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Notes from Limmud 2007

Two Kaddishes and a Ghost Story

Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]

There are six types of Kaddish: Half Kaddish, קדיש תתקבל, קדיש דרבנן, Mourners' Kaddish, Kaddish at the funeral, and scholars' kaddish.

Where did Kaddish start? It's not mentioned in the Talmud. But it is mentioned in the מסכת סופרים—appended to the Talmud but a bit later. It probably dates from the time of the Mishna. It was a prayer recited after the Torah study—not a synagogue prayer but a prayer recited in the בית מדרש. This may be why it was not composed in Hebrew. There also seem to be traces of early mysticism.

The first paragraph is common to all kaddishes, but is different in funeral and scholar's kaddish:

Magnified and sanctified may His great Name be in the world that will be renewed in the future, [in which] He will revive the dead, and will raise them to eternal life, and will rebuild the city of Jerusalem, and will restore His sanctuary within it, and will uproot idol worship from the earth, and will restore the worship of heaven to its place; and the Holy One, blessed be He, will reign in majesty and splendour, [and may His salvation sprout and His moshiach draw near]; in your lifetimes and in your days, and in the lifetimes of all the house of Israel, swiftly and speedily, and say, Amen!

What's not in the Mourner's Kaddish that you would expect to be there, is any mention of death, especially given that it is mentioned in the Funeral Kaddish. Why is this? Why is Kaddish the quintessential mourners' prayer?

Simchah ben Shmuel of Vitry, gives, in Machzor Vitry (France, 12th century), not the oldest version of this story, but the fullest:

A tale of R. Akiva. He was walking in a cemetery by the side of the road and encountered there a naked man, black as coal, carrying a large burden of wood on his head. He seemed to be alive, and was running under the load like a horse. R. Akiva ordered him to stop.

"How comes it that a man does such hard work?" he asked. "If you are a servant and your master is doing this to you, then I will redeem you from him. If you are poor and people are avoiding you, then I will give you money."

"Please sir," the man replied. "Do not detain me, because my superiors will be angry."

"Who are you," Rabbi Akiva asked, "and what have you done?"

The man said, "The man whom you are addressing is a dead man. Every day they send me out to chop wood."

"My son, what was your work in the world from which you came?"

"I was a tax collector, and would favour the rich and kill the poor."

"Have your superiors told you nothing about how you might relieve your condition?"

"Please sir, do not detain me, for you will irritate my tormentors. For such a man [as I], there can be no relief. Though I did hear them say something—but no, it is impossible. They said that if this poor man had a son, and his son were to stand before the congregation and recite the prayer ברכו and the congregation were to answer amen, and the son were also to say יהא שמה רבא מברך, they would release him from his punishment. But this man never had a son. He left his wife pregnant and he did not know whether the child was a boy. And if she gave birth to a boy, who would teach the boy Torah? For this man does not have a friend in the world."

Immediately Rabbi Akiva took upon himself the task of discovering whether this man had fathered a son, so that he might teach the son Torah and install him at the head of the congregation to lead the prayers. "What is your name?" he asked. "Akiva," the man answered. "And the name of your wife?" "Shoshnia." "And the name of your town?" "Lodkiya."

Rabbi Akiva was deeply troubled by all this and went to make his inquiries. When he came to that town, he asked about the man he had met, and the townspeople replied, "May his bones be ground to dust!" He asked about the man's wife, and he was told, "May her memory be erased from the world!" He asked about the man's son, and he was told, "He is a heathen—we did not even bother to circumcise him."

Rabbi Akiva promptly circumcised him and sat him down before a book. But the boy refused to receive Torah. Rabbi Akiva fasted for forty days. A heavenly voice was heard to say, "For this you mortify yourself?" "But Lord of the Universe," Rabbi Akiva replied, "It is for You that I am preparing him." Suddenly the Holy One, blessed be He, opened the boy's heart. Rabbi Akiva taught him Torah and שמע ישראל, and ברכת המזון. He presented the boy to the congregation and the boy recited ברכו and they answered ברוך המבורך לעולם ועד. At that very moment the man was released from his punishment. The man immediately came to Rabbi Akiva in a dream and said, "May it be the will of the Lord that your soul find delight in the Garden of Eden, for you have saved me from the sentence of Gehenna." ... For this reason, it became customary that מעריב on the night after שבת is led by a man who does not have a father or a mother, so that he can say Kaddish and ברכו.

