jewish Funeral Guide

Kaddish / קדיש

Kaddish Importance

Story about Rabbi Akiva. The importance of saying Kaddish is illustrated by the following Midrash / מדרש — a story, sometimes factual — sometimes allegorical, that illustrates Torah concepts. The outline of the story, recounted with minor variations in a number of places, is as follows:

Rabbi Akiva once came across a naked man, black as charcoal. The man was running with a large load of wood on his head. Rabbi Akiva commanded the man to stop and tell him why he was working so hard. The man explained that he was actually a soul forced every day to chop wood for the fire that would consume him by night as a punishment for the evil deeds he had done.

Rabbi Akiva asked about his occupation. The man replied that he was one of the tax-farmers contracted by the Roman government to collect taxes. They were given license to collect as much as they wanted, provided that a certain amount was handed to the government. The rest was the tax-farmer’s profit. The man acknowledged that as a collector of taxes he favored the wealthy and robbed the poor.

Rabbi Akiva asked if there was any way to save him from his ordeal. The man answered that he heard that if only he had a son who would summon the congregation to prayer with the words “Bless the Lord, the blessed One / ברכו את ה' המבורך” and the people would respond “Blessed is the Lord, the blessed One for ever and ever / ברוך ה' המבורך לעולם ועד”; if only his son would proclaim “Exalted and sanctified be His great name / יתגדל ויתקדש שמה רבא” and the congregation would respond “May His great Name be blessed for ever and ever / יהא שמה רבא מברך לעלם ולעלמי עלמיא”, he would be released from this great punishment. The man explained that when he died, he left his wife pregnant and didn’t know if she had a son or a daughter. And even if she had a son, he cried, who would teach him?

Immediately Rabbi Akiva took upon himself to search for the child. When Rabbi Akiva inquired about the despised tax collector and his widow, the townspeople only spat out and cursed both of them. They informed Rabbi Akiva that the tax collector’s son was not even circumcised.

Rabbi Akiva took the boy, had him circumcised and taught him for many years. Eventually the boy was able to recite Kaddish and lead the congregation, and his father was finally released from his punishing work.

Link between generations. Kaddish helps to establish the link between generations. An important part of the Jewish prayers is recalling the “merits of the forefathers / זכות אבות”. In the prayers we ask God's forgiveness in the merit of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But the link goes in both directions. It is typical for children to feel certain guilt towards their parents, who passed away. They wish they could give their parents more attention, show them more respect, give them more Yiddishe Nachas / א יידישע נחת, but now, they feel, it’s too late. We see from this story of Rabbi Akiva, however, that a child does have a way to keep giving. When the child sanctifies the name of God in this world, not only by reciting Kadish but also by being upright and pleasing to God and man, part of the child’s merit is ascribed to the parent and impacts the parent’s destiny.

Source of consolation. At the same time, Kaddish serves as a source of consolation. Mourners who attend daily prayer services in order to recite Kadish feel that they are not alone. They meet other mourners there. They also meet those who have already completed their mourning but still come the synagogue on a regular basis to study and pray. All that provides comfort and assurance that the days of mourning will end and happier times will return.