Mourner’s Kaddish: A New Framing

Elie Kaunfer

The Mourner’s Kaddish is seared in the minds of so many Jews as a familiar yet mysterious prayer that is taken with the utmost seriousness. In this essay, I will attempt to open up a broader interpretative field for the Mourner’s Kaddish by examining three myths of the modern American experience of reciting the prayer.


Praise or Request?

In solemn testimony to that unbroken faith which links the generations one to another, let those who mourn now rise to magnify and sanctify God’s holy name.

As a child growing up in Temple Emanuel in Providence, Rhode Island, I heard these words every week at the end of Shabbat morning services. The senior rabbi would intone this sentence with a deep sense of gravity and attention, cueing the recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish. The rabbi was quoting from Jacob Kohn’s “Prayer before Kaddish” found in the 1960 edition of the Sabbath and Festival Prayerbook edited by Morris Silverman, known as the “Silverman Siddur” (altering the printed text slightly by changing “Thy holy name” to “God’s holy name”).1
This “Prayer before Kaddish” makes two claims. The first claim is that the Kaddish is a testimony to faith. More specifically, as developed in another reading by Silverman himself (also printed as an introduction to the Kaddish): “We express our undying faith in God’s love and justice….”2 The second claim is that the act of reciting the Kaddish is an act of “magnifying and sanctifying” God’s name. Kaddish serves as a declaration about the state of God’s “holy name,” and even increases the glory given to that name. If one had to classify the Kaddish in one of the three main genres of Jewish prayer—praise, request, and thanks3—this framing clearly argues that Kaddish is praise.
This framing of the Kaddish resonates with other American siddurim4 that precede and follow Silverman’s. Julius Silberfeld, rabbi at Congregation B’nai Abraham in Newark, New Jersey, wrote, as part of the introduction to the Kaddish in a 1905 traditional prayerbook: “And may all the bereaved and mourners, in all their trials and tribulations, in all their disappointments and sorrows, be ever ready to rise and sanctify Thy name…”5 Silverman’s original siddur, published in 1936, offers introductions to the Kaddish in which mourners alternatively “rise to sanctify Thy name,” “rise to acknowledge Thee,” or “rise to hallow Thy name.”6 More recent publications invite mourners to “join in praise of God’s name,”7 “to recite God’s praise,”8 “to declare their faith in God, to magnify and sanctify God’s holy name,”9 or to “sanctify God’s name.”10 The prayer has also been called “an elaborate praise of God.”11
All of these introductions are relating to the first line of Kaddish: yitgaddal v’yitkaddash sh’meih rabba. Silberfeld’s 1905 siddur translated this phrase as “Magnified and sanctifed be His great name,” and many subsequent siddurim have followed in this same vein.12 This is a somewhat ambiguous phrasing that nonetheless seems to indicate a description of God’s state of being. But what is really being expressed through these four Aramaic words?
Prayers are better understand when recognized as part of a larger intertextual field, employing what I have called elsewhere “the literary-intertext method.”13 In Reuven Kimelman’s words: “The meaning of the liturgy exists not so much in the liturgical text per se as in the interaction between the liturgical text and the biblical intertext. Meaning, in the mind of the reader, takes place between texts rather than within them.”14 In other words, a prayer text cannot fully be understood until one (a) recognizes which biblical text is being quoted in the prayer, and (b) examines the prayer in light of the biblical text referred to. In order to understand this opening declaration of the Kaddish, we must ask: “What are the biblical texts that lie behind it?”
Rabbi David Abudarham (14th century, Spain), who himself notes that almost all prayers are based on language from the Bible,15 connects our phrase with Ezekiel 38:23.16 Here is the relevant passage, with some of its surrounding context:17

On that day, when Gog sets foot on the soil of Israel—declares the LORD God—My raging anger shall flare up. For I have decreed in My indignation and in My blazing wrath: On that day, a terrible earthquake shall befall the land of Israel. The fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the beasts of the field, all creeping things that move on the ground, and every human being on earth shall quake before Me. Mountains shall be overthrown, cliffs shall topple, and every wall shall crumble to the ground.
I will then summon the sword against him throughout My mountains—declares the LORD God—and every man’s sword shall be turned against his brother. I will punish him with pestilence and with bloodshed; and I will pour torrential rain, hailstones, and sulfurous fire upon him and his hordes and the many peoples with him.
Thus will I manifest My greatness and My holiness (v’hitgaddilti v’hitkaddishti), and make Myself known in the sight of many nations. And they shall know that I am the LORD.

What is clear from this context is that God’s name is not, according to the prophet, currently “magnified” or “sanctified.” Rather, God will magnify and sanctify God’s own name—and only at the end of this cataclysmic war with Gog. The Kaddish prayer, then, is not a praise of God’s name as currently great and holy. It is a request for God to hasten the arrival of the end of time and make God’s name holy, which will only be achieved when all nations recognize that God is the Supreme Being.
That the first line of Kaddish is a request rather than a form of praise is noted by early commentators on the prayer. I bring two examples below, one from Rav Hai Gaon (939-1038) and the other from the school of Rashi (1040-1105) :

At first [in the Kaddish] one requests from God to hurry His promise, as He promised us through his prophet: “Thus will I manifest My greatness and My holiness, and make Myself known in the sight of many nations” (Ezekiel 38:23).18

This is the meaning of “May God’s name be magnified and sanctified.” In the future His name should be made great and sanctified, as it is written: “And they will know that I am YHVH” (Ezekiel 38:23). For right now, He is not written as He is called. He is called Adonai, but He is written YHVH.19

Abudarham also notes that only in the future will God’s name be great:

“Magnified and sanctified”—based on the verse, “Thus will I manifest My greatness and My holiness, and make Myself known in the sight of many nations” (Ezekiel 38:23), as is said in connection with the war of Gog. For only then will God’s name be holy, as it says: “Then the saviors will go up Mount. Zion to judge Mount Esau” (Obadiah 1:21) and it is written afterward: “On that day YHVH will be one and His name one” (Zechariah 14:4).20

Jewish worshippers are familiar with this use of “magnify and sanctify” from another liturgical selection, which is clearly speaking about the future: a line in Kedushah of the Shabbat morning Amidah:

From Your place, our Sovereign, appear! Save us and rule over us, for we await You! When will You rule over Zion? Soon, in our days and in our lives, may You dwell.21 May You be magnified and sanctified in Jerusalem Your city, from generation to generation and forever and ever. May our eyes see Your sovereignty, as is said in the poems of Your strong one, from the mouth of David Your righteous Messiah: “May YHVH rule forever; Your God, O Zion, from generation to generation—Halleluyah!” (Psalm 146:10).22

In this poignant prayer, the worshipper notes that God is not yet sovereign in Jerusalem, and plaintively begs God to reveal how much longer we will have to wait for God’s name to be magnified and sanctified forever.
It seems likely to me that mourners, “in all their trials and tribulations” (in Silberfeld’s words) would identify less with a line that serves as testament to God’s greatness now, than they would with the meaning of the prayer that is consonant with the context of the biblical verse that it is based on: praying for a different world, in which God—in an as yet unrealized future—will be recognized universally. This world is represented by the end of time, an epoch when death itself will be transformed.
The prevalent framing of the Kaddish as a praise of God—as opposed to a plea for God to become great (as evidenced by the commentaties on the siddur, adduced above)—has a deep impact on the worshippers’ understanding of what the purpose of the prayer is. If the prayer is praise, it may be stoic praise—a declaration of faith—in the face of otherwise difficult emotions.23 But if the prayer is request, it may resonate with the experience of mourning: of yearning for a different time, a new world.