(Translation: Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish)

This story is not very well-known. This is the sole text that justifies the saying of Kaddish for a deceased parent. There is nothing in the Mishna, or either Talmud, or the Tosefta, or in the Gaonic period. (The earliest reference [to the story] is in Sefer Eliyahu (C6/7/8), but there's no mention of Kaddish here, and it's about R. Yoḥanan b. Zakkai.) Over the centuries after the publication of Machzor Vitry, the story spreads across the Jewish world.

Later sources—codes of Jewish Law—do not cite any earlier sources than this either. This is the entire foundation for this practice, which is the one custom many Jews still observe. (Scholars' Kaddish existed beforehand, but not Mourners' Kaddish.)

Why does Akiva go to such extremes? Is it because of the coincidence of name? Interesting that Akiva's first texts to teach him are the שמע, Amidah [sic] and ברכת המזון. Note also the ghost is released at ברכו, not at Kaddish!

Shortly after this story came out, Mourners' Kaddish—Orphan's Kaddish—starts getting mentioned.

R. Eleazar b. Yehudah of Worms (c. 1176—1238)—one of the חסידי אשכנז—mystics of the היכלות school—says, at the end of his presentation for rules for Shabbos and Mussaf (in סֵפֶר הַרוֹקֵחַ):

And the orphan rises and says kaddish, and everyone leaves the house of worship.

He mentions it in his regulations for motzei Shabbos. At this time it was an Ashkenazi custom only, limited to midday on Shabbos and motzei Shabbos, and said only by minors.

A pupil of R. Eleazar, R. Yitzchok ben Moshe of Vienna (c. 1180—c.1250), writes, in אור זרוע (a compendium of laws):

It is our custom in the land of Canaan [=Bohemia], and it is the custom in the communities of the Rhineland, that after the congregation says אין כאלהינו, the orphan rises and says the kaddish. In France, I saw that they are not scrupulous about who says the kaddish, [whether] and orphan lad or a lad who has a mother and father; but our custom is the more reasonable one, because of the story of Rabbi Akiva. ... This is what my teacher Rabbi Eleazar of Worms found.

By now the custom has spread further, but not yet to France. Why aren't they fussed about it in France, and why do they get minors to say it in France? R. Natan ben Yehudah (13th Century, France):

All the many recitations of kaddish by minors were instituted to instruct them in the practice of the commandments... for if they were mandatory prayers, how could minors acquit the congregation of its duty? For someone who is not required to perform a certain obligation cannot perform this obligation for someone else.

It's a training prep—like we do today with שיר הכבוד!

A century later, the Kol Bo retells this story and adds "It was on this basis that the custom of reciting kaddish became widespread." It had by now spread to being said on other occasions, and for other relatives than a dead parent. (This is why kaddish is said for parents for eleven months, but only thirty days for spouses and children.)

(The current custom of mass Kaddish did not arise until the nineteenth century. Previously there had been fistfights for the right to say Mourners' Kaddish in shul! That's also why the morning service tails out with so many kaddishes.)

So what about the Sephardim? Maimonides does not mention Mourners' Kaddish at all, though he does mention other forms: it has not yet got to him:

Under no circumstances is the kaddish to be recited except at the well-known points in the mandatory prayers or after an exposition of any matter of Torah, that is, after a discussion of laws, or after commentary, or even just an explanation of a single [Scriptural] verse, when the rabbis' kaddish should be said.

Abraham bar Hiya (1070—1136, Spain), in his philosophical work הִגָיוֹן הַנֶפֶשׁ הַעַצוּבָה:

He who thinks that he will profit from all the deeds that his children and his people do for him after his death, and all the prayers that they pray for him, is thinking foolish thoughts. In the eyes of all the sages and all the philosophers, this is a vain hope... We have not found a passage in the Torah from which we may conclude that the actions of the living acquit the dead... There is something in this world, though, that does bring credit to the dead, according to the sages, and that is the study of the Torah, if it is taught by somebody to whom he taught it before he died, and is taught in his name.

This was a philosopher, and a lot of people did not agree with him.

So, kaddish by mourners took off slowly because their authorities were against it. It took a couple of centuries.

One other prayer influenced by the היכלות mystics, who were never very numerous, but who had a bit of an influence here and there—was the קדושה. Also עלינו shows traces of influence. The prayer they influenced refer to holiness, G-d as King; also words that mean the same thing—e.g. kaddish, the blessings before the Shema; some of the Rosh Hashana prayers.

One of the earliest references to at least part of Kaddish links it with the קדושה. It talks about the link between Israel and G-d being broken once the Temple was destroyed—we can talk to G-d, but we're not sure we're getting through:

Sota 49a סוטה מט א
[Rava said]: The curse of each day is worse than that of the preceding day, as it is said: "In the morning you shall say, 'If only it were evening,' and in the evening you shall say, 'If only it were morning!'" [Devarim 28:67]. Which morning? If I say the morning of the next day, nobody knows what it will be. So it must be the morning which has [already] passed. If so, what maintains the world? The קדושה דסידרא and the יהא שמא רבה דאגדתא, as it is said: 'A land whose light is darkness, all gloom and no order [ולא סדרים] [Job 10:22]'. Hence if there is order [סדרים = Torah study], there is light in the darkness. אמר רבא בכל יום ויום מרובה קללתו משל חבירו שנאמר בבקר תאמר מי יתן ערב ובערב תאמר מי יתן בקר הי בקר אילימא בקר דלמחר מי ידע מאי הוי אלא דחליף׃ ואלא עלמא אמאי קא מקיים אקדושה דסידרא ואיהא שמיה רבא דאגדתא שנאמר ארץ עפתה כמו אופל צלמות ולא סדרים הא יש סדרים תופיע מאופל

Rava is a fourth-century Amora. He's asking about whether it's a good thing to be alive in this world after the Temple is destroyed, and in which bad things happen to good people and vice versa.

He comes to the worse conclusion: we long for the morning which has already passed, as the next one might be even worse!

"If so, what maintains the world?" If things are so bad, how do we find the strength to keep on going? The קדושה דסידרא and the יהא שמא רבה דאגדתא are the two things which keep the world going. This is the last of the three קדושהs in the morning service: in ובא לציון גואל. According to Natronai Gaon (C9), daily Torah study took place at the end of the Morning Service, in shul. Gradually this became formalised as part of the service, as ובא לציון גואל. This became known as a סדר, a daily minimum of Torah study.

Another possibility is that it refer to the sermon, which is also referred to as סדר, and would also have been followed by קדושה דסידרא. So קדושה is doing what we associate with Kaddish: the things you say associated with Torah study. He's saying it's Torah study which keeps us going: reading G-d's words, with its promises of redemption. Rava is symbolising this with these two prayers. (יהא שמא רבה דאגדתא refers to when talking about Torah.)

The connection between Kaddish and releasing the dead from the bonds of Gehinnom first emerges in the mystical midrashic text אותיות דרבי עקיבה (eighth or ninth centuries):

In the future, the Holy One, blessed be He, will sit in the Garden of Eden, teaching and preaching. All the righteous of the world will be seated before Him. ... When [God] teaches of אגדה, Zerubavel ben She'altiel rises and recites יתגדל ויתקדש. His voice resounds to all the ends of the earth, and all the creatures of the earth respond, Amen! Even in Gehenna, the wicked souls of Israel, and also the righteous souls of Israel who still tarry there [until the conclusion of their judgement], they too say, Amen! They say this... until the whole world shakes with the sound. The Holy One, blessed be He, hears their words. He makes an inquiry, "What is that great noise that I hear?" The angels who attend Him reply, "Lord of the Universe, those are the wicked of Israel in Gehenna, and the righteous of Israel still in Gehenna, saying amen in hell." Immediately He is overcome with mercy [and asks], "What can I do for them that will supersede the requirements of justice?" ... And then in that very moment He takes the keys of hell and... presents them to Gabriel and Michael, instructing them, "Go and open the gates of Gehenna, and raise them up from hell!" Gabriel and Michael depart at once, and they unlock forty thousand gates in Gehenna, and they lift them out of there... [they] make them clean and lovely, and they heal them of all the blows that they endured in hell, and they dress them in fine and beautiful clothes... and they bring them, refreshed and dignified, before the Holy One, blessed be He.

Zerubavel is very much a saving figure because of how he is presented in the book of Zechariah. And in this case, he stands up and says kaddish because G-d has just been studying Torah. (Odd that G-d has to ask what those people are doing in Hell, though!) Note he's saying Scholar's Kaddish here, though; not Mourner's Kaddish. But this provided an initial association in people's mind between kaddish and saving the dead: If Zerubavel could say kaddish in Heaven and save dead souls, so can we down here.

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