The Mystery of the Kaddish

By Leon H. Charney and Saul Mayzlish

Barricade Books, 2006, 236 pages

ISBN 1-56980-300-5



Leon H. Charney and Saul Mayzlish explore the origin of the Jewish mourner’s kaddish in their The Mystery of the Kaddish[1]and reveal that the current practice where individuals say the prayer for their deceased relative was copied from Christians.

The kaddish, “sanctification (of God),” is a prayer that praises God, and contains no reference to death, mourners, or deceased relatives. It is not mentioned in the Bible, Talmuds, or early Midrashim. Originally, there was a single kaddish, but today five different kaddishim are recited for different purposes: (1) a complete kaddish read at the end of services; (2) a half kaddish for the conclusion of parts of the service; (3) a kaddish said at a burial; (4) a rabbinic kaddish recited after learning certain  texts, which is recited today by mourners if one or more of them are present; and (5) the mourner’s kaddish, which is the same as the complete kaddish but, because it is a personal prayer, without the sentence “may their prayer be accepted.”[2]

An early version of the kaddish is first mentioned by rabbis who lived after 500 CE. Its origin is obscure, but it was apparently first recited at the conclusion of a public sermon that, like the kaddish, was delivered in the Aramaic language, the language many Jews spoke at that time. In its early form, it was probably a brief meditation carrying a message of hope, and a belief in and praise of God.

Charney and Maylish write that the mourner’s kaddish was instituted shortly after the first Christian Crusade of 1096 when thousands of Jews were murdered in brutal fashions, such as being burned alive, and many Jewish communities destroyed by crusaders in France, Germany, and England. Jews felt devastated and sought a way to somehow alleviate their grief and sorrow and memorialize their dead. This first Crusade was followed by a second in 1145-1147, and by other atrocities against Jews.

It was not uncommon during the middle ages for Jews to be expelled from towns, cities, and countries. There were over 25 such expulsions from Russia, France, Germany, England, and Switzerland between the twelfth century and 1840. The Catholic Church executed around 10,000 Jews in its effort to persuade them to convert to Christianity. There were blood libels when Christians insisted that Jews used Christian blood in their services, which prompted rabbis to suggest to fellow Jews that they drink only white wine during the Passover Seder, in contrast to the customary red wine, to preclude an allegation that their wine contains Christian blood.

Jews yearned for help and relief from these horrors. It seems that the first mourner’s kaddish, prompted by their anguish, was recited by rabbis and scholars to recall important Jewish victims, and commoners had no similar opportunity to express their grief.

The practice of saying Yizkor, “remember,” performed today in many synagogues during holidays four times a year, also began at about this time, for the same reason. So, too, the yartzeit, “year’s time,” a German word because the practice began in Germany, of reciting the mourner’s kaddish on the anniversary of a relative’s death.[3] The persecutions also impelled the composition of the Sabbath prayer Av Ha’rachamim, “our merciful father,” in 1396. [4]

Where did Jews get the idea for the individual recitation of the mourner’s kaddish for deceased relatives? Charney and Mayzlish cite sources showing that Jews ironically took the idea from a Christian mourning practice, for Christians did not limit mourner prayers to the elite.

The kaddish ritual began in Germany, spread to Spain, and from there to the entire world. Then the mourner’s kaddish was made a ritual halakhah (law) in the sixteenth century Shulchan Aruch by Joseph Karo.

Thus the kaddish, that declares the nobility of God, is a prayer prompted by heinous acts perpetrated against Jews in 1096 that caused them to seek a ritual to alleviate their pain. It was bizarrely copied from a Christian ritual, and although it has no reference to mourning, it became a ritual practiced by even non-religious Jews.

[1] Charney and Maylish explore how different communities observe the saying of the kaddish, different views that people they encountered had about the kaddish, their understanding of persecutions against Jews, and their understanding of the Jewish view concerning death and the after-life. I will only focus on the origin of the mourner’s kaddish.

[2] Readers interested to know more about the kaddish, especially the role of women in saying this prayer, should read my review of Rahel Berkovitz’s A Daughter’s Recitation of Mourner’s Kaddish.

[3] By the early sixteenth century, the mystic known as Ari said that the recital of the kaddish at the yartzeit  “elevates” the departed’s soul to a higher level.

[4] A number of fast days were instituted to commemorate catastrophic events, such as the brutal murder of dozens of Jews, but these fasts have been discontinued.