The Mystery of the Kaddish Response

“While the Kaddish is recited in memory of the departed, it contains no reference to death. Rather, it is an avowal made in the midst of our sorrow that God is just, though we do not always comprehend His ways.” This framing comment, also from the pen of Morris Silverman, notes one of the well-known oddities of the Mourner’s Kaddish: the absence of any mention of death.24 In this understanding, the Kaddish is an affirmation of the greatness of God despite our tragic state of mind. It is perhaps this aspect of “that unbroken faith” that Kohn makes reference to in the same prayerbook.
But there is another striking absence in the Kaddish: the absence of God’s name. Why is God’s name missing? God’s name is rarely absent from the liturgy. In fact, Rav states explicitly that any blessing without God’s name is not a blessing.25 One proposed answer identifies the original Kaddish with a “study house” prayer, a locale in which the use of God’s name was more circumspect than in the synagogue.26 And yet, the question is heightened when taking note of the core line of the Kaddish: “May His great name be blessed forever and ever.”
This line is often taken as a metonymy of the Kaddish as a whole. The Babylonian Talmud refers to the Kaddish prayer by this line (or similar variant).27 And as we will explore below, it is a common response to the recitation of the name of God. How odd for a prayer to be built around a response to the name of God, without the name of God appearing in the prayer at all!
What might this line mean? Again we look to the Bible for intertexts to expand the field of potential meaning. The first intertext candidate comes from Daniel 2:17–20:

Then Daniel went to his house and informed his companions, Ḥananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, of the matter, that they might implore the God of Heaven for help regarding this mystery, so that Daniel and his colleagues would not be put to death together with the other wise men of Babylon. The mystery was then revealed to Daniel in a night vision; then Daniel blessed the God of Heaven. Daniel answered and said: “Let the name of God be blessed forever and ever, for wisdom and power are His.”28

In this scene, Daniel and his colleagues are under mortal threat from the Babylonian king. In this state of mind, Daniel beseeches God for protection—and his words invoking blessing on the name of God are framed as a request, rather than a description of reality (just as was the case in the passage from Ezekiel discussed above). But another aspect of the passage is striking as well: verse 20 coincides almost word for word with the line from Kaddish. The only difference is that in Daniel, God (called by the Aramaic word elaha) is mentioned directly. Why is God mentioned in the biblical text but missing in the prayer text?

A second biblical intertext for this line is found in Job 1:20–21:

Then Job arose, tore his robe, cut off his hair, and threw himself on the ground and worshipped. He said: “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; God has given, and God has taken away. Blessed be the name of God.29

Although death is not mentioned in the Kaddish, once the biblical intertext of Job is brought in, the context of mourning becomes clearer. Job, the quintessential biblical mourner, recites this line in the midst of his crippling loss. It might be that Job is stoically affirming the goodness and just actions of God.30 However, Job seems to be quoting Psalm 113, critically leaving out the “now and forever” part of the blessing found there:

Halleluyah! O servants of the LORD, give praise; praise the name of the LORD.
Let the name of the LORD be blessed now and forever.31

Can Job perhaps not bear to quote the joyous line in its entirety?
These biblical intertexts help open up our phrase from the Kaddish to additional possible interpretations. But our focus on the missing name of God is only heightened by these texts. Note that in all of them—Daniel, Job, and Psalms—God’s name appears. Again, we ask: why would the name of God be missing from a prayer that is so clearly influenced by these biblical texts that do mention God’s name?
Before suggesting an answer, we note one other reason why we would expect to see God’s name in the Kaddish. The phrase y’hei sh’meih rabba seems in fact to be one of many liturgical responses that are prompted by hearing the name of God spoken aloud. These include: y’hi sheim Adonai m’vorakh mei-attah v’ad olam (“let the name of Adonai be blessed from now until eternity”), and kumu bar’khu et Adonai eloheikhem min ha-olam v’ad ha-olam (“arise and bless Adonai your God forever and ever”).32
All of these responses share the following components: blessed, name of God, and forever.33 Thus, even if we didn’t expect to see God’s name in the response, we certainly would expect it to precede the phrase as a cue for the response. In other words, all of the above responses come after the mention of God’s name. The case of Psalms, cited above, is most clear: “Praise the name of the LORD” is followed by “Let the name of the LORD be blessed now and forever.”
This is also true of the phrase barukh sheim k’vod malkhuto l’olam va-ed (“blessed be the glorious name of His kingdom forever and ever”). This phrase is liturgically familiar as a response to the first line of the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4). But it also is a response to the pronunciation of the name of God by the High Priest on Yom Kippur. When the priest uttered God’s name, the people responded by falling prostrate and reciting these words.34
In his classic study on the Kaddish, David De Sola Pool notes this oddity in the prayer. He first states: “There is every reason to think that the response was often used in one form or another as an ejaculated praise at the mention of God’s name.”35 He goes on to note: “There is no mention of God’s Name in the Kaddish to occasion this response other than yitgaddal v’yitkaddash sh’meih rabba.”36
I would like to propose one additional possible meaning to the absence of the name of God in the prayer, which nevertheless centers on a response to hearing God’s name. This interpretation is based on one of the earliest mentions of the y’hei sh’meih rabba line in rabbinic literature:

It is taught: Rabbi Yosi said: One time I was walking on the path, and I entered a ruin from one of the ruins of Jerusalem in order to pray. Elijah of blessed memory came and watched the doorway until I finished my prayer….He said to me…“Whenever the Israelites go into the synagogues and schoolhouses and respond: ‘May His great name be blessed,’ God shakes His head and says: ‘Happy is the king who is thus praised in his house! Woe37 to the father who had to banish his children, and woe to the children who had to be banished from the table of their father!’”38

