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David Shyovitz





The Subversive Kaddish



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David Shyovitz





The Subversive Kaddish






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The Subversive Kaddish

The Mourner’s Kaddish strengthens the connection of living Jews with their deceased relatives. The custom was developed by twelfth century Ashkenazi Jews as a way of saving their loved ones from Gehenna (hell) and making heaven available to all.


The Subversive Kaddish

The Bad Rich Man in Hell (detail), James Tissot, ca. 1886-1894. Brooklyn Museum

Kaddish and the Sho’ah

From the synagogue to the cinema, the Mourner’s Kaddish (Kaddish Yatom) is arguably today’s most recognizable element of the Jewish liturgy.[1] For over the past half-century, the prayer’s evocative, accrued connotations of death and loss, mourning and helplessness, have become nearly synonymous with the horrors of the Holocaust. On Yom ha-Sho’ah (Holocaust Memorial Day, on the 27th of Nissan),[2] synagogues, memorials, and museums the world over host ceremonies in which attendees recite the Kaddish alongside ever-dwindling numbers of survivors; the prayer also features at the annual Yom ha-Zikaron (Memorial Day) service at Israel’s military ceremony on Har Herzl in Jerusalem.

Popular culture, too, has mined the symbolism of the Mourner’s Kaddish. László Nemes’s recent Academy Award winning film Son of Saul focuses on the titular character’s quest to bury a child (his son?) who has perished in a Nazi concentration camp, and to ensure that Kaddish be recited at his grave. Schindler’s List, too, concludes with a plaintive Kaddish for the victims of the Holocaust. Leonard Bernstein’s “Kaddish” symphony is regularly performed at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and later this year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre in Kiev at a performance of a new concerto titled “Kaddish.”

Significance of Kaddish in Modern Jewish Life

But the Jewish preoccupation with the Mourner’s Kaddish long predated 1945 and 1948. In Eastern Europe, Yiddish-speaking Jews would commonly refer to a first-born male child as a Kaddish’l, since the birth of a son ensured that the father would eventually have someone to recite the prayer on his behalf.

By the twentieth century, American Jews who had little interest in Jewish ritual life continued to show up to synagogue to commemorate the deceased. As early as 1914, the Central Conference of American Rabbis met at their annual convention to lament the prevalence of the “so-called Kaddish Jew, who attends divine services only in honor of his dead parents.” (The rabbis’ concluded that mi-toch she-lo lishmah ba lishmah—“filial piety shown by the mourners may in the end lead to a more permanent religious attitude.”)

As Dalia Marx has shown, the prayer remained a touchstone even for members of the militantly secular Israeli kibbutz movement. Growing uneasy with the “unbearable silence at the gravesite,” many kibbutzim grudgingly reinstated the recitation of the Kaddish—or at least a Kaddish. Adopting (but subverting) the traditional language, the members of Kibbutz Ein Shemer, for example, addressed the prayer to themselves rather than to God:

יתגדל ויתקדש האדם בחייו ובמותו… יתברך וישתבח קבוצנו באוהביו.
“Magnified and sanctified (yitgadal ve-yitkadash) be the person in his life and in his death… Blessed and praised (yitbarakh ve-yishtabakh) be our kibbutz through those who love it.”[3]

The sense of continuity with, and through, the Kaddish pervaded countless other literary and cultural productions in Israel and the Diaspora alike, from the meditative Petichah le-Kaddish of S.Y. Agnon to the lengthy, challenging “Kaddish” of beat poet Allen Ginsberg.

But why this lasting preoccupation with the Mourner’s Kaddish, and not, say, the Shema, or the Amidah—more central and halakhically significant components of the traditional prayer service? Certainly not on account of its antiquity: while the text of the Kaddish itself dates back to the rabbinic period, and may well have been known even in the late Second Temple period,[4] the notion that mourners (or “orphans”) should recite it for a circumscribed period after a relative’s death is a much more recent development.

A Twelfth Century Ashkenazi Custom: Response to the Catastrophe of the First Crusade?

Scholars of Jewish liturgy have typically traced the origins of the Mourner's Kaddish back to 12th century Ashkenaz (Franco-Germany). The fact that a prayer for mourners would have been newly introduced in this setting seems logical. After all, the turn of the twelfth century (1096) witnessed a deeply traumatic series of massacres inflicted on the Jews of the Rhineland by armies of Crusaders headed east to the Holy Land, who thought it expedient to wipe out the enemies of Christ living within their borders before pursuing foes beyond them.

