Reviewed by Israel Drazin - November 14, 2011
Orthodox Judaism, like American and other judges, makes legal decisions based on precedences, not only on what modern people think is correct. When a question arises, Orthodox rabbis examine what has been said about the matter in the past, and scrutinize why the particular rabbi said what he did. Thus, Rahel Berkovits, who takes an Orthodox approach to the law, inspects the entire history of a woman saying the mourner's kaddish. Her analysis is scholarly, yet written in an interesting manner. She examines, explains, and comments upon 53 rabbinic sources comprehensively, and includes 254 scholarly notes.
What is the kaddish?
The kaddish is a prayer that praises God. It contains no reference of death. It not mentioned in the Bible or Talmud. It developed over a period of time. It began with a single kaddish, but today there are five different kinds of kaddishim (plural of kaddish) recited for different purposes. (1) a complete kaddish recited at the end of services; (2) a half kaddish read at the conclusion of parts of the service; (3) the great kaddish said at a burial; (4) a rabbinic kaddish recited after learning certain rabbinic texts, it is said today by mourners; and (5) the mourner's kaddish, which is the same as the complete kaddish, but without the sentence "may their prayer be accepted."
When was the first kaddish developed?
The date of the origin of the kaddish is unknown, but it is first mentioned in the Tractate Soferim 10:6, which was composed after the Talmud, around the sixth century. This source dictates, "they should not say kaddish and barkhu (the blessing "Bless the Lord who should be blessed," which originally introduced the service) with fewer than ten (men)." This source cannot refer to all the different types of kaddishim since each type of kaddish has a different historical origin and developed at a different time.
Probably based on a tale
The sources, beginning around the eleventh century, base the saying of kaddish on a story that has nothing to do with the kaddish. According to the story, Rabbi Akiva (others say Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai) saw a naked dead man carrying a large load of thorns on his head. The man said he was being punished for misdeeds during his life time, but if his son would recite barkhu, and the congregation would respond "May His great name be blessed," he would be released from punishment. Although this legend does not mention the kaddish, the popular notion arose that saying kaddish would have this effect. Berkovits sites a rabbinical source that states, "anyone who thinks that the actions of his sons and members of his people done on his behalf after his death and that they pray on his behalf, that these are of benefit to him, these are ludicrous thoughts and for naught in the eyes of all sages and all men of knowledge. For the Torah and the rabbis did not speak of them."
Customs associated with how the kaddish is recited
The early customs of how, when, and by whom kaddish was said varied from synagogue to synagogue and community to community. Some only allowed the orphan to say kaddish when he was under age 13. Others only permitted one congregant to recite kaddish, and the codes of Jewish law developed a list of who among those who wanted to recite kaddish had priority. Some congregations had several kaddishim and gave each to a different mourner. But soon, in fairly recent times, the practice arose that all the mourners could recite kaddish at the same time. Interestingly, this later practice, the one followed today in most congregations, resulted in a nullification of the original idea that the congregation would respond to the person reciting kaddish by saying "May His great name be blessed," because the many mourners read at different speeds and each congregant has to choose to whom he wants to respond, assuming he can hear the words of the kaddish when there is a tumult of recitations. Customs also changed regarding how long a mourner would say the kaddish; for example, at one time the idea was to say it for twelve months, based on a mystical notion of how long a dead person is punished; then the idea arose that saying it for twelve months implied that the son needed to recite the kaddish for the full twelve months because his parent was wicked, so the time was reduced to eleven months. Later customs include the saying of kaddish yearly on the day of death, the yahrzeit, and the insertion of the memorial prayer yizkor during certain holidays. The notion also developed that each time that a mourner said kaddish, the soul of the departed rose higher and higher toward the Garden of Eden, and people began to wish the mourner that the soul of his or her departed has an illui neshama, an elevation of soul.
Being strictly Orthodox
It is clear that the kaddish is not a law or mitzvah; that it arose rather late in Jewish history; different forms of it were composed for various purposes; the customs of how and when and by whom it is recited changed radically over time; the practice arose when women were disparaged, left uneducated, relegated to the home and breeding, and were therefore ignored while the custom developed; and the idea that saying the kaddish would help the dead is questionable, although it certainly helps the person who recites the kaddish. Thus, Rahel Berkovits could have concluded her analysis by saying that there is no basic teaching in Judaism that would disallow a woman from saying kaddish other than custom. However, customs in Orthodox Judaism is enwrapped with the authority of law. So she ignored this argument and used instead the Orthodox procedure of relying on precedence, on the developing opinions of rabbis, her 53 sources, and concluded that female recitation of kaddish is allowable.
The sources are interesting. They vary from absolute refusal to allow women to say kaddish, to allowance under certain conditions, to permission to say kaddish. An examination of the decisions shows a growing respect for the feelings and rights of women, and recognition that they are also Jews. Rahel Berkovits accepts the ruling of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik who "ruled that it is permissible and legitimate for a woman to recite kaddish, even if she had brothers who were reciting kaddish and even if she was the sole mourner reciting kaddish in the synagogue." It should be recited, she concludes, in the presence of a minyan of ten males in a synagogue or at home, and the woman should do so loudly so that men can give the desired traditional response.
Rahel Berkovits has an interesting, moving, and practical statement near the end of her very fine analysis: "A number of authorities suggest that communal leaders and rabbis should be sensitive to women's feelings at this emotional time, and look to bring them closer to the synagogue and ritual practices. Refusing them the option of reciting mourner's kaddish when they sincerely desire to do so may push them away from traditional Judaism."