This source offers another perspective on the meaning of y’hei sh’meih. On the one hand, when the phrase is recited by Israel in the synagogues and study houses, God is filled with happiness. But immediately following this statement of joy, God goes on to say: “Woe is Me and woe is Israel!” In other words, the source reflects the complex emotions that are embedded in the recitation of the line. This is a line that was associated with the presence of God; reciting it meant that God’s name—the embodiment of God’s immanence—was at hand. Yet it is recited not in the world of the Temple and the High Priest, but rather in a world in which Jerusalem is in ruins. The line has morphed from a reaction to God’s presence to a painful reminder of God’s absence. God is no longer available in this world in the way that God once was.
Significantly, the sufferer in this text is not limited to the “children”—that is, to Israel. Indeed, God is one of the suffering parties, along with Israel. Both experience woe. This is a far cry from the framing of Kaddish as a testimony to faith in a God whose actions cause us to suffer for reasons we can’t understand. It is, rather, a prompt that reminds God of the brokenness of the world. By reciting this line, then, the mourner invites God into the emotional experience of remembering better times and of grief for the current, unredeemed state of the world.
Commenting on this passage in the Talmud, the Eish Kodesh (the rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto) spells out clearly this view of God:

Now the Jew who is tormented by his afflictions thinks that he alone suffers, as if all his personal afflictions and those of all Israel do not affect [God] above, God forbid. Scripture states, however, “In all their troubles, He was troubled” (Isaiah 63:9), and the Talmud states: When a person suffers, what does the Shekhinah say? “My head is too heavy for Me, My arm is too heavy for Me.” Our sacred literature tells us that when a Jew is afflicted, God, blessed be He, suffers as it were much more than the person does.39

This opens one additional interpretative pathway in the Kaddish: the curious line that God is “above all the blessings and songs, praises and consolations (neḥemata) that we utter in the world.” Why do we mention consolations in the middle of the praise list in the Kaddish?
This passage clearly draws upon Nehemiah 9:5:

The Levites Jeshua, Kadmiel, Bani, Hashabniah, Sherebiah, Hodiah, and Pethahiah said: “Rise, bless the LORD your God who is from eternity to eternity: ‘May Your glorious name be blessed, exalted though it is above every blessing and praise.’”40

Interestingly, the source text in Nehemiah mentions both “blessing” and “praise”—which God is above—but does not mention any “consolation.” To be clear: the phrase in the Kaddish indicates that whatever had been attempted by the worshipper is insufficient. The worshipper attempts to bless, even though God is above all blessing. But this also implies that by stating that God is above all consolation, the worshipper must have just attempted to console God. What consolation—neḥamah—could be offered here?41 Or, in other words: consolation is something that is offered to a mourner; in what way is God mourning?
In the context of our broader understanding of the Kaddish, this comfort arrives in the recitation of the phrase y’hei sh’meih rabba. This phrase is both a consolation—reminding God about the happiness experienced in Temple times when the divine name was pronounced—and also a poignant reminder that things are not as they were once. The Kaddish, now, is not only about the personal and particular loss of the mourner’s beloved. It is about the larger mourning that is occasioned by the state of a ruined world.42
In this understanding, the Kaddish is not a declaration of faith. It is a reminder to God of the old world that stands in ruins, and suggests the fellowship that the mourner might feel with God, as both grieve for a loss. The power of the words y’hei sh’meih rabba is grounded in their ability both to remind God of the Temple era, where intimacy prevailed, and—when recited in the ruins of our world—to offer stark commentary on the state of this broken world.
It is true that the Kaddish did not originate as a prayer for mourners.43 But the language encoded in the prayer made it more than appropriate for mourning—both human mourning of loss, and divine mourning over the state of the world. It paints a very different picture of a God who is close and standing with us in mourning, rather than directing the world in inscrutable ways that require us to declare our blind faith despite our suffering.

The Magic of the Kaddish

The recitation of the Kaddish is often experienced as the most solemn moment in a given prayer service. It is then, in that moment of intoning the words of the prayer, that the congregation can focus on the loss to the mourner, and the mourner fulfills the obligation to recite the prayer on behalf of the departed.
But even this overarching context can be called into question. What is one doing when reciting the Kaddish, writ large? If one arrives at synagogue in time to say the Kaddish, but does nothing else, does this matter? If one can’t make it to synagogue to recite Kaddish for a loved one, does it make sense to have someone else say Kaddish instead?
There are many complex psychological dimensions to the commitment to say Kaddish, but they focus almost entirely on the saying of the words themselves, ignoring any larger context. I want to suggest here a wider scope of what it might mean to “say Kaddish.”
The stories of the connection between the relief of the suffering of the dead and the words of the Kaddish appear in the Middle Ages. I will not rehearse the details of these stories in full; one can read more about them in other essays in this volume. I simply want to point out one common feature across all of these stories: the salve for the dead man is not limited to the recitation of the Kaddish by the son. Indeed, in the large number of stories about Rabbi Akiva (or, in some versions, Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Zakkai) and the dead father, the son is asked to do a number of activities, including: learning to lead the prayer service, reciting the Shema, reading Torah, having an aliyah, and leading the congregation in prayer. Reciting Kaddish only appears in some of these stories. Below are a number of versions of this part of the story:

…And teach him the Amidah; the Recitation of the Shema; three verses of the Torah, that he might take an aliyah and read from the Torah scroll, so that the congregation may answer after him: “Bless! Blessed is God, who is blessed.”44

…Immediately God opened [the son’s] heart and [Rabbi Akiva] taught him Torah, the Recitation of the Shema, and the Grace after Meals, and stood him before the congregation so that he said: “Bless!” And they answered after him: “Blessed is YHVH, who is blessed.”45

They brought him and commanded him to be circumcised, and sat him to learn, and he did. They taught him the blessings for the Torah. On Shabbat, they commanded him to read from the Torah and say: “Blessed is YHVH who is blessed, etc, forever and ever.”46

They stood him in the synagogue to bless for the congregation.47

He taught him Torah and the Recitation of the Shema and the Eighteen Blessings (Amidah) and the Grace after Meals, and they stood him before the congregation and he said: “Bless YHVH who is blessed!” And the congregration answered, “Blessed is YHVH who is blessed forever and ever. May [His name] be exalted…May His great name…”48

What becomes clear is that the recitation of the Kaddish is not the full picture of the responsibility of the child of the departed. In fact, in the various versions of this story, the more common thread is reading Torah and leading the congregation in prayer. To the extent that the Kaddish appears in this list, it is more accurately only one discrete component of a life committed to Torah study and prayer in general. Taken in total, these commitments indicate a form of resurrection:

It is taught: Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥai said: Whoever has a son that toils in Torah, it is as if he has not died.49

The departed live on through their children. But they also live on through the commitments their children make. If the recitation of the Kaddish is divorced from a full life of Torah and mitzvot, it is in some ways missing the point. Instead, “Kaddish” in these texts seems to be a kind of shorthand, referring to the many different ways in which the children carry on the legacy of the deceased parent—a commitment to the highest values of a Jewish life. In this view, Kaddish is not a magical recitation that offers relief to the dead; rather, it is a capstone liturgical event that points to an entire way of life.
By broadening the literary context of the Kaddish, I have attempted to open up new potential pathways of understanding. As is clear from the framings of the Kaddish in twentieth-century siddurim (which themselves turned into a form of liturgy), the presentation of the Kaddish is critical to the experience of the Kaddish. My hope is that this essay will offer additional framings for a prayer recited by so many.