The throngs of newly grieving mourners, in this telling, required a ritual outlet, and found one in the Kaddish, with its stirring proclamation of Divine majesty and promise of impending redemption. It seems natural that a prayer born of a need for closure and commemoration has come to epitomize the Jewish response to more recent catastrophes.

Kaddish as an Intercessory Prayer: Machzor Vitri

This explanation of the origins and meaning of the Mourner’s Kaddish, however, is wholly unsupported by the sources. The custom is first attested in a copy of the Mahzor Vitri, the liturgical guide composed in the twelfth century by R. Simcha of Vitri, a student of Rabbi Solomon b. Isaac (Rashi), and the overt and explicit rationale for the practice in this text is not commemoration, but rather intercession.

Recitation of the Kaddish was framed as a means by which the living could help redeem the souls of their deceased relatives from suffering in Hell (Gehinom). The martyrs of the Crusade massacres were the last people who would have been thought to require such posthumous assistance; medieval (and post-medieval) Ashkenazic Jews considered the martyrs of 1096 to be righteous heroes, whose self-sacrifice assured them instantaneous entry into Heaven. Stated differently, a prayer for the suffering souls of the dead must have developed in spite of the Crusade martyrs, rather than on account of them.

An Aggadic Origin: The Story of Rabbi Akiva and the Dead Man

A more compelling (though perhaps less comforting) explanation for the rise of the Mourner’s Kaddish emerges from an analysis of the aggadic tale that accompanied the earliest halakhic discussions of the practice—not only in the Mahzor Vitri, but also in the Siddur commentary of R. Eleazar b. Judah of Worms, author of the Sefer ha-Roke’ah, and in the Sefer Or Zaru’a of R. Isaac b. Moshe of Vienna (both of whom wrote in the first half of the 13th century). In these and other prescriptive sources, the details of the Kaddish prayer are prefaced by a lengthy story featuring the second century tanna R. Akiva. This story, which is etiological rather than historical, describes Akiva’s run-in with a dead man suffering in the afterlife on account of the sinful deeds he committed during his lifetime:

מעשה בר’ עקיבא שהיה מהלך בבית הקברות בדרך ופגע באדם אחד שהיה ערום ושחור כפחם והיה טעון משאוי גדול של קוצים על ראשו. כסבור עליו ר’ עקיבא שהוא חי והיה רץ כסוס. גזר עליו ר’ עקיבא והעמידו. אמר לו מה לאותו האיש לעשות עבודה קשה כזאת?
It once happened that Rabbi Akiva was passing through a cemetery, and he came upon a man who was naked, and black as coal, and carrying a great burden of thorns on his head. Rabbi Akiva thought that the man, who was running like a horse, was alive. Rabbi Akiva commanded and stopped him, and said to him: “Why does that man (oto ha-ish) do this difficult work? […]
אמר לו אותו האיש מת. ובכל יום שולחים אותי לחטוב עצים.
[The man] said to him: “That man is dead, and every day I am sent out to chop trees.”

Observing the dead man’s charred appearance, Akiva concludes that the trees are being used to burn the man for some unspecified sins:

אמר לו בני מה היה מלאכתך בעולם שבאתה ממנו?
[Rabbi Akiva] said to him: “My son, what was your profession in the world from which you came?”
אמר לו גבאי המכס הייתי. והייתי נושא פנים לעשירים והורג את העניים.
[The man] said to him: “I was a tax collector (gabai ha-mekhes), and I would favor the rich and kill the poor.”
אמר לו כלום שמעת מאותם הממונין עליך לפורענות איזו דבר שיש לו תקנה?
[Rabbi Akiva] said to him: “Haven’t you heard anything from those appointed to punish you about how you might be relieved?”

The man initially denies categorically that any assistance is possible:

אותו האיש אין לו תקנה.
“There is no relief for that man.”

But as the conversation proceeds, he vacillates.

אלא שמעתי מהם דבר שלא היה יכול להיות. שאלמלא היה לו לעני זה בן שהוא עומד בקהל…והם עונין אחריו יהא שמיה רבה מברך מיד מתירין אותו מן הפורענות.
“I did hear from [those appointed over me] one impossible thing: ‘If only this poor man had a son who would stand in front of the congregation and…have them answer yehe sheme rabah mevorakh(may His great name be blessed) he would be immediately released from his punishments.’”

