While most of you are eating dinner or watching the evening news, I’m battling rush-hour traffic in my little corner of the world, making my way to synagogue to say Kaddish for my mother. The ancient prayer doesn’t mention death. Its central theme is the magnification and sanctification of God’s name. So, um, what’s the point?
Kaddish, along with the Shema and Amidah, is one of the most important prayers in the Jewish liturgy. I’d guess that Jews, even those who know little about the religion, would be able to recite the prayer with just a bit of help. It’s chanted in various forms several times during minyon, an iconic part of the liturgy that serves as a kind of divide between sections of the service.
But there’s little doubt that a person who says they need to say Kaddish – the word literally means "holy" – is in mourning and has probably been reciting the prayer daily since the burial of their loved one. In the case of a child saying Kaddish for a parent, they’ll continue saying it for 11 months.
The first words of the prayer, inspired by the prophet Ezekiel, offer up a vision of God becoming great in the eyes of all the nations. But it’s the congregation’s response where the weight of the passage can be found: Yehei shmëh rabba mevarakh lealam ulalmey almaya, "May His great name be blessed forever, and to all eternity."
Other than suggesting the prayer – which, btw, is mostly in Aramaic – is a rich tradition and one way of honoring and remembering a close relative, it’s a little unclear why many Jews who have little connection to the faith continue the practice. Maybe it’s simply a way of conjuring up the past and warm remembrances of childhood. Maybe it’s guilt.
The party line suggests saying Kaddish helps those in mourning come to grips with the finality of death and the mystics among us believe that in some inexplicable fashion the prayer brings comfort to the dead, even helps them on their journey to Olam Haba, the World to Come!
I recite the prayer to honor and recall my mother each day. But saying the prayer also links me with an ancient belief system that stretches back thousands of years and, just as importantly, connects me to my modern faith community.
Ultimately, like all things in life, saying Kaddish is a choice. For me, 20 minutes or so each day seems a small price to pay to honor the memory of my mother and carry on a rich tradition that has sustained the Jewish people for millennia.