Judaism has rituals for almost every activity in life. These rituals link us to our past, binding us to our ancestors. They bring a sense of order to our present lives, helping to shape our identities, giving us space to reflect on our blessings and connecting us with something larger than ourselves. Rituals also enable us to pass our beliefs and values down to future generations.
After my father died, one of Judaism’s most powerful mourning rituals helped to heal the fissure in my heart. Reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish twice daily in the presence of the minyan was the most restorative and affirming ritual I had ever experienced.
The Mourner’s Kaddish is required to be recited in the presence of a minyan of ten Jewish adults. The biblical source for this requirement derives from the books of Numbers (14:27 and 16:21) and Leviticus (22:32). An “assembly,” consisting of 10 men, must be present when God is being sanctified.
In Judaism, when a person suffers a loss, we come together as a community to support the mourner. The minyan comprises individuals who blend into a fellowship that shares the sorrow of its members.
The time-honored act of rising and reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish tells everyone in the room of the love, commitment and faith we share. Grief becomes an invisible thread linking the hearts of every minyaneer. Each person’s individual bereavement resonates throughout the group, enveloping the mourner in the warmth of its collective sympathy. No Jew has to stand alone in his or her grief.
Taking on the ritual of Mourner's Kaddish
I undertook the ritual of reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish twice daily for eleven months to redeem my father’s soul. Since my father had no sons, I was determined, as his daughter, to show God that my father’s soul was worthy of positive judgment and ascent to Gan Eden in the world to come. What I hadn’t anticipated was that in reciting the prayer in the presence of nine others my soul was also restored.
Because we live in a grief-phobic culture, I discovered that many people find it difficult to sit with another’s sorrow. Talking about our pain and sadness can make others uncomfortable.
When I returned to work after sitting shiva for seven days and I resumed my normal activities, people assumed that I had moved on. There seemed to be an unspoken expectation that I would get on with my life, my professional career and my responsibilities to my family. Looking on the outside as if my heart had healed made it easy for people to assume that I was okay.
By contrast, in the minyan mourning is validated. The minyan provided refuge, emotional support and a container for my ongoing heartache. Minyaneers understand that grief is not linear and has no expiration date. Their gestures, subtle but genuine – a gentle touch on the arm, the quiet passing of a tissue when tears fell discreetly or a look of mutual sympathy – made me feel cared for.
In their presence, I was safe to express my emotions without criticism or ridicule: a safety my father had provided and which I thought I had lost forever. Minyaneers accept that our emotions can catch us off guard, overpowering us without warning. Even the most stalwart of the veteran minyaneers could be seen shedding silent tears on the yahrzeits of their loved ones.
I REMEMBER one situation in particular. A regular morning worshiper, a broad-shouldered man who stood over six feet tall, rose one day to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. Tears clouded his eyes. “My father died when I was very young, and I’ve said Kaddish for him every year on his yahrzeit. Today is the 66th anniversary of his death,” he told me. Astonished by his years of grief, commitment and loyalty, I learned at that moment that the power of this ritual is timeless.
Healing from pain is difficult to do alone. Being in a supportive community strengthens us. Attending synagogue every morning and every evening gave me protected time and space to express my deepest emotions, remember and honor my father, and sanctify God. My prayer community brought me a sense of belonging and spiritual sharing which allowed me to release my sorrow every morning and evening, making it easier to tuck it away during the day. The ritual of reciting the Kaddish in the presence of the minyan enriched my heart and spirit at the very time that they felt crushed, sustaining and nurturing me through one of the most difficult periods of my life
Another communal ritual became a predictable respite between the reflective solemnity or prayer and the rush of my daily activities. My congregation provided a synagogue-sponsored breakfast every day. Breakfast was always preceded by schnapps – the word misused by the minyaneers to refer to the Scotch whiskey that a veteran minyaneer poured into plastic jigger-size cups – and a blessing.
The majority of worshipers lingered after the morning service to eat and schmooze. Topics covered every imaginable subject: jobs, children, politics, weather, travel, medicine, current events and even religion. Over the weeks and months, the predictability and rhythm of these daily repasts became much more than coffee and previously frozen bagels. They soothed my spirit, helping me to heal.
Breakfast helped me shift from the peace and solace of the sanctuary to the complex demands of my fast-paced life. Sharing this gentle transition through time and space with empathic others consoled me. And I was grateful.
Soon after I started saying Kaddish, three others began coming every morning to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish for their parents. Rick, an engineer who looked younger than his 40-something years, began saying Kaddish for his mother days after I started. A short time later, Roslyn (“Roz” for short), a tall, blonde doctor began reciting Kaddish for her father. Then Jonathan, an economist and active member of our synagogue lost his father. We four were as different in our physical appearances as in our occupations and life stages.
Despite our outward differences, we coalesced in our shared intention to bring honor to our deceased parents. We sat together in the chapel each morning and stood side by side as we chanted the Mourner’s Kaddish, our voices blending in prayer. Seated together at breakfast we talked about our upbringings, our beliefs, our children, our full-time jobs, our life challenges and our commitment to this tradition; this sharing solidified our friendship the way glue binds broken pieces.
Our bond became so close and so apparent, other minyaneers teasingly called us the Four Musketeers. We were inseparable and wore the nickname with pride. This friendship, which deepened over the months, has continued to this day.
My 11-month period of saying Kaddish is long over. But the closeness and connectedness I felt for the minyan and the minyaneers has endured well beyond my Kaddish period. The ritual of reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish in the presence of a minyan has taught me the value of taking time to slow the busyness of my life, to decide who and what is truly important, to still my mind and to connect with that which is larger than myself.
Just as the strength of any chain is as strong as its individual links, so too does the minyan depend on its individual members. When one link is missing, the bond of communal prayer is broken. Each of us struggles to find a place in the world where we are needed and valued.
Judaism has enshrined that reality at the very heart of our prayer ritual. We cannot pray as a community without reaffirming that we need each other and that every single one of us is infinitely valuable. Judaism’s requirement for a minyan for prayer reminds us of this truth.
The writer embarked on her encore career as a writer in 2015 after successful careers as a human resource management consultant and a licensed clinical social worker. Her first book, A Daughter’s Kaddish, was recently released by Wonderwell.