Yehe sheme rabah, of course, is the central line of the Kaddish, and Akiva immediately sets out to locate the man’s still-living son, and to urge him to lead the congregation in the prayer.

But when he eventually finds the son, matters do not appear promising. The townspeople respond with derision when Akiva asks after the dead man; the son, for his part, is uncircumcised, and rejected by his community:

שאל עליו. אמרו לו ישחקו עצמותיו של אותו האיש… שאל על בנו. אמרו לו הרי ערל הוא. אפילו מצות מילה לא עיסקנו בו!
[Akiva] asked after him, and they said, “May the bones of that man be ground up” … He asked after his son, and they said, “He is uncircumcised—we did not even perform the mitzvah of circumcision for him!”

Even after Akiva circumcises him, the boy proves unwilling or unable to absorb the lessons the rabbi imparts:

הושיבו בספר לפניו ולא היה מקבל התורה עד שישב מ’ יום בתענית. יצתה בת קול ואמרה לו לזה אתה מתענה?
“[Akiva] put a book in front of him. But he would not accept Torah study, until Rabbi Akiva fasted for forty days. A heavenly voice said to him: ‘For this you are fasting?’”

Even God seems nonplussed by the notion that Akiva is preparing the child to intercede on his father’s behalf. Only after Akiva continues to beseech God for assistance does He “open the child’s heart,” allowing him to learn the basics of Jewish worship. And once he leads the congregation in Kaddish, the sinful father is indeed freed from his punishment, and raised up to the Garden of Eden. The text concludes,

ועל כן נהגו לעבור לפני התיבה במוצאי שבת אדם שאין לו אב או אם לומר ברכו או קדיש.
Therefore, it is customary to appoint a person who does not have a father or mother to lead the services at the conclusion of the Sabbath, in order to say… Kaddish.

The Older Version of the Story – No Kaddish

This story of Akiva and the dead man is found in earlier sources, such as Kallah Rabati, Seder Eliyahu Zuta, Midrash Aseret ha-Dibrot. Those tellings, however, contain no reference to the Kaddish—the man’s son is instead trained to be called to the Torah and perform other rudimentary Jewish rituals.[5] The version of the tale that circulated in medieval Ashkenaz is the first to link the Akiva story to the recitation of the Kaddish.

Other Differences

The Mahzor Vitri and parallel versions also differs from prior versions in several other important respects:

  • The Dead Man’s Sin: In the tale found in the Mahzor Vitri, the offending sinner is singled out as a crooked tax collector, one who would “favor the rich and kill the poor.” In prior attestations of the story, the dead man was varyingly accused of thievery, murder, or sexual predation; in the version preserved in Kallah Rabati, the man admits that “there is not a single sin remaining that I did not commit.” The emphasis on official corruption is original to the twelfth century retelling.
  • The Dead Man’s Appearance: Our version of the story describes the suffering sinner as “black as coal,” and specifies that he was carrying not just wood, but “a great burden of thorns on his head.” Neither of these details is included in the earlier versions of the narrative
  • The Dead Man’s Son: In earlier texts, the son simply responds to Akiva’s prodding and recites the appropriate prayers. In the twelfth century versions, however, the reader is informed that the child is uncircumcised, and that he is unwilling or unable to absorb Akiva’s teachings until God has intervened directly. The derisive wish that his “bones to be ground up” also diverges from prior versions of the tale.
  • The Dead Man’s Grammar: Finally, in the Mahzor Vitri and parallel versions, the sinner consistently, and jarringly, refers to himself in the third person in the course of his conversation with Akiva, using the descriptor oto ha-ish (“that man”).

These divergences, I suggest, hold the key to understanding not only the internal logic of the story, but also the origins and appeal of the Mourner’s Kaddish for medieval Ashkenazic Jews. These deviations from a well-known narrative trope would have spoken volumes to a rabbinically-literate medieval Jewish audience.

