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 (ื™) is 10 and aleph (ื) is 1. Hence, yud-aleph (ื™ืดื) is eleven. Chodesh (ื—ื•ื“ืฉ) 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. 50โ€“135 CE) chronicled in the Maแธฅzor 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:

ื•ืขืœ ื›ืŸ ื ื”ื’ื• ืœืขื‘ื•ืจ ืœืคื ื™ ื”ืชื™ื‘ื” ื‘ืžื•ืฆืื™ ืฉื‘ืช ืื“ื ืฉืื™ืŸ ืœื• ืื‘ ืื• ืื ืœื•ืžืจ ื‘ืจื›ื• ืื• ืงื“ื™ืฉ 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):

ืข”ื› ื ื”ื’ื• ืœื•ืžืจ ืขืœ ืื‘ ื•ืื ืงื“ื™ืฉ ื‘ืชืจื ื™”ื‘ ื—ื“ืฉ ื•ื›ืŸ ื ื”ื’ื• ืœื”ืคื˜ื™ืจ ื‘ื ื‘ื™ื ื•ืœื”ืชืคืœืœ ืขืจื‘ื™ืช ื‘ืžื•ืฆืื™ ืฉื‘ืชื•ืช ืฉื”ื•ื ื”ื–ืžืŸ ืฉื—ื•ื–ืจื™ืŸ ื”ื ืฉืžื•ืช ืœื’ื™ื”ื ื ื•ื›ืฉื”ื‘ืŸ ืžืชืคืœืœ ื•ืžืงื“ืฉ ื‘ืจื‘ื™ื ืคื•ื“ื” ืื‘ื™ื• ื•ืืžื• ืžืŸ ื”ื’ื™ื”ื ื 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):

ื•ืืฃ ืฉืืœื” ื–ื• ืฉืืœ ื˜ื•ืจื ื•ืกืจื•ืคื•ืก {ื”ืจืฉืข} ืืช ืจ”ืข ืืžืจ ืœื• ื•ืžื” ื™ื•ื ืžื™ื•ืžื™ื … ืืžืจ ืœื• … ื‘ืขืœ ืื•ื‘ ื™ื•ื›ื™ื— ืงื‘ืจื• ืฉืœ ืื‘ื™ื• ื™ื•ื›ื™ื— ืฉืื™ืŸ ืžืขืœื” ืขืฉืŸ ื‘ืฉื‘ืช And this question was asked by Tineius Rufus {the evil} [a Roman governor of Judea (c.90 CE โ€“ after 131)] of R. Akiva: ‘How does this day [the Sabbath] differ from any other?’ โ€” 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:

ื‘ืขืœ ืื•ื‘ ื™ื•ื›ื™ื—: ืฉืื™ื ื• ืขื•ืœื” ื‘ืฉื‘ืช Let the necromancer prove it: for he cannot raise [the dead] on Shabbat.
ืงื‘ืจื• ืฉืœ ืื‘ื™ื•: ื“ื˜ื•ืจื ื•ืกืจื•ืคื•ืก ื›ืœ ื™ืžื•ืช ื”ืฉื‘ืช ื”ื™ื” ืžืขืœื” ืขืฉืŸ ืฉื”ื™ื” ื ื“ื•ืŸ ื•ื ืฉืจืฃ ื•ื‘ืฉื‘ืช ืคื•ืฉืขื™ ื’ื™ื”ื ื ืฉื•ื‘ืชื™ืŸ 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 รท 11 โ‰ˆ 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.

3 thoughts on “The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 24”

  1. This post was interesting to me because, although you’ve mentioned other mourners, it never really struck me that you were not alone in your kaddish experience. Or rather, you weren’t alone until now. Physically, at least. But the faces change, they come and go, so there will be others soon. And that is symbolic of life – we are not alone; and yet we are. Others have the same experience, and yet it is unique to each of us.

    There’s a phrase, ‘lonely in a crowd’, and I think that is as true of life as it is of mourning. No wonder we seek out God. Somebody once said that if He didn’t exist, we’d create Him, such is our need. I think that’s true.


    The cake and whiskey was a surprise! Is that traditional? I like the idea of marking the end of the journey with other mourners. Was it just the mourners, or the whole congregation? Is it a celebration of sorts, or a solemn undertaking? In Christianity, we have a reception after the funeral, but that has its roots in the past, when people travelled for much longer and needed sustenance. Catholics have a wake over the body before the funeral, as well. But that’s it, really; we do our mourning alone from then on. Truly lonely.

    1. Linda,

      Somebody once said that if He didnโ€™t exist, weโ€™d create Him, such is our need. I think thatโ€™s true.

      I think it’s true too, putting aside whether I do or do not think He exists.

      The cake and whiskey was a surprise! Is that traditional?

      It’s traditional among Orthodox Jews of European descent.

      Was it just the mourners, or the whole congregation?

      Anyone present can partake. Definitely not limited to mourners.

      Is it a celebration of sorts, or a solemn undertaking?

      I would say neither, although it can very much depend upon the attitude of the person marking the event… It’s social, primarily, and not intended to be solemn, per se, more like – we’re doing something pleasurable and social in memory of our loved ones… But not celebratory either.


      1. Oh, I like that. As in everything, balance in mourning is important. We shouldn’t hold back but we shouldn’t be completely self-indulgent, either. I don’t mean that we can’t let out that howl of grief on first hearing the news; but it shouldn’t go on forever.

        Then again, who am I to say how people should mourn? If they want to howl forever, that’s their right; and certainly they should howl if it helps.

        So I take it back – balance in mourning is NOT necessary; honesty is.

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