Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 2 May 2009 / 7 Iyyar 5769

Life-lengthening Kaddish

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Manny in Denver

Dear Rabbi,

I have recently started saying kaddish for my father, of blessed memory, who passed away a short time ago. Since I have only a rudimentary Jewish background, I am finding it very difficult to recite the kaddish and pronounce it properly. Not only is this embarrassing, I feel awkward about delaying the minyan as I painstakingly try to say it the best I can. What’s more, since I don’t do such a great job as it is, I wonder how beneficial my kaddish is for my father anyway. Given all these drawbacks, wouldn’t it perhaps be better that someone else say kaddish for him instead of me?

Dear Manny,

First, accept my condolences on the loss of your father. The fact that you are so earnest about honoring him with your reciting the kaddish is itself a testimony to his being a special person and your having shared a special relationship. And so, you should know that you are doing the right thing and there’s no one else who could do as good a job on this as you.

The Midrash relates an amazing account that is actually the source for a mourner’s leading prayer services and saying kaddish. The great Rabbi Akiva once perceived the departed soul of a wicked person who was suffering and groaning. He asked him, “What have you done?” He replied, “There wasn’t a sin I didn’t transgress, and now there are watchmen over me and they don’t let me rest.” Rabbi Akiva asked him, “Did you leave behind a son?” He replied, “I left behind a pregnant wife.” Rabbi Akiva went to the home of the pregnant woman and waited until she gave birth to a son. He circumcised the boy and when he grew older he taught him to read and set him up in the synagogue to lead the prayers for the congregation. Some time later Rabbi Akiva went to the place where he had originally seen the soul. The deceased appeared to him and said, “May your mind always be at ease for you have put my mind at ease” (Kala Rabati, ch. 2).

The question is, if this soul was so wicked, wouldn’t it have been better for the great Rabbi Akiva to have prayed on its behalf himself, rather than relying on the deceased’s otherwise illiterate son? Yet Rabbi Akiva sought out the widow, waited for her birth, himself taught the child how to read, and all this so that the deceased’s son should be the one to pray on his departed father’s behalf. If Rabbi Akiva chose to go to such lengths rather than just praying for the soul himself, it’s because he appreciated how much more beneficial the son’s kaddish would be for the father’s soul than even his own.

The following true story should also inspire you to appreciate just how beneficial your kaddish is for your own father:

There was a young man from a non-religious background who came to Ohr Somayach. Although he held several higher degrees in his secular studies, he had a particular learning disability that made reading and learning Hebrew very difficult. He became observant, progressed in his learning and eventually got married, but continued to have significant difficulty in reading and prayer.

At some point his father passed away and he was the only one who could say kaddish for him. Needless to say, he felt and experienced exactly what you feel and experience: embarrassment about not pronouncing properly, awkwardness over delaying the minyan and puzzlement over how much such a kaddish helps. Still, he uncompromisingly continued his painstaking kaddish for the whole year. When he finally finished the year, he felt very good about having honored his father, but he also felt a tremendous relief.

The very next day, he and his wife received a phone call that her grandfather had passed away and it soon became clear to them that there was no one to say kaddish for him. Confronted with the dilemma of whether he should take it upon himself to say kaddish for another year, he was perplexed. It then occurred to them to take this strange sequence of events as a sign that G-d actually desired this painstaking kaddish – perhaps the minyan needs to be slowed down a bit, maybe the words need to be thought about a bit and maybe even some people might be inspired by his effort and therefore put more into their own prayers. Encouraged by these thoughts, he embarked upon saying kaddish for another whole year.

I’d like to add the following postmark to the story. Obviously, we’re used to associating the kaddish with death and mourning. However, in this case, ironically, perhaps his recital of kaddish over his departed father was actually helping to keep his wife’s grandfather alive. Because as long as he was saying kaddish over his father, he might not have taken on saying it for someone else. So G-d prolonged the grandfather’s life until his granddaughter’s newly religious husband would be free to give him his undivided kaddish-attention for an entire year.

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