The Intertextual Allusions to Gehenna and the Parnas: b. Rosh HaShanah 17a

It appears that many of the new details found in the twelfth century version seem to have been borrowed from a famous sugya (passage) in the Babylonian Talmud (Rosh ha-Shanah 17a) concerning the fates of sinners in the afterlife. Attention to this Talmudic sugya can help us understand some of the Akiva story’s intertextual allusions:

פושעי ישראל בגופן ופושעי אומות העולם בגופן יורדין לגיהנם ונידונין בה שנים עשר חדש לאחר שנים עשר חדש גופן כלה ונשמתן נשרפת ורוח מפזרתן תחת כפות רגלי צדיקים… אבל המינין והמסורות והאפיקורסים שכפרו בתורה ושכפרו בתחיית המתים ושפירשו מדרכי צבור ושנתנו חיתיתם בארץ חיים… יורדין לגיהנם ונידונין בה לדורי דורות… א”ר יצחק בר אבין: ופניהם דומין לשולי קדירה…
Jews and non-Jews who sin with their bodies descend to Gehenna and are judged there for twelve months. After twelve months, their bodies are annihilated and their souls are burnt and the wind scatters them under the feet of the righteous… But the heretics, traitors, and the Epicureans, who denied the Torah and the resurrection of the dead, and those who separate themselves from the ways of the congregation, and those who “instill their terror in the land of the living”…descend to Gehenna and are judged there eternally… Rabbi Isaac bar Avin said: Their faces resemble the bottom of a pot.
ושנתנו חיתיתם בארץ חיים אמר רב חסדא זה פרנס המטיל אימה יתירה על הצבור שלא לשם שמים אמר רב יהודה אמר רב כל פרנס המטיל אימה יתירה על הצבור שלא לשם שמים אינו רואה בן תלמיד חכם
[Who are] those who “instill their terror in the land of the living”? R. Hisda said: This is a parnas who instills excessive fear in the community, not for the sake of heaven. R. Judah said in the name of Rav: Any parnas who instills excessive fear in the community, not for the sake of heaven, will not see his son become a scholar…

The “Blackened” Parnas

To begin with, the description of the sinner as a merciless tax collector who oppressed the poor is borrowed from the Talmud’s description of a parnas, or communal leader, who “instills excessive fear in the community.” In medieval northern Europe, communal functionaries were referred to specifically as parnasim, and their chief duties included both tax collection and administration of charitable funds. The story’s crooked tax collector who favors the rich at the expense of the poor would inevitably recall the authoritarian parnas of the Talmud. The other details in the story would have confirmed this association. That the sinner in the exemplum is “black as coal” accords with the Talmud’s description of “those who instill their terror in the land of life,” whose “faces are like the bottom of a pot.”

The fact that the sinner’s son proves unable to comprehend the liturgy that Akiva attempts to teach him also alludes to the Talmud’s promise that the sinful parnas will “not see his son become a scholar.”

The Mahzor Vitri’s Subversive Use of the Talmud: The Kaddish Redeems All

Once we realize that the sinner of the medieval version of the Akiva story has been reconfigured to gesture toward the Talmudic parnas, we can begin to grasp the story’s subtle, and subversive, underlying message. In Bavli Rosh ha-Shanah, the parnas is the archetypical example of a sinner who “descends to Gehenna and is judged there eternally”—that is, a sinner who can never, under any circumstances, be spared from his punishment. And yet in the story, it is precisely this sinner whom the Kaddish has the power to redeem! The story thus invokes a well-known Talmudic passage concerning post-mortem punishment, only to categorically undermine it. But this hermeneutical chutzpah pales in comparison with the second set of allusions referred to in the story.

Oto Ha-Ish: The Allusion to Jesus

For a reading audience living in a medieval Christian society, the description of a sinner who carries “a great burden of thorns on his head” could not but recall Jesus, who, according to the Gospels, was led to his crucifixion carrying his heavy cross, and mockingly crowned with thorns. This Christological resonance is reinforced by the repeated references to oto ha-ish—a common rabbinic pejorative moniker for Jesus.

Hadrian’s Bones: An Allusion to Rome and Christianity

It also finds an echo in the malediction uttered by the neighbors of the dead man’s son. “May the bones of that man be ground up” would have reminded a learned Jewish audience of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who is identified in many rabbinic sources as Adriyanus shehik atsamot, “Hadrian, may his bones be ground up” (e.g. Gen. Rab. 10, Lam. Rab. 3). Hadrian, who led the Roman suppression of the Bar Kokhba Revolt, during the course of which Rabbi Akiva himself was said to have been executed, was not only an arch-villain of rabbinic literature; after the fourth century Christianization of Rome, he, along with the Roman Empire more broadly, came to function metonymically as a symbol of Christianity.

