The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 21

Towards the beginning of my kaddish odyssey, back in early September, my friend Mosheh asked me:

What do you think of the other customs we have to remember / uplift the souls of loved ones after they have died (i.e. doing or giving tzeddakah or learning something in their honor)? I’m… curious on your thoughts of why Kaddish seems take center place…

That was less than two months after my father’s death. My response was brief: “I don’t have to think to say kaddish – it’s a formulaic thing that I recite, and even when I don’t know what else to say or do, it gives me a feeling that I’m doing something of significance.” At the time (after blog #4), I had yet to come across the following text, which I later found and quoted (blog #16):

Though kaddish and prayers are helpful to the departed, they are not of primary importance. What is most essential is that their children proceed in the path of righteousness and, in that manner, bring merit to their parents.

Rabbi Solomon Ganzfried (1804-1886),
Kitzur Shulchan Arukh 26:22

This week, I was again reminded of this idea while reading Law and Theology in Judaism by Rabbi Prof. David Novak (b. 1941). He notes that Rabbi Avraham Horowitz (c. 1550–1615) emphasized in the introduction to his opus Yesh Nohalin that “saying Kaddish is just one mitzvah among many that ought to be specially performed during the year of mourning as proof of good parental influence.” Novak then continues (p. 113):

It would seem to follow that Kaddish ought to be recited for the full twelve months of mourning. Indeed, all other mourning practices are required for the full twelve months. Nevertheless, R. Moses Isserles… mentions that the custom arose to say Kaddish only for eleven months… [otherwise] people might think that the deceased parent did not have enough personal merit…

Indeed, all other mourning practices are required for the full twelve months. Why had I never thought of this?

On the one hand, the rabbis say that kaddish is “just one mitzvah among many” and “not of primary importance,” yet it is the only mitzvah, which merited the implementation of rabbinic limitations. No halakhic authority or voice of tradition would suggest that I cease learning and writing in my father’s honor after eleven months (or stop giving charity, etc., etc.).

One might say that kaddish differs from the other mitzvot because it is the only publicly (and readily) identifiable year-long expression of mourning, but in my case this isn’t true. What could be more public than a series of  blog posts?

Shall I stop reciting kaddish after eleven months?

Given that the concern of public perception is inapplicable to me, and given that I don’t believe in the metaphysical impact of my recitations upon my departed father’s soul, I am left with experiential considerations.

* * *

Rabbi Benny Lau (b. 1961) composed a personal prayer (blog #20) in honor of his departed father, which he recited after completing his kaddish odyssey, and many others since have adopted and adapted his language to mark their final kaddishes. Why?

A friend wrote me: “I think Rav Benny did a great thing when he decided to compose that prayer. I wish I had had it when I finished saying kaddish for each of my parents. There is a little of an empty feeling that comes over you when you finish.

Personally, I’ve been readying myself for this inevitable emptiness for some time now.

I see it like this:

The kaddish process is a vehicle by which we mark the absence of our loved ones. This year, I am proclaiming daily my father’s departure from this world; I am forced to face my fatherlessness. There can be no denying the unbending reality. Still, the kaddish also comforts; I feel connected daily to my father through it. I am reminded of him, I am thinking of him, I am affected by our love for one another.

This is why so many people feel an emptiness upon completion of eleven months of kaddish. Abruptly, all too suddenly, the process of marking absence is – absent. For some, this is barely bearable; the sheer density of the absence may feel suffocating.

We should note that Jewish mourning is broken down into five periods, seemingly designed to guide us through the rawest moments of our despair towards lifetimes of mostly-steady sorrow. In other words, traditional Jewish mourning is intended to complement the healing processes of our souls:

There are five stages to the mourning process: 1) Aninut, pre-burial mourning. 2-3) Shivah, a seven day period following the burial; within the Shivah, the first three days are characterized by a more intense degree of mourning. 4) Shloshim, the 30-day mourning period. 5) The First Year (observed only by the children of the deceased).

– Chabad, Shiva and Other Mourning Observances

But Jewish mystical thought suggests that these kaddish odysseys are intended to raise our parents’ souls to ‘The World to Come’ – in theory, my father’s soul will have risen and been released from its ties to This World at journey’s end. In theory,
the final kaddish
is – the final



* * *

Traditions vary.

According to Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai’s (1724-1806) halakhic gloss known as the Birkei Yosef, the Sephardic custom is to stop reciting kaddish for the first week of the twelfth month and then continue until the anniversary of the death (yahrtzeit). I like the emotional poetry of this practice.

Still, while I’ve adopted certain other Sephardic customs, I aim to adhere to the Ashkenazic kaddish tradition of eleven months because I expect to be jarred by the twelfth month’s emptiness. I expect this, and I expect it to be terrible, but I must not avoid the day after kaddish.

I must not avoid – all the days after kaddish.

* * *

I found a beautiful comment, which my father’s university friend Sasha sent my mother in early September:

Да, он был среди нас особенный: умел представить любое дело не как последовательность целенаправленных действий, а разместить это дело в душе. Сделать его необходимым и желанным и представить его, как внутреннюю потребность. В конце концов мы все отличаемся тем, насколько мы можем поместить свою душу в этот ‘никакой, сам по себе,’ Мир. Он это делал легко, как дышал.

My mother’s translation (with some minor tweaks):

Yes, among us, he was special: he knew how to present any matter not as a subsequence of [practical] goal-oriented actions, but rather to place it in his soul. He made it necessary and desired, and presented it as an inner need. After all, we all differ by the extent of our abilities to find a place for our souls in this ‘otherwise non-distinct world.’ He did it easily, like breathing.

I connected with Sasha this week, seeking to learn more about my father, and he promised to write his memories and reflections for me. It is now for us to create a place for my papa’s soul in this non-distinct world.

4 thoughts on “The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 21”

  1. What a lovely thing to do, reciting Kaddish for Holocaust victims. So many of them would have had no one left in their families to do it for them. And they must never be forgotten.

  2. ‘I am proclaiming daily my father’s departure from this world; I am forced to face my fatherlessness.’

    As an outsider, this explains to me the heart of the kaddish. I feel like it’s something we should all do, to deal with our grief and face our new reality. This tradition goes right to the heart of grief. I wish we had something similar in Christianity.

    As I understand it, the kaddish is for the child of a deceased parent; are there other rituals for other losses?

    1. I wish we had something similar in Christianity.

      You know, it’s interesting – I actually know somebody who came to Judaism (she converted) because of our mourning rituals… she felt that was lacking for her in Christianity. (nothing against Christianity, just sharing an anecdote!)

      As I understand it, the kaddish is for the child of a deceased parent; are there other rituals for other losses?

      Traditionally, children recite Kaddish for their parents for a year, but we also recite kaddish for 30 days for: spouses, siblings, and children. However – this is all pretty flexible, and hardly anyone would tell somebody else not to recite Kaddish for whomever they desired (including non-family members). For example, some people feel compelled to recite Kaddish for the victims of the Holocaust…

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