1 Sabbath and Festival Prayerbook, ed. Morris Silverman (1946; rpt. New York: Rabbinical Assembly of America, 1960), p. 159. The paragraph is attributed on p. 388 to Rabbi Jacob Kohn, who wrote it for his holiday prayerbook published in 1927. This sentence concludes a composition entitled “Prayer Before Kaddish.” See Jacob Kohn, Festival Prayer Book (New York: United Synagogue of America, 1927), p. 18. This introduction is slightly reworded in Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat, Festivals, and Weekdays, ed. Jules Harlow (New York: Rabbinical Assembly, 1985), p. 324: “In solemn testimony to that unbroken faith which links our generations one to another, those observing Yahrzeit and those who mourn now rise to declare their faith in God, to magnify and sanctify God’s holy name.”
2 Silverman, Sabbath and Festival Prayerbook, p. 159. We will deal with the issue of faith further below.
3 See Rambam, M.T. Hilkhot Tefillah 1:2. Kimelman notes that this tripartite distinction is a late one; see Reuven Kimelman, “The Literary Structure of the Amidah and the Rhetoric of Redemption,” in Echoes of Many Texts: Reflections on Jewish and Christian Traditions: Essays in Honor of Lou H. Silberman, eds. William Dever and J. Edward Wright (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1997), pp. 171–230; the argument appears on pp. 177–178.
4 The Hebrew word siddur (plural: siddurim) is used generally to denote the traditional prayerbook in its various permutations and innumerable editions.
5 The Sabbath Service, ed. Julius Silberfeld (1905; rpt. New York: Bloch, 1916), p. 229; emphasis added.
6 Sabbath and Festival Services, ed. Morris Silverman (Hartford, CT: Hartford Prayer Book Press, 1936), p. 278.
7 Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals, ed. Leonard Cahan (New York: Rabbinical Assembly, 1998), p. 51.
8 Siddur Lev Shalem for Shabbat and Festivals, ed. Edward Feld (New York: Rabbinical Assembly, 2016), p. 30.
9 Sabbath and Festival Prayerbook, ed. Silverman, p. 159.
10 Kol Haneshamah: Shabbat Vehagim, ed. David Teutsch (Wyncote, PA: Reconstructionist Press, 1994), p. 129.
11 Mishkan T’filah: A Reform Siddur, ed. Elyse Frishman (New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 2007), p. 46; and cf. p. 592.
12 Compare the following comparable translations: “Exalted and sanctified be His great name” (The Metsudah Siddur: Sabbath/Festival Prayers, ed. Avrohom David [New York: Metsudah Publications, 1984], p. 85); “Exalted and hallowed be God’s great name” (Mishkan T’filah, p. 532); “Let the glory of God be extolled, let His great name be hallowed” (Gates of Prayer: The New Union Prayerbook, ed. Chaim Stern [New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1975], p. 629); and contrast these with the Artscroll translation: “May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified” (The Artscroll Siddur, ed. Nosson Scherman [1984; rpt. New York: Mesorah Publications, 2001], p. 57).
13 Elie Kaunfer, Interpreting Jewish Liturgy: The Literary-Intertext Method (doctoral dissertation; New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 2014), p. 16, available at http://www.mechonhadar.org/torah-resource/interpreting-jewish-liturgy. “Intertextuality” refers to the approach to reading in which “…a text cannot be studied in isolation. It belongs to a web of texts which are (partially) present whenever it is read or studied” (Steven Moyise, “Intertextuality and the Study of the Old Testament in the New Testament,” in The Old Testament in the New Testament: Essays in Honour of J. L. North, ed. Steven Moyise [Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000], pp. 14–41; the quote appears on pp. 15–16).
14 Reuven Kimelman, “The Shema Liturgy: From Covenant Ceremony to Coronation,” in Kenishta: Studies of the Synagogue World 1 (2001), pp. 9–105; the quote appears on p. 28.
15 Abudarham writes: “You should know that the language of prayer is based on the language of Scripture. Therefore you will find written in this commentary on every word a verse like it or relating to its essence. There are a few words that did not have a biblical basis, and therefore I will bring for them a basis from the Talmud.” See his Sefer Abudarham Ha-Shaleim, ed. Shlomo A. Wertheimer (Jerusalem: Usha, 1963), p. 6 and ed. Menahem Brown (Jerusalem: Or Ha-Sefer, 2001), p. 15.
16 Sefer Abudarham, ed. Wertheimer, p. 66, and ed. Brown, p. 157.
17 NJPS translation.
18 Rav Hai Gaon in Louis Ginzberg, Ginzei Schechter (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1929), vol. 2, p. 164.
19 Sefer Ha-Pardes of Rashi; ed. H. L. Ehrenreich (Budapest: Katzburg Bros., 1924) p. 323. YHVH denotes the four Hebrew letters of the divine name, which are pronounced as “Adonai” (literally “my Lord,” in the respectful plural).
20 Sefer Abudarham, ed. Wertheimer, p. 66; ed. Brown, p. 157.
21 Note that Daniel Goldschmidt argues that the word tishkon (“may You dwell”) actually should be connected to the beginning of the following sentence, yielding: “May You dwell and be magnified and sanctified in Jerusalem…” See Daniel Goldschmidt, Maḥzor L‘yamim Nora∙im (Jerusalem: Koren, 1970), vol. 1, p. 24, n. 37.