All Can Go to Heaven: Limiting Hell

But why would our narrator link the sinner and Jesus in this manner?[6] Jesus is depicted as eschatologically (and scatologically!) irredeemable in prior rabbinic works—most famously in a Talmudic passage that describes Jesus as suffering in Hell in a boiling cauldron of excrement (b. Gittin 56b-57a). By characterizing the sinner as a conflation of the “parnas who instills excessive fear in the community” on one hand, and Jesus on the other, our tale constructs a portrait of the sinner least likely to ever be freed from his torments—and then argues, in a shocking twist, that the recitation of the Kaddish can redeem even him. The Mourner’s Kaddish thus presupposes a fundamentally temporary conception of post-mortem suffering, one in which all sinners in Hell can eventually make it into Heaven.

Other seemingly extraneous details inserted into the story confirm this impression.

Significance of Saying Kaddish on Saturday Night

The fact that the story ends with the instruction for Kaddish to be said specifically on Saturday night, for example, draws on a popular Jewish belief, widespread by the twelfth century, that the wicked dead, like the living, rest on the Sabbath, and only return to Hell on Saturday night. Thus motsa’ei shabbat is the ideal time for the recitation of an intercessory prayer, to extend the period of respite experienced by the soul of the dead. An eternal, immutable Hell—the one promised by the Talmud to the wicked parnas and his ilk—could not allow for such meddling by the living.

Lack of Circumcision

The fact that the townspeople in the story specify that they have not bothered to circumcise the son of the sinner is also meaningful in this regard. Of course, the necessity of circumcision was one of the earliest points of contention between Jews and Christians, and the story’s initial designation of the son as an arel served to deepen the association with Christianity.

Relatedly, medieval Ashkenazic thinkers were increasingly attentive to the midrashic notion that children who are uncircumcised are unable to enter heaven, and are consigned to Hell—to the extent that some high medieval halakhists mandated post-mortem circumcision of infants who died prior to reaching eight days of age. The townspeople’s refusal to circumcise the son of their hated parnas thus confirms that Hell was very much on their minds, and highlights the eschatological subtext of the tale as a whole.

Mitigating Eternal Punishment: Strengthening Family Bonds

The Mourner’s Kaddish thus serves to mitigate eternal punishment in the afterlife, and offers an escape route to even the most hardened sinners. In doing so, it simultaneously strengthens the familial bonds linking the dead to their still-living relatives—the responsibility of the latter for the fate of the former is magnified (and sanctified) by the availability of a ritual means of intercession.

We can safely conclude that this underlying set of values was appealing to medieval Jews, both within and beyond Ashkenaz. The custom of mourners leading the congregation in Kaddish spread rapidly over the course of the Middle Ages, with the original Saturday night recitation quickly expanding into a daily and then thrice-daily routine.

Parallel Christian Development in the 12th Century: The Birth of Purgatory

Significantly, Ashkenazic Jews were not the only inhabitants of medieval northern Europe who were reconfiguring their liturgy and theology to lessen Hell’s duration. Twelfth century northern Europe was the epicenter of the so-called “Birth of Purgatory,” the developing notion that some sinners whom earlier Christian theologians had consigned to Hell might in fact be purged of their sins in Purgatory, a realm of temporary punishment distinct from Hell, and eventually raised up to Heaven.

Did Purgatory Influence the New Function of Kaddish?

This theological realignment developed hand in hand with new intercessory rituals and liturgies, including specialized masses and charitable donations aimed at hastening relatives’ souls’ stays in Purgatory. The polemical references to Jesus in the Akiva tale thus serve to both mask and to highlight the fact that the close proximity of medieval Jews and Christians led at times to remarkably parallel ritual and theological developments. Jewish repulsion at the figure of Christ did not preclude the attractiveness of certain elements of Christian theology.

Whether the Mourner’s Kaddish was an overt response to the “Birth of Purgatory,” or whether both developments reflected broader, underlying tectonic shifts, it seems undeniable that the prayer that today functions as a means of commemorating the dead and reconciling oneself to God’s inscrutable decisions originated in a startlingly different theological landscape—one in which concern with post-mortem suffering and the responsibility of the living for the dead loomed large in belief and practice alike.

Kaddish Even When God Seemingly Has Given Up

While this original emphasis on punishment and purgation seems singularly inappropriate to commemorating the crises of recent Jewish history, perhaps something of the spirit of the Akiva story remains applicable. Rather than functioning solely as a passive acknowledgement of Divine omnipotence, medieval Jews understood the Kaddish to be a weapon in the Jewish liturgical arsenal, to be actively wielded by the living in service of the dead—even, or especially, in cases that God Himself had declared lost.

Perhaps in this season of mourning—