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The Meaning Of Kaddish
Mon, 08/05/2013 - 20:00
Jewish Week Online Columnist
Rabbi David Wolpe
Rabbi David Wolpe

The Kaddish may be the best-known Jewish prayer and yet its purpose is mysterious. Though it is the mourning prayer, it makes no mention of death. Rather what it proclaims is the greatness and sanctity of God and God’s name.

There are many sources and explanations for this enigma. The most common is that at a moment of loss the affirmation of God’s greatness reminds us of ultimate justice. Another explanation resorts to history: since the earliest recitation of the Kaddish was not tied to mourning but rather to study, the prayer became accidentally associated with death.

This just touches the surface of many ingenious and beautiful explanations. But I want to repeat something I heard in the name of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach that struck me as almost inexpressibly beautiful and moving. Noting that the Kaddish is about the greatness of God, Rabbi Carlebach said that the prayer is what those who have died would say to us could they speak from where they were. So at the moment of loss we realize that our loved ones — who now know the secrets of what follows this life — are reassuring us about the greatness of God and the kindness of the fate that awaits us all.

Rabbi David Wolpe  is spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter: @RabbiWolpe.

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Thank you for this. I came across this site because I had a dream about my recently departed Aunt who told me about this prayer in my dream. We are not Jewish, and I didn't know of this prayer, but the message seems very clear. Thank yo so much.

Beautiful. I'm almost nine months into saying Kaddish for my father, and while the process has brought me comfort, opened many doors, provided insight and introduced me to many wonderful people and communities, the thing i find most constant is the simple, powerful affirmation of the Kaddish prayer. I'd not seen Rabbi Carlebach's teaching - thank-you for sharing...

I am Catholic. I have just discovered the Kaddesh. I find it very moving and hope to recite it regularly. Thank you. I do not find it strange that God should be praised in the presence of death. It's hard to articulate why, but it feels entirely appropriate.

I am amazed that the Kaddish prayers that are neither sad nor angry. They are, for the most part, the same verses we recite to praise God before and after different parts of each prayer service. Nothing maudlin or even sorrowful is implied. The words seem to suggest that ultimately we have no real control over life or death, so let’s focus on what we can control—the ability to recognize and appreciate nature, create our own beauty, and search for peace.

As I say Kaddish for my beloved dad who passed on 3 months ago I find the process of saying kaddish sometimes overwhelming. The first month I think, I thought I was doing fine but was numb and had a lot of other problems on my shoulders. the 2nd month I was sometimes sad but the last fews the grief is unbearable at times. I think the finality of my dad not being around cuts right to the heart. I will think of Rabbi Carlbachs idea as I get choked up saying kaddish. Thank you!

I find the Kaddish moving because we sanctify God's name at precisely the moment we are feeling our loss and grief. We rise above these feelings to say thank you for the gift of those we have loved.