The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 24

“I just finished my yudaleph chodesh at Shabbat mincha,” he said, catching my shoulder as walked towards the sanctuary, “It feels strange… You should lead ma’ariv.”

It strikes me that for most of my life, I would have had no idea what this gentleman was talking about, but now I’m in the know. To different extents, I can now speak English, Russian, Hebrew, Arabic, and shul‘ish.

* * *

Some basics:

  • Every Hebrew letter represents a number – yud (י) is 10 and aleph (א) is 1. Hence, yud-aleph (י״א) is eleven. Chodesh (חודש) means ‘month’. It is customary to recite the orphan’s kaddish for one’s departed parent for eleven months.
  • On Shabbatot and holidays, according to Jewish tradition, mourners do not lead services. However, it is expected that a mourner (if available) will take the role of prayer leader for each of the three daily services throughout the week. The first of these is the evening service immediately following sunset on Saturday, marking the end of Shabbat.

* * *

For as long as I’d been reciting kaddish until that very evening, this particular gentleman had been leading the ma’ariv service at the close of Shabbat. I had long since familiarized myself with his drawn-out, quirky enunciation of the orphan’s kaddish, and it had been a relief to have somebody else lead davening

Now, unexpectedly, he was done with his eleven months of kaddish; and I was the only other mourner present.

Mourners are expected (and considered privileged) to lead communal Jewish worship, but this is something that I hope to avoid for the entirety of this year.

– Me (Blog #5, early Sept.)

Twice now I have even surprised myself by leading the mincha prayer service before Shabbat, for it is the shortest avodah

– Me (Blog #18, early Dec.)

Suddenly, I was faced with an unexpected choice: lead the ma’ariv service on motza’ei Shabbat or have a non-mourner lead it. I weighed the options. The evening service is short, I reasoned,
and… well…
Mourners are best suited to recite all of those other kaddishes with purpose, aren’t they? Aren’t I?
and… so…
I have now led ma’ariv following Shabbat for the past two weeks in the absence of any other mourners.
I remembered something –

* * *

One cannot write substantively about the mourner’s kaddish without mentioning the story of Rabbi Akiva (c. 50–135 CE) chronicled in the Maḥzor Vitry, in which Akiva redeems a dead man’s soul by teaching his orphaned son to praise God properly before the congregation (blog #11). The custom of kaddish is first introduced to us in that twelfth century work.

The story ends as follows:

ועל כן נהגו לעבור לפני התיבה במוצאי שבת אדם שאין לו אב או אם לומר ברכו או קדיש Therefore it is customary on motza’ei Shabbat [Saturday night] for a person without a father or mother to pass before the Ark [lead the prayer service] to recite Barekhu or kaddish.

Rabbi Isserles (1530-1572) who penned HaMapah (still to this day, the central halakhic document for Ashkenazi Jewry), writes as follows (Yoreh De’ah 376:4):

ע”כ נהגו לומר על אב ואם קדיש בתרא י”ב חדש וכן נהגו להפטיר בנביא ולהתפלל ערבית במוצאי שבתות שהוא הזמן שחוזרין הנשמות לגיהנם וכשהבן מתפלל ומקדש ברבים פודה אביו ואמו מן הגיהנם Thus it was the custom to recite the “final kaddish” for one’s father and mother for twelve months. Also, it was the custom [for orphans] to read the haftarah and to pray ma’ariv on motza’ei Shabbat, for that is the time when souls return to Gehinnom (hell), and when the son prays and sanctifies [God’s name] publicly, he redeems his father and mother from Gehinnom.

Apparently, this idea of the dead being given respite on Shabbat goes all the way back to Rabbi Akiva himself in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 65b):

ואף שאלה זו שאל טורנוסרופוס {הרשע} את ר”ע אמר לו ומה יום מיומים … אמר לו … בעל אוב יוכיח קברו של אביו יוכיח שאין מעלה עשן בשבת And this question was asked by Tineius Rufus {the evil} [a Roman governor of Judea (c.90 CE – after 131)] of R. Akiva: ‘How does this day [the Sabbath] differ from any other?’ — He replied: … ‘Let the necromancer prove it; let thy father’s grave, whence no smoke ascends on the Sabbath, prove it.’

And Rashi (1040-1105) clarifies R. Akiva’s meaning for us:

בעל אוב יוכיח: שאינו עולה בשבת Let the necromancer prove it: for he cannot raise [the dead] on Shabbat.
קברו של אביו: דטורנוסרופוס כל ימות השבת היה מעלה עשן שהיה נדון ונשרף ובשבת פושעי גיהנם שובתין Thy father’s grave: all the days of the week [except Shabbat], smoke arose from the grave of Tineius Rufus’ father, for he was being condemned and burned, but on Shabbat the wrongdoers in Gehinnom are given respite.

And so it was,
long before the tradition of reciting the mourner’s kaddish at every prayer service took hold, that orphans would lead the evening prayers just after Shabbat had ended. They would then recite the ‘final kaddish’ to redeem their parents from Gehinnom.


* * *

This unexpected shift in my kaddish journey also brought something home to me, which I cannot ignore. The face(s) of kaddish are changing.

Just this Wednesday, another familiar face completed her odyssey and dutifully brought in cake and whiskey for all to partake of after minyan in memory of her father. “For the rising up of his soul,” we declared solemnly before treating ourselves. That’s also shul’ish.

And of course there are the new faces. Some are entirely new to me, and others are old faces, but they look sadder now. This makes me wonder how sad I look.

I have been saying kaddish for six months.
6 ÷ 11 ≈ 54.5%

I will be flying back to the USA in May for the unveiling of my father’s tombstone… that’s really not so far away.

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