22 This version of the text is taken from Seder Rav Amram Gaon, ed. Daniel Goldschmidt (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1972), p. 32, keeping in mind the concerns about the text of liturgy in this siddur, as outlined by Robert Brody and others; see Robert Brody, “L’ḥiddat Arikhato Shel Seder Rav Amram Gaon,” in K’nesset Ezra: Sifrut V’ḥayyim B’veit Ha-k’nesset, eds. Shulamit Elizur, et al. (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1994), pp. 21–34. Note also the commentary of the Rokei∙aḥ (Rabbi Eleazar of Worms, c. 1176–1238) on this section of the prayers, in Moshe Hershler, Peirushei Siddur Ha-t’fillah La-Rokei∙aḥ (Jerusalem: Makhon Hershler, 1992), p. 541, in which he connects this prayer to the future prophecy of the war with Gog.
23 As Kohn wrote in his introduction to the Kaddish in 1927: “We accept the judgment of Thine inscrutable will…” (Festival Prayer Book, p. 18).
24 Sabbath and Festival Prayerbook, p. 159. This interpretive direction is common in contemporary commentaries to the Kaddish. Cf., for example, the following comment of Yeruchem Eilfort in “Why Do Mourners Recite Kaddish” (available online at www.chabad.org): “Many find it intriguing that this prayer, the preeminent prayer said for those who have passed on, makes absolutely no mention of death, loss, or mourning. Nor is there mention of the person who died. Kaddish speaks of G-d’s greatness. In fact, Kaddish is an affirmation of belief in the Almighty and His unlimited power. If one were to boil down the theme of Kaddish, it would be that G-d is great and everything comes from G-d, so everything that occurs is ultimately for the good.” It is worth noting that in the first paragraph of the Kaddish, the word “life” appears twice.
25 B. Berakhot 40b; cf. T. Berakhot 6:20.
26 See Joseph Heinemann, Ha-t’fillah Bi-t’kufat Ha-tanna∙im V’ha-amora∙im (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1966), p. 163 and the literature cited there; and Avigdor Shinan’s introductory essay in Yoram Verete and Yaron David, Tom U-t’hom (Tel Aviv: Oved Publishers, 2009), pp. 16–25.
27 B. Sotah 49a; B. Shabbat 119b; B. Berakhot 21b; B. Berakhot 57a; B. Sukkah 38b–39a; B. Berakhot 3a (and we will return to this last source in more depth below). It is not entirely clear that the references to this line indicate the Kaddish as we know it, or a more general communal response of the same formulation. See further below.
28 NJPS translation; emphasis added.
29 NJPS translation; emphasis added.
30 Cf. Job 2:10, where Job says to his wife: “Should we accept only good from God and not accept evil?”
31 NJPS translation; emphasis added.
32 Cf. Nehemiah 9:5 and T. Berakhot 6:22.
33 David De Sola Pool, The Kaddish (Jerusalem: Sivan Press, 1964), p. 46; this work was originally published in 1909 as The Old Jewish-Aramaic Prayer: The Kaddish. See also Sifrei Devarim §306 (ed. Finkelstein, p. 342).
34 See M. Yoma 3:8 and compare T. Taanit 1:11. This is also probably the case with the Shema, where the form of reciting Shema was call and response, and barukh sheim was a response to the uttering of God’s name in the Shema itself. See T. Sotah 6:3 and B. Pesaḥim 56a. Earlier versions of the latter source conflate barukh sheim with y’hei sh’meih; see the Targumim (including Targum Yerushalmi and Neophyti) to Deuteronomy 6:4 and, generally, De Sola Pool, pp. 45–47.
35 De Sola Pool, p. 47.
36 Ibid., p. 50.
37 Note that while printed editions of the Talmud have the word mah, most manuscripts use the word oy. Mah seems to be a euphemism for oy, a substitution made by those uncomfortable with God experiencing woe. See Raphael Rabbinovicz, Dikdukei Sofrim (Munich, 1867), vol. 1, pp. 2b–3a; Moshe Benovitz, Talmud Ha-iggud: Perek Rishon Mi-massekhet B’rakhot (Jerusalem: Ha-iggud L’farshanut Ha-talmud, 2006), p. 98 and cf. p. 95, and n. 41.
38 B. Berakhot 3a.
39 Eish Kodesh, February 14, 1942, as translaed by Nehemia Polen in The Holy Fire: The Teachings of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto (Lanham, MD: Jason Aronson, 1999), p. 116. The talmudic passage cited is B. Sanhedrin 46a. The original source is at M. Sanhedrin 6:5.
40 NJPS translation; emphasis added.
41 For an extended analysis of the possible meanings of this word, see Moshe Bar-Asher, “Al Ha-sheim ‘Neḥamata’ B’Kaddish,” in Sefer Zikkaron L’Moriah Lisbon, eds. Aharon Meman and Rivka Bliboim (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2011), pp. 75–97. One of these approaches is discussed in the essay elsewhere in this volume by Martin I. Lockshin.
42 Compare the comment of the Levush (Rabbi Mordecai ben Avraham Yoffe, c. 1530–1612) to the Shulḥan Arukh, Oraḥ Ḥayyim 56:1, 3: “By manner of this praise, God is reminded of the destruction of the Temple and the exile of Israel…God is mourning our exile.”
43 See Bar-Asher, “Al Ha-sheim ‘Neḥamata’ B’Kaddish,” p. 77, Heinemann, Ha-t’fillah, p. 163; Midrash Mishlei 14; Yalkut Shimoni Mishlei §951; Kohelet Rabbah 9:7; B. Sotah 49a.
44 This text derives from a fragment retrieved from the Cairo Genizah and currently preserved at Cambridge University under the file name T-S C.2., fol. 144c-d, as cited by Miron Bialik Lerner in his Ma·aseh Ha-tanna V’ha-meit: Gilgulav Ha-sifrutiyim V’ha-hilkhatiyim, in Asufot 2 (5748 [=1987/1988]), p. 69.
45 Maḥzor Vitry §144 (ed. Shimon Horowitz; Nuremberg, 1923), p. 112.
46 Midrash of the 10 Commandments, ed. Adolph Jellenik, Beit Ha-Midrasch (Vienna, 1873), vol. 1, p. 81.
47 Kallah Rabbati 2 (Massekhtot Kallah, V‘hen Massekhet Kallah V‘massekhet Kallah Rabbati, ed. Michael Higger (New York: Debe Rabbanan, 1936), p. 202.
48 Or Zarua, pt. 2 §50.
49 Bereishit Rabbah 49:19, eds. Theodor-Albeck (1903; rpt. Jerusalem: Wahrmann, 1965), p. 503.

