From Aramaic to Eternal Rest: The Kaddish’s Unexpected Journey

by | May 29, 2024 | Deep-ish Dive | 0 comments

If there’s a #1 most popular Jewish prayer, it has to be ‘the Kaddish’ prayer.

It’s said at least once, usually several times in each and every prayer service of the Jewish liturgy. And it’s one of the very few prayers composed in Aramaic.

Kaddish was composed during the great Gaonic Period in Babylonia (7th-10th Centuries) when Rabbinic Judaism flourished under Persian rule. It was popularized during the Crusades when there was much death and destruction in Franco-German Jewish communities. Its origin is in a prayer composed to be recited after Jewish learning in the belief that the famous ‘y’hay shmay rabbah m’vorach’ refrain was cosmically powerful and influential. It was later adopted by the community of mourners to be said in praise of God. It followed that the same prayer formula was adopted to be said to conclude each section of a prayer service. There’s even a special Kaddish for funerals.

It is thought that the Kaddish’s popularity amongst mourners even today starts with a medieval tale of Rabbi Akiva encountering a naked man carrying wood in a cemetery. Akiva inquires about the man doing such onerous work, and he replies that he had been an unethical tax collector and that this was his lot while he was dead. He asks Akiva if it is true that he could be released from his punishment if he had a son who was to lead the congregation in ‘May his great Name be blessed.’ ie. Kaddish. Alas, the man said he had no son and even if he did, who would teach him Torah? Akiva went and discovered a long-lost son who refused to learn to prepare to say ‘kaddish’ for his father. Akiva fasted, and that led to the boy’s heart opening to Torah, whereupon he learned to recite ‘y’hay shmay rabbah m’vorach.’ The man was released from his eternal punishment.

This kind of folk belief, so foreign to us but popular amongst those medieval Jews reflects concern about the eternal rest of parents as can be provided by educated children. As the tale tells, recitation of kaddish by children results from being opened to awareness and engagement with ‘Torah,’ what we call Jewish education. In my mind, it’s important to note that eternal suffering can be alleviated by some act or other. It’s hugely fascinating that the one thing amongst all others that the tale tells can moderate eternal suffering is educating the next generation. The message is that Jewish education is vital to enable those who live on to thrive.

Another possible source of the tradition whereby mourners recite kaddish comes from the earlier tradition of saying a kaddish for the scholar teaching some Torah. A custom developed to finish the 7 days of sitting shiva with a learned discourse, after which kaddish would be said for the teacher. It seems that those in the community who were not able to supply a scholar were ‘put out’ that their deceased would seem insufficiently scholarly. Thus, the tradition was instituted for a learned discourse to be delivered at the end of every shiva.

Both traditions reflect how deeply the value of Jewish education is embedded in Jewish history, tradition and practice.

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