‘Touching the wall’: One woman’s perspective on kaddish - opinion

I knew my brothers would say it, and I knew my sister was planning to as well. Yet, until my mom passed away, I was somewhat ambivalent about the whole kaddish thing.

 A MEMORIAL candle is lit for a deceased loved one.  (photo credit: SHARI JABLINOWITZ)
A MEMORIAL candle is lit for a deceased loved one.
(photo credit: SHARI JABLINOWITZ)

I first learned the Hebrew expression “laga’at bakir” which translates as “touching the wall” from my sons when they were in the army. It refers to a relay race in which you need to run to a wall, touch it, and run back to the starting point.

In military slang, when soldiers reach the halfway point in their army service, they tell their friends and family that they’ve “touched the wall.” It’s a feeling of relief. They’ve made it over the hump; now they’re counting down.

That expression came to mind when I reached the halfway point of saying kaddish for my mom. However, I had the opposite feeling. I was not relieved that I had made it halfway. I felt more pressure; now I had to complete the full 11 months of saying kaddish.

The sudden pressure of saying kaddish

I had not decided ahead of time that I would be reciting kaddish. As my mom was declining in health, the thought had come up, but I had pushed it back, without reaching a decision.

I knew my brothers would say it, and I knew my sister was planning to as well. Yet, until my mom passed away, following a long, fulfilling life, I was somewhat ambivalent about the whole kaddish thing. My husband had already said 11 months of kaddish for his father, and was in the ninth month for his mother when my mom died. 

WOMEN PRAY at a synagogue in Jerusalem’s Nahlaot neighborhood (credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
WOMEN PRAY at a synagogue in Jerusalem’s Nahlaot neighborhood (credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)

I knew how important saying kaddish was for my husband. But I also knew that kaddish was something that had evolved over the centuries. It was not originally a prayer said by mourners. Even today, there are congregations where only one mourner at a time says kaddish.

On the other hand, we live in a time when the custom of women saying kaddish is becoming much more widespread. Our synagogue rabbi encourages women who wish to say kaddish. His wife said it for her father a few years ago. Many women in our shul say kaddish, to the point where it possibly stands out more if they don’t say it.

So, it happened; my mother passed and I was left with a decision. With the affirmation that I was not taking a vow upon myself, I decided to start saying kaddish. I would do it once a day, and see how it goes.

I figured that Maariv, the evening service, would be the most logical option. Evening marks the beginning of the day on the Jewish calendar, and if I was unable to make it for Maariv, I could fulfill my once-a-day commitment by catching Shacharit or Mincha, in the morning or afternoon.

AS TIME passed, it occurred to me that by attending the Maariv service for kaddish, I was also accomplishing something else. I was saying a prayer that I previously had not done on a regular basis, except on Friday nights. I felt that more than the kaddish itself, taking this additional prayer upon myself might be a greater mitzvah to do in my mom’s merit.

For the first two months, saying kaddish together became the nightly “date” with my husband. It was reassuring to be saying it with him. He was often the one to lead the service, as per the custom for those in the year of mourning, and he would say the closing lines of the paragraph before the kaddish slowly, to make sure I had time to finish that last prayer before we reached the kaddish. 

He taught me the ins and outs of kaddish, when the different types of kaddish are said, when an extra kaddish is said on a holiday, and what different customs to expect when we were not in our regular shuls.

I didn’t need to worry about whether there was a man to say kaddish with me. Although our rabbi permits women to say kaddish without a male saying it with her, I didn’t feel comfortable saying it by myself.

Then my husband finished the 11 months of kaddish for his mother. Suddenly, I was on my own, as there is a widespread custom to specifically avoid saying kaddish during the 12th month.

Instead, my husband scouted the shul to see if other kaddish-sayers were present, and if not, he would ask someone to say it with me. When my husband couldn’t be at the minyan with me, I’d have to get there early enough to scout it out myself and occasionally ask someone to be on call in case no other mourners showed up. The gabbaim started to look out for me as well, and would occasionally ask a male kaddish-sayer to slow down a bit.

AT THE SAME time, it was always a relief to walk into the women’s section at shul and see that I was not alone. More than having a woman partner with whom to say kaddish, it was an opportunity to talk about our departed loved ones, our experiences, and how we were all faring. Now I understood the concept of “kaddish buddies” that my husband had often described. Some of the women would say kaddish whenever they attended service, generally on Shabbat; others would recite it once a day or even three times a day. 

I was in awe of the women who found the time and fortitude to say kaddish three times a day. A woman I met is currently saying kaddish every day for her husband’s uncle; her husband was unable to do it because both his parents are still alive, and there was no one else. There were periods in our shul when there were more women than men saying kaddish on a regular basis.

One of the experiences that I have found both powerful and comforting was saying kaddish while holding my newest granddaughter in a baby carrier. I felt that this next generation is the continuity, the consolation to me and my family after the loss of our mother/grandmother/great-grandmother. But when I spoke to one of my “kaddish buddies” afterward, she told me that she had the exact opposite feeling: she did not want to hold her newborn grandson while she was saying kaddish for her father, as she felt strongly that death and life should be kept separate.

When I began saying kaddish, I had no idea how long I would be able to continue. It’s a big commitment, even just once a day. And now that I’ve touched the wall, I feel an even greater pressure to finish the entire 11 months. If I’ve made it this far, it would feel like a major letdown to miss even one day. 

My daily schedule revolves around it. Larger plans revolve around it. Can I even visit my father in the US without missing a day? I believe the mitzvah of honoring a living parent would supersede kaddish, especially since my siblings are also saying kaddish; yet I would feel, maybe wrongly so, that I’ve somehow failed.

In the end, what keeps me going is the feeling that saying kaddish is doing something positive for my mom. Most of the laws and customs of mourning are to not do something – not participate in happy occasions, not listen to live music, or buy new clothes. Saying kaddish is something active that I’m doing in my mom’s honor, in her memory. May her memory be blessed.

The writer lives in Beit Shemesh.