The Kaddish Is the Song of Songs

David Greenstein


Some eight hundred years ago a great rabbi, Rabbi Eleazar of Worms (c. 1165 – c. 1230), wrote: “The Kaddish is the Song of Songs.”1 What are some of the implications of this simple and startling statement? The Song of Songs is regarded by Jewish tradition as the greatest of love songs of the Jewish people. In what ways may we, following this rabbi’s insight, regard the Kaddish as a love song, let along as the greatest love song of the Jewish people? Of what sort of love does it sing? And how does the song fit the words?


“Love Is as Fierce as Death”2

It is a commonplace observation that the Mourner’s Kaddish, identified since medieval times as the main Jewish prayer of mourning for the dead, never mentions death. Nevertheless, centuries of custom have melded this recitation, in our minds and hearts, to our confrontation with the tragedy and loss of death and to our ongoing grappling—emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, and socially—with the mourning process as we live it within the liturgical context of a Jewish community. Our experience of death and mortality suffuses the Kaddish, even as the word “death” is never spoken.3
Many find the silence of the Kaddish regarding death to be one of its most powerful features. The obvious presence of our pain and emotional wreckage needs no explicit expression. Instead, the prayer takes us places we might never go, were we to focus on the theme of death itself. Though never mentioned, death is ever present—coloring and, in turn, being colored by the ethereal words of the Kaddish. Similarly, the absence of the word “love” in the Kaddish does not necessarily indicate that love is not a central issue of the Kaddish. Just as we are expressing our mourning and working through it, by means of the phrases of this prayer, so may the Kaddish grant us the opportunity for giving voice, obliquely but profoundly, to our love—and thereby help us to redefine or grasp anew that love.
The Song of Songs is essentially a collection of love songs strung together into one composition. In its richness it celebrates love’s joys and pleasures, its exhilaration and vitality. But its poets are also quite aware of the complex dynamics at play between lovers and within the hearts of lovers. Love is not just sweet. Like death, love can be hard and forceful, raw and painful. And it is during times of stress and hurt that love may become exposed and tested, deepened or strained. The time when the Kaddish is recited is a time of love’s testing.
The Kaddish is recited within a communal liturgical setting, a minyan. The community is both witness to and participant in its recitation. It responds to three other players in this drama of love: the one saying Kaddish, the one for whom the Kaddish is being said (the deceased), and the One about whom the Kaddish is said: God. The person reciting the Kaddish and the community are present for each other. But just as the words “death” and “love” are both absent from the text of the Kaddish, so are both the deceased and God physically absent during its recitation.
Also hidden from the eyes and ears of the community is the inner drama that unfolds within the mind and heart of the one saying Kaddish. That drama varies from reciter to reciter and from recitation to recitation. Here is one scenario experienced by many: the absence of the deceased is, of course, the trigger for the recitation of the prayer; and yet often, as one experiences the enormity of one’s loss, one feels the impossible yearning to reverse reality, to turn back time, to revive the dead—so that one might declare God’s greatness in the company of one’s loved one. After all, it is not some abstract numerical diminution of humanity at large that one mourns, but the specific loss of the possibility to give and receive love that was shared with this particular person. Why must this poem of praise require the loss of this life and this love, in order for it to be sung?
So it may happen that this prayer is sung as a love song, not sung to God, but hurled at God. In that case, it is not only the words “death” and “love” that are not said in the prayer, for the entire prayer is a substitute for the words that are not said: words of anguish, keening, affection, yearning, frustration, and anger.
The medieval sage who told us that the Kaddish is the Song of Songs knew of love’s terrible loss firsthand. In 1196, his wife and children were slaughtered before his eyes by marauding Crusaders. Rabbi Eleazar of Worms, called the Rokei·aḥ (after one of his most important works), was a major scholar and leader of the German pietists.4 He was heir to ancient Jewish esoteric traditions from the East as well as religious teachings from the school of Rashi, three generations before him.5 Despite his suffering and struggles with God, prayer was his indispensable medium of expression. He composed his own dirges of sorrow.6 But he also faithfully recited the words of the Kaddish. He composed one of the earliest extant commentaries on the prayerbook, in which he offers his own reworking of his inherited traditions about the meaning of the Kaddish.7 But his characterization of the Kaddish as the Song of Songs seems to be his own contribution.


“I Sought Him but I Did Not Find Him”8

In Rabbi Eleazar’s conception, the Kaddish is not simply a paean to God. It begins as an expression of yearning and ruefulness. For Rabbi Eleazar, the Kaddish opens with a recognition that God’s “great Name” is actually a much diminished, broken name. The original, revealed name of God is the Tetragrammaton, the ineffable Name of Four Letters—spelled yod-hei-vav-hei (henceforth, YHVH). This name is found throughout our Torah, but traditional Jews, ever eager to avoid even the possibility of sacrilege, take care never to pronounce it. It is thus literally an unspoken presence. But Rabbi Eleazar explains that the start of the Kaddish, usually translated as “Magnified and sanctified be His great Name (sh’meih rabba),” should really be read as “Magnified and sanctified be the great ‘Name YH’ (sheim YH).”9 In his reading, the ‘Name YH’ is a reference to God’s name as truncated by God10 when God acknowledged that the Divine Presence is not complete in this world as long as unmitigated evil exists. Our prayer is that the day may come when God’s name, presently reduced by half, may once again be united with its other half and made whole.
Again, what is not mentioned is crucial, for ultimate evil, termed “Amalek”11 in Jewish tradition, is not named. Nor is the final battle against evil, the battle of Gog and Magog (i.e., Armageddon) explicitly recalled. But, for Rabbi Eleazar, they are right there in our text and in our intent:

Yitgaddal v’yitkaddash: This is based on Scripture, as it is written, “And I shall be magnified and sanctified and I shall become known in the eyes of [many] nations, and they shall know that I am God” (Ezekiel 38:23). The verse speaks of the war of Gog and Magog, [for then] the name of the blessed Holy One shall be enlarged, as it is written… “And God shall become Sovereign over the whole earth. On that day God shall be One and His name One”(Zechariah 14:9). That is to say: the name of four letters that was split in two by the oath He took to fight against Amalek, as it is said, “A hand [swears] on the throne [keis] of Yah [YH] a war of God against Amalek from generation to generation” (Exodus 17:16).12

But if we specifically intend these matters, why don’t we say them outright? We do not speak of these disturbing things because we do not wish to upset God any further. Our words are a loving attempt to console our defeated God with tender, supportive words of praise, eschewing any outright mention of the enemy’s persistence and of God’s continued impotence and frustration. Rabbi Eleazar describes the situation in this way:

This is like a parable of a king who redeemed his son from prison and the son was walking with his father. In the middle of the journey, a certain brigand met him and mortally beat him. When the king heard of this he was very enraged and he said, “The sufferings that my son suffered in prison were enough!” He placed him [the son] behind himself but the brigand set upon him. He placed him on his arms [safe from the brigand] but an eagle tried to kill him and eat him. The king stood up and threw his seal down and swore that his name would never be whole until he was avenged of that enemy and that His throne will not be whole until He is avenged of Amalek.13

This parable is Rabbi Eleazar’s way of encapsulating the story of the exodus from Egypt and the subsequent travails of the Israelites in the wilderness immediately thereafter. He imagines Israel as a young prince, the son of the king who is, of course, God. God liberates the son from prison (Egypt) and they set out together into the wilderness, on the way to Mount Sinai. But the brigand (Egypt) comes and attacks Israel, despite God’s attempts to shield the son (which is how the sages understood the maneuvers of the pillar of fire at the Sea of Reeds). However, after rescuing the son from the brigand, an eagle (Amalek) unexpectedly swoops down from above.
This is too much for the king, who throws down his seal in an oath
that his name will not be whole again until this outrage is avenged. By the last line of the parable the meaning is revealed plainly: the king has become the King (God) and the eagle has become Amalek.
The Kaddish is not a song of praise to God in order to console the human mourner. It is a song sung to God in order to console God, who has literally lost God’s better half, the last letters of the divine name, through God’s own failure to prevent innocent human suffering. We support the Divine by sweetening our words. We tell God that even God’s half-name is still rabba, “abundantly great,” because “it is not right to use the language of either diminution or smallness regarding anything Above that has been split or diminished.”14 And we console our God by assuring God that eventually God’s name will be restored to completion. The opening words are meant to be as much a prediction as a plea.


