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How does a mourner pray? In Judaism, with an ancient prayer praising God: the Kaddish.

Long before the custom arose of its recital by mourners, the Kaddish served as punctuation during worship, concluding the prayer service and its major sections. Written in what was once the most common of languages, Aramaic, the Kaddish was an entry to prayer for worshippers who didn't understand a word of Hebrew.

Death and Mourning


Talking with children about death


The text of the prayer itself has nothing much to do with the souls of dead relatives: It is an ecstatic exultation of God's glory. Its connection to death or mourning lies in the aspect of zidduk ha-din (justification of judgment), in which "Man is required to give praise for the evil which befalls him even as he gives praise for the good." (Mishna Berachot 9:5). As such, it is more of a prayer of self-consolation than an actual prayer to benefit the dear departed. Saying nothing about death or resurrection, it prays for God's rule and peace to be speedily manifest on earth.

In some ways, the prayer's sociological impact is as importnat as its spiritual impact. Not only is it a way for the mourner to maintain a connection to the deceased in a comforting, structured way, but it also requires the mourning individual to seek out his community. In order to fulfill the obligation of Kaddish, the mourner must rouse himself from his pain and become part of an ongoing social enterprise, the minyan (a quorum of ten men required for certain prayers). Conversely, the Kaddish singles out the mourner to the community, reminding them for a full year to embrace one of their members who is in pain.

First Person
Chanting praises of God at a time of hurt and anger and confusion with G-d's role in my life didn't seem at all out of place. I'm convinced that God only gets involved in our lives if we provide the invitation; and it's the tough times in our lives that make us seek God's help.

--George H.

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Kaddish in tradition

There are indications that reciting the Kaddish became a practice of mourners during the 13th century in Germany, at a time of severe persecution at the hands of Crusaders. The practice developed the mystique of providing comfort to the dead, and has been imbued over time with the talismanic properties of propelling the soul forward in its journey, or entreating the departed soul to pray on behalf of surviving kin. Kaddish is felt to be a great obligation on the mourners to fulfill in a last act of filial piety.

The prayer itself has such a hold on the imagination that even Jews of a generation past who had broken all other religious ties were concerned that they be survived by a "Kaddishel," a son who would continue to honor them after death with this prayer. There is increasing recognition, even in Orthodox circles, of the appropriateness of a surviving daughter's right to assume this role. Many people will pay others to fulfill this obligation in their stead, as it is a major responsibility to attend daily services for 11 months.

Reciting Kaddish

In the event of the death of a spouse, child, or sibling, Kaddish is said for a full thirty days after burial. For a deceased parent, however, the mourner will continue to say Kaddish for 11 months. Kaddish is also repeated on Yarzheit, the anniversary of the loved one's death.


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