Next to the Sh’ma, no portion of our prayer book is better-known than Kaddish. Perhaps because it is recited with such frequency or perhaps because the attention of the congregation is more likely to be riveted as mourners rise, most Jews can recite by heart at least the congregational response, y’hei sh’mei rabba . . .
Kaddish is a relative late-comer to the siddur. It is not even in Hebrew. Rather, it is in Aramaic, a related language which had become the common tongue of the Middle East by Talmudic times. Though knowledge of Hebrew declined precipitously among worshipers in those days, kaddish was a familiar and, therefore, most popular prayer.
Its translation reveals no reference to death. Instead, it is an affirmation of God’s omnipresence and omnipotence, praise of God’s attributes and petition for God’s benevolence. In fact, kaddish is used as punctuation in the grand essay which is public worship, its shorter and longer forms serving as commas, semi-colons and periods in distinguishing the units of the services. In its long (and perhaps original) form, it includes a prayer for scholars. Kaddish de-rabbanan, as it is known, is recited after the completion of a period of learning in the presence of a minyan.
Centuries ago, it became the custom to gather at the home of a deceased scholar and study in his memory, followed by the recitation of kaddish de-rabbanan. Of course, not wanting to insult the scholarship of anyone, the custom evolved to a gathering in the home of any deceased. Ironically, the study component was eliminated (perhaps out of principle, perhaps because erudite scholars were not always present), and the particular section about scholars was eliminated. What remained became kaddish yatom, the Mourner’s Kaddish we recite today whenever there is a minyan.
Traditionally, kaddish is recited by immediate family for thirty days following burial, three times a day. The sole exception is for a parent; kaddish is recited for eleven months and one day, the loss of a parent being unique among other bereavements. Of course, it is not always possible to get to a minyan each day during aveilut (mourning). For this reason, kaddish is recited more than once at most services to enable the thrice-daily obligation to be fulfilled. When attending services is impossible, the obligation may be fulfilled by studying a brief section of Talmud after personal prayer.
Some people wish to extend their time of reciting kaddish beyond the minimum, or take on the obligation for someone who is not an immediate relative. As long as the purpose is for comfort, I see no difficulty with this act of compassion. However, if kaddish becomes a vehicle for prolonging grief instead of healing it, it does not serve its purpose.
Many legends have grown up about the purpose of kaddish. Most famous is the notion that it advocates for the soul of the deceased. At least as important is the effect it has on the soul of the survivor. With or without comprehension of its poetic depiction of God, its steady cadence and mantra-like language helps soothe the broken heart and remind the mourner that God has not abandoned.