A Wily Calculation

So far it seems that, in this reading of the text and its ritual recitation, our efforts are focused on helping God, who is in need of consolation that only a lover can bestow. But we are not being completely self-sacrificing in our tender care for God. We have something at stake here, as well: “It is concerning the name of four letters, that we say that it should become greater and become whole. And through that very aggrandizement and sanctification our redemption will eventually come.”15
Our salvation hinges on the reconstitution of the divine name. The union of the separated letters of God’s name will also mean that we will be joined together in loving union with our God. Our present exile and estrangement, physically and emotionally, will cease.
But here a paradox develops. In order to motivate God, to bestir a deity immersed in feelings of impotence and futility in the face of ongoing human evil, we sing soothing words of encouragement. We consciously avoid mentioning the negative elements of reality, but lovingly sing to God of the realization of God’s dream of wholeness restored—because we wish to raise God’s spirits and bestir God’s redemptive energies, by expressing our inextinguishable love. Yet, precisely because God is overtaken by our loving words, God is overcome with sorrow and regret for having exiled such loving children. God can see right through our subterfuge and understands that we have adapted and censored our song, out of our undying sensitivity and care for our Beloved. God understands that, out of our love and concern, we are thinking more than we are saying, singing a song of praise while keeping silent about our awareness of the problems that make such a consoling song necessary.

Rabbi Eleazar continues:
And when the blessed Holy One hears that Israel, in wily calculation, think in their hearts of the oath that He took about Amalek, to destroy their memory, and they pray these four words with all their strength—y’hei sh’meih rabba m’varakh, corresponding to the four letters of the Name—so as to enlarge His name of four letters, He says, “Woe to the sons who have been exiled from their father’s table, and woe to the father who is praised this way by his sons while he has sent them far away from his table.” Therefore there is great sadness in heaven.16

Thus, just when we prove our selfless love by offering the defeated God our words of solace and encouragement, and just as we do our very best to prevent our discouraged Redeemer from losing heart by shrewdly spinning our song away from dark allusions, God’s mood darkens in contemplating the tragedy of this great love that has been thwarted by divine decree. God’s impotence is debilitating and paralyzing. God is unable to defeat evil, and is thus demoralized. Though identified in the midrash as an authoritative Father, God is unable to overrule past decisions. The person reciting Kaddish may wish that time could be overturned and reversed, that the deceased loved one might be found alive, his or her death annulled. But Rabbi Eleazar’s dramatic reading of the Kaddish tells us that God is just as bound by the past as we are. God cannot reverse time for the individual, for the people, or for God’s own sake.


Singing in a Foreign Language

Have we, then, failed, despite our own wily calculations? Not yet. We know that our song will have this effect on our Beloved. But we are not ready to give up. We are not only careful about what we say and what we do not say; we are also careful about what language we use to say it.
It is a commonplace observation that the Kaddish is composed in Aramaic, not Hebrew. This lends its words a strange, alien feel, even to literate Jews, and gives its recitation an exotic, formal quality. We pronounce the rhythmic, poetic, and foreign prayer uncomprehendingly, hoping that this very incomprehensibility will enhance its spiritual potency in the heavens above or in our own hearts. But two thousand years ago Aramaic was the vernacular of Jews. Perhaps, back then, the Kaddish was the most easily comprehended of the prayers, precisely because it was recited in Aramaic.
But this common knowledge is only half-right. Actually, the Kaddish zigzags between Hebrew and Aramaic. It begins in Hebrew and then moves into Aramaic. After the communal response of y’hei sh’meih rabba m’varakh in Aramaic, the prayer again uses eight Hebrew words of praise (yitbarakh v’yishtabbaḥ…), only to then change back to Aramaic once more. And Hebrew must wait to reappear until the last line, oseh shalom, “May the One who makes peace….” Why this alternation?
Rabbi Eleazar adopts the explanation that it is necessary in order to befuddle the heavenly hosts.17> Usually our prayers are presented to God by the ministering angels. But they love God so much that they cannot abide seeing God upset and saddened. Were they to hear that Israel’s Kaddish song was causing God sorrow and remorse, they would promptly intervene and prevent God from hearing our prayer! How can we move beyond the angels, who might try their best to obstruct our prayers? If we are creative about it we can outwit them, for, according to ancient tradition, angels understand Hebrew but they do not understand Aramaic. Rabbi Eleazar explains:

And when the ministering angels hear and see the sadness that befalls the blessed Holy One, they are shocked and they tremble because, not understanding Aramaic, they do not know what the sadness is about. When we begin Kaddish, yitgaddal v’yitkaddash, this is the Hebrew language….But from the third [and fourth] word[s] on, which are sh’meih rabba, this is Aramaic. And had we said sh’meih rabba in Hebrew…the angels would understand…and then confuse the prayer of the Kaddish so that it could not ascend above, and Israel would not be able to utter such an excellent praise as this, and the Kaddish would be nullified. Therefore we say it from sh’meih rabba onwards in Aramaic, so that the angels will not understand what the sadness is about.18

How is it possible that the angels do not know Aramaic? And how could they dare to prevent our prayers from ascending heavenward? There is one answer to both these questions. The ancient tradition that the angels do not understand Aramaic is based precisely upon the idea that it is the vernacular. Angels do not and cannot understand human beings. They are incapable of fathoming the complexities of human nature and the messiness of human relationships. Thus, it should not be surprising that they can only understand the original, holy tongue of God—Hebrew—but that they cannot understand everyday human speech in a language like Aramaic. They understand only the pure holiness of praise and servitude to God’s majesty and they accept humanity only insofar as we attempt to imitate angelic singleness of purpose and purity of mission.
This is what differentiates our all-too-human love for God from the love of the angels above. The angels also love God; however, because they cannot understand the human being, they cannot understand the loving relationship that pulsates between God and human beings. And their concept of God’s love is as inhuman as is their own. In their pure, simple love of God they seek only to guard God from any wound or sorrow, for a failure to do so would be a shattering attack upon God’s perfection. The angels know only the present. They cannot know the regret that comes from remembering a lost past. They do not have an inkling of the anxiety or yearning that springs from picturing a more blessed future. Their love is one-dimensional. They know only that they must continuously serve and please God by placing hymns of praise before the heavenly throne, celebrating God’s power and might.
But our love for God is deeper and more encompassing than the love of the angels, because our love is bound up in faith in God’s future. Our love is not afraid of embracing death, despair, and impotent regret, of embracing them and moving beyond them. But, in order to believe that we can overcome failure, pain, and death, we must first be able to believe that God can overcome them, as well. That is our mission in reciting this prayer. We sing of a mature love that is well aware of disappointment and weakness, but that firmly holds to a shared dream of recuperation, reconciliation, and sweet consummation.
So, if we are to succeed in our purpose in reciting the Kaddish, if we are to succeed in singing this prayer as the love song God needs to hear, we must exhaust every ounce of our crafty resourcefulness. The angels will try to mix up our prayer in order to nullify it. Therefore we must mix up our words, zigzagging between sacred words and human speech, to throw the angels off their misconceived guard. So, spurred on by our intuition of how much our Beloved needs us, we create an elaborate stratagem to make sure that our prayer overcomes these anticipated difficulties and pushes toward its goal of restoring strength to God.

“I Sought Him but I Did Not Find Him;
I Called to Him but He Did Not Answer Me”

Love is hard and fierce. It does not give up immediately when the beloved has disappeared or turned silent. God needs us and we will respond, because we must. We do not say what we could say, in order to be able to say what we must. But such a controlled approach to our words demands extraordinary focus and discipline. To maintain our earthly (Aramaic) lyrics requires an exhausting amount of concentration. The eight Hebrew words serve as a spiritual respite from this demanding aria. Says Rabbi Eleazar:

Then immediately the congregation returns from this praise to the Hebrew language and says yitbarakh v’yisḥtabbah…and we must draw all of the[se praises] out in order to beautify the praise and its melody. For in these praises there is not any word that has any hint that any creature could detect about what causes the sadness above.20

For a moment we allow ourselves to forget the sadness through the beauty and melody of the words. We let our consciousness take a breath, as it were. We float temporarily in the oblivion of “not any word,” “not any hint,” “not any creature,” “not any sadness.” But we cannot tarry there for long. With this brief pause we gather enough strength to try to raise God above all songs, praises, and consolations. The challenge is not to forget the sadness, but to sing through it.
This is a love song, for what it does not say and for what it says and for how it balances between the saying and the silence. To fully realize itself as the greatest love song, the Mourner’s Kaddish takes the overall compositional strategy of the Full Kaddish one step further. It is identical to the Full Kaddish except that, in addition to all the unsaid allusions—unsaid but understood between lovers—the Mourner’s Kaddish leaves out one more stanza from the established text.
That stanza is the line in the longer Kaddish that begins with the words titkabbeil tz’lot’hon (“May the prayers and entreaties of the whole House of Israel be accepted before our Father in heaven”). It is striking that, after all the wily calculations we have expended in formulating a song that the angels will not be able to block—a song that will surely, directly, reach our heavenly Father—we now desist from praying for its acceptance. Is it because we are so confident in our plan? Hardly. It is because we are singing this song after a painful loss, after we and others have poured out our hearts in prayer and supplication—but our prayers were not answered. Just as we do not remind God of God’s failure to eradicate evil from this world, we also do not remind God of God’s failure to answer us in our distress. Why not? Because despite the hardships and disappointments, “many waters cannot extinguish love and rivers cannot wash it away.”21 Love does not arise and is not established through an arrangement of quid pro quo. “Were a person to offer all the fortunes of his house for love, all would dismiss him with contempt.”22

“Its Fevers Are Fiery Fevers, Flame of Yah”23

We live a love affair that the angels cannot understand. They cannot grasp a God in love with imperfect human beings; they cannot grasp a love that is complete only when it encompasses imperfection. When we fail to understand the possibility of such a love, we unwittingly fall into the trap of trying to imitate the angels rather than being who we are. The Kaddish asks us to sing out that love. This is why the Kaddish is the Song of Songs. It is a love song sung because our love will not subside or disappear. Our song is a song of words unsung as well as words sung, because our love endures through the presence and absence of the Beloved—just as we wish for our Beloved to cherish us whether we are present or absent, in our own moments of tender response and even in our moments of stony silence. As we recite the Kaddish we embrace the fullness of this elusive love and this elusive Lover. In the last verse of Song of Songs, one lover gives to her beloved a joyful, if rueful, release: to run off, even far away; perhaps, even, to temporarily disappear. Does she hope for their eventual sweet reunion? Because it is a song of love, the Song ends with that hope unspoken: “Flee my beloved, and be like a gazelle or the young stags, upon the fragrant mountains.”24






1 Rabbi Eleazar of Worms, Peirushei Siddur Ha-t’fillah La-rokei·aḥ (Jerusalem: Makhon Ha-rav Hershler, 1992), vol. 1, p. 242.
2 Song of Songs 8:6.
3 Of course, the Kaddish is routinely recited at various points in the traditional service without any linkage to death and dying. Still, I am here describing the phenomenology of the recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish specifically.
4 The German pietists, called in Hebrew Ḥasidei Ashkenaz, were a small group of Jews living in the Rhineland during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. They strove to imbue their everyday lives with the scrupulous intensity of mystical consciousness and devotion.
5 Rashi’s teachings were collected and expanded upon in a number of works. One important repository of teachings from Rashi and his school is called Maḥzor Vitry, a miscellany of commentaries, rulings, rabbinic texts, and poems first compiled by as student of Rashi in the late eleventh century and augmented thereafter in the following few centuries. The standard printed text was edited by S. Hurwitz and published in 1923 in Nuremberg, then reprinted in 1988 in Jerusalem.
6 Little of his work in this genre is available in English. For one small excerpt, see The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse, ed. T. Carmi (New York: Viking Press, 1981), pp. 387–388.
7 For some selections and discussion of his teachings on this subject and the traditions they draw from, see Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish (New York: Knopf, 1998), pp. 422–432.
8 Song of Songs 3:1.
9 The word sh’meih is written with four letters: shin-mem-yod-hei. Rabbi Eleazar reads this word as comprising two words put together: the first two letters, shin-mem, spell the word sheim, meaning “name.” The last two letters, yod-hei, are the same two letters found at the start of God’s Tetragrammaton, often pronounced as yah. Rabbi Eleazar reads those remaining two letters as referring to God’s name.
10 The last two of the four letters of the Name—vav and hei—are missing. The phrase “God’s name” refers to more than a linguistic or textual term. It traditionally alludes to the Divine Presence as experienced and spoken about in this world, as distinct from any additional transcendent, ungraspable, and unnamable divine reality. Thus, to speak of a full name of God would refer to God’s Presence as fully manifest in this world. If only half of God’s name is mentioned, this refers to a weakened or diminished sense of God’s Presence.
11 Amalek became the symbol of pure evil after it attacked the Israelites right after God had liberated them from Egypt. Israel was frail and vulnerable and Amalek, unprovoked, launched an attack specifically targeting the weak and defenseless of the people. See Exodus 17:8–16.
12 Rabbi Eleazar of Worms, Peirushei Siddur Ha-t’fillah, vol. 1, p. 251.
13 Ibid.
14 Ibid.
15 Ibid.
16 Ibid., p. 252, referencing B. Berakhot 3a. See Wieseltier, Kaddish, p. 428, who offers a similar text and attributes it to the Maḥzor Vitry (see note 5 above). But I have not found this key element—that Israel uses “wily calculation” in its formulation of the Kaddish—in that version. To be “wily in one’s reverence for God” is a particular concern of the German pietists.
17 See Maḥzor Vitry, pp. 54–55.
18 Rabbi Eleazar of Worms, Peirushei Siddur Ha-t’fillah, vol. 1, p. 252. This text has a parallel in Maḥzor Vitry, p. 54.
19 Song of Songs 5:6.
20 Rabbi Eleazar of Worms, Peirushei Siddur Ha-t’fillah, vol. 1, p. 253.
21 Song of Songs 8:7.
23 Song of Songs 8:6.
24 Ibid. 8:14.