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Although the kaddish prayer is popularly associated with death, the text itself never mentions bereavement.
Instead, it is a call to sanctify God’s name – “May His great name by magnified and sanctified” – with the respondents proclaiming, “May His great name be blessed, forever and ever” (Sifri Devarim 306).
Drawing its key lines from passages in Psalms (113:2), Daniel (2:20) and Ezekiel (38:23), the prayer has strong eschatological connotations, with many versions explicitly beseeching for the Messiah’s arrival. The power of this prayer is glorified in talmudic passages (Brachot 57a) and the “Heichalot” literature, which elaborate on its mystical impact and ability to draw a person close to God.
Various versions of kaddish are recited in different liturgical contexts. It marks the end of distinct sections of prayer services, concludes a funeral and the completion of the study of a talmudic tractate (OC 551:10), and is recited after communal Torah study. Many sources indicate that kaddish was originally recited for the latter situation (Midrash Mishlei 14:28), and that it was only introduced at funerals because the people recite multiple biblical verses during the interment (Teshuvot Hageonim Coronel 94). Rabbi Barry Freundel has recently suggested that kaddish was initiated as poststudy prayer during the second-century Hadrian persecutions, when Torah learning was banned. Following clandestine study sessions, the learners would pray for their salvation and the coming of the Messiah.
The first source that connects kaddish to mourning is found in Masechet Sofrim, a disputably eighth-century text that depicts how a cantor recites kaddish to comfort mourners (19:9). Yet many early medieval writers, including Maimonides, never mention a mourner’s kaddish, even as they ordain its recitation on other occasions.
Within early medieval Ashkenazic writings, a mourner’s kaddish emerged as standard practice (Or Zarua, Shabbat 2:50). They record mystical traditions that depict a young child saving his impious father from the judgment of Hell by reciting kaddish.
Interestingly the technique is promoted because it includes the sanctification of God’s name, and therefore other prayers, including the Shema (Mahzor Vitry 144) and Haftara blessing (Kol Bo 114), are deemed equally efficacious. Rabbi Moshe Isserles further asserted that it was preferable for a mourner to lead the services and recite sacred blessings (such as “Barchu”) over reciting kaddish, which was initially created for minors who could not fulfill that role (YD 376:4).
While some claimed that kaddish is exclusively recited by a son following the death of a father (Shut Binyamin Ze’ev 201), the custom ultimately developed that all deaths warrant its recitation by their nearest relatives (Mishpatei Uziel OC 1:2). If no relatives are available, one may hire someone to perform this function (Kaf Hahaim 55:30).
Initially only one mourner was allowed to recite every individual kaddish, leading to detailed rules of priority (BH OC 132) as well as pressure to add (sometimes excessive) additional kaddish opportunities (Aruch Hashulhan OC 55:4). Eventually, to avoid disputes, the custom developed for all mourners to recite kaddish together on each occasion (Pit’hei Teshuva YD 376:6).
In the 17th century, a father requested that his only child, a daughter, recite kaddish for him in a special minyan (made up of men) in his home. Rabbi Yair Bachrach responded that on a technical level, a woman could recite kaddish, since she is equally obligated in sanctifying God’s name and would provide equal tranquility to the departed. Yet he ultimately opposed the establishment of these private quorums, lest such innovations weaken other existing customs (Havot Yair 222). For various reasons, many concurred with this conclusion, with some suggesting the women should perform other mitzvot toward the merit of the deceased (Sdei Hemed, Avelut 160). Other decisors, however, did allow for special home services (Be’er Hetev 132:5). Furthermore, a number of responsa acknowledged that in European communities, women and girls would recite kaddish in the synagogue itself (Igrot Moshe 3:124).
Accordingly, Rabbi Yosef Henkin (d.1973) contended that since kaddish had such sentimental meaning in contemporary times and was recited today among other mourners, women could perform this ritual (Teshuvot Ibra 2:4). Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik further permitted a woman to recite kaddish even if she was the lone mourner at a minyan.
The permissive position was opposed by many decisors, who argued that (a) women could not participate in this part of the service (Minhat Yitzchak 4:30), (b) the classic mystical sources only spoke of men’s recitation (Mishpatei Uziel OC 3:13), (c) it was immodest in public settings (Aseh Lecha Rav 5:33), or (d) it would ultimately support antinomian trends found in the non- Orthodox movements (Yahel Yisrael 2:90).
Yet these claims were rejected by Rabbi Ahron Soloveitchik, who contended that it was technically permissible for women to recite kaddish and that it was forbidden to prevent them from doing so, since such discouragement would push women away from traditional Judaism.The writer, online editor of Tradition and its blog, Text & Texture (text.rcarabbis.org), teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel.JPostRabbi@yahoo.com