fact that for centuries Jews thought of saying Kaddish as a way of "redeeming" parents from hell, the afterlife is conspicuously absent. This silence not only begs the question about what Jews believe about life after death, it provides an answer, too.
There is not now, nor has there ever been, one unified doctrinal Jewish view of the afterlife. Jews have embraced the gamut of beliefs about what happens to human beings after they die -- from simple decomposition to reincarnation, from elaborate depictions of heaven and hell to humanistic metaphors about the biological legacy of children and the tangible-spiritual legacy of good works.
Maimonides, the influential twelfth-century rabbinic interpreter, affirmed belief in an afterlife but viewed the topic as utterly beyond human comprehension, and thus best left alone: "As to the blissful state of the soul in the World to Come, there is no way on earth in which we can comprehend or know it." In the twentieth century, the overwhelming atrocity of the Holocaust nearly obliterated the idea of a personal afterlife, and yet also renewed the ancient idea of a collective immortality within the communal entity of the Jewish people.
The reticence of Kaddish about the afterlife leaves room for the great variety of Jewish belief about the world to come (ha-olam ha-bah). But it also reflects Judaism's commitment to the primacy of life in this world (ha-olam ha-zeh). In marked contrast to Christian funerals, which usually mention a reward in heaven or reunion with God and/or loved ones, the Jewish funeral liturgy never speaks of death as a "better place."
Jewish funerals focus almost exclusively on the life that was lived and is now lost. Indeed, it is incumbent upon the person delivering the eulogy -- the centerpiece of the funeral -- to extol what was praiseworthy about the deceased -- just as the Kaddish extols God.
Judaism's relative indifference to the afterlife is apparent in the laws and customs that surround death. Mourners and consolers are not encouraged to reflect upon a loved one's life after death; instead, they are given practical ways to focus upon their responsibilities in this world, with laws and customs about how to show respect toward the dying and the dead, how to grieve, and how to comfort the bereaved. These mitzvot -- or commandments -- are the subject of the rest of this book.
Saying Kaddish is a mitzvah, too, and one that, like giving charity in honor of a loved one, has the remarkable ability to transform the ineffable memory of the dead into tangible action and perhaps into something more.
"Love is strong as death," says the poet in the Song of Songs. From generation to generation, saying Kaddish demonstrates the immortality of love.