May women say the mourner’s kaddish?

A Daughter’s Recitation of Mourner’s Kaddish

By Rahel Berkovits

JOFA, 2011, 93 pages

 

Orthodox Judaism, like American and other judges, makes legal decisions based on precedences, not
only on what modern people think is correct. When a question arises, Orthodox
rabbis examine what has been said about the matter in the past, and scrutinize
why the particular rabbi said what he did. Thus, Rahel Berkovits, who takes an
Orthodox approach to the law, inspects the entire history of a woman saying the
mourner’s kaddish. Her analysis is scholarly, yet written in an interesting
manner. She examines, explains, and comments upon 53 rabbinic sources
comprehensively, and includes 254 scholarly notes.

 

What is the kaddish?

The kaddish is a prayer that praises God. It contains no reference of death. It not
mentioned in the Bible or Talmud. It developed over a period of time. It began
with a single kaddish, but today there are five different kinds of kaddishim
(plural of kaddish) recited for different purposes. (1) a complete kaddish
recited at the end of services; (2) a half kaddish read at the conclusion of
parts of the service; (3) the great kaddish said at a burial; (4) a rabbinic
kaddish recited after learning certain rabbinic texts, it is said today by
mourners; and (5) the mourner’s kaddish, which is the same as the complete
kaddish, but without the sentence “may their prayer be accepted.”

 

When was the first kaddish developed?

The date of the origin of the kaddish is unknown, but it is first mentioned in the Tractate Soferim 10:6, which was
composed after the Talmud, around the sixth century. This source dictates,
“they should not say kaddish and barkhu
(the blessing “Bless the Lord who should be blessed,” which originally
introduced the service) with fewer than ten (men).” This source cannot refer to
all the different types of kaddishim since each type of kaddish has a different
historical origin and developed at a different time.

 

Probably based on a tale

The sources, beginning around the eleventh century, base the saying of kaddish on a
story that has nothing to do with the kaddish. According to the story, Rabbi
Akiva (others say Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai) saw a naked dead man carrying a
large load of thorns on his head. The man said he was being punished for misdeeds
during his life time, but if his son would recite barkhu, and the congregation would respond “May His great name be
blessed,” he would be released from punishment. Although this legend does not
mention the kaddish, the popular notion arose that saying kaddish would have
this effect.  Berkovits sites a rabbinical source that
states, “anyone who thinks that the actions of his sons and members of his
people done on his behalf after his death and that they pray on his behalf,
that these are of benefit to him, these are ludicrous thoughts and for naught
in the eyes of all sages and all men of knowledge. For the Torah and the rabbis
did not speak of them.”

 

Customs associated with how the kaddish is recited

The early customs of how, when, and by whom kaddish was said varied from synagogue to synagogue
and community to community. Some only allowed the orphan to say kaddish when he
was under age 13. Others only permitted one congregant to recite kaddish, and
the codes of Jewish law developed a list of who among those who wanted to
recite kaddish had priority. Some congregations had several kaddishim and gave
each to a different mourner. But soon, in fairly recent times, the practice
arose that all the mourners could recite kaddish at the same time. Interestingly,
this later practice, the one followed today in most congregations, resulted in
a nullification of the original idea that the congregation would respond to the
person reciting kaddish by saying “May His great name be blessed,” because the
many mourners read at different speeds and each congregant has to choose to
whom he wants to respond, assuming he can hear the words of the kaddish when
there is a tumult of recitations. Customs also changed regarding how long a
mourner would say the kaddish; for example, at one time the idea was to say it
for twelve months, based on a mystical notion of how long a dead person is
punished; then the idea arose that saying it for twelve months implied that the
son needed to recite the kaddish for the full twelve months because his parent
was wicked, so the time was reduced to eleven months. Later customs include the
saying of kaddish yearly on the day of death, the yahrzeit, and the insertion of the memorial prayer yizkor during certain holidays. The notion also developed that each time that a mourner said kaddish, the soul of
the departed rose higher and higher toward the Garden of Eden, and people began
to wish the mourner that the soul of his or her departed has an illui neshama, an elevation of soul.

           

Being strictly Orthodox

It is clear that the kaddish is not a law or mitzvah; that it arose rather late in Jewish
history; different forms of it were composed for various purposes; the customs
of how and when and by whom it is recited changed radically over time; the practice
arose when women were disparaged, left uneducated, relegated to the home and
breeding, and were therefore ignored while the custom developed; and the idea
that saying the kaddish would help the dead is questionable, although it
certainly helps the person who recites the kaddish. Thus, Rahel Berkovits could
have concluded her analysis by saying that there is no basic teaching in
Judaism that would disallow a woman from saying kaddish other than custom.
However, customs in Orthodox Judaism is enwrapped with the authority of law. So
she ignored this argument and used instead the Orthodox procedure of relying on
precedence, on the developing opinions of rabbis, her 53 sources, and concluded
that female recitation of kaddish is allowable.

 

The sources are interesting. They vary from absolute refusal to allow women to say
kaddish, to allowance under certain conditions, to permission to say kaddish.
An examination of the decisions shows a growing respect for the feelings and
rights of women, and recognition that they are also Jews. Rahel Berkovits
accepts the ruling of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik who “ruled that it is
permissible and legitimate for a woman to recite kaddish, even if she had
brothers who were reciting kaddish and even if she was the sole mourner
reciting kaddish in the synagogue.” It should be recited, she concludes, in the
presence of a minyan of ten males in
a synagogue or at home, and the woman should do so loudly so that men can give
the desired traditional response.

 

In conclusion

Rahel Berkovits has an interesting, moving, and practical statement near the end of her very
fine analysis: “A number of authorities suggest that communal leaders and
rabbis should be sensitive to women’s feelings at this emotional time, and look
to bring them closer to the synagogue and ritual practices. Refusing them the
option of reciting mourner’s kaddish when they sincerely desire to do so may
push them away from traditional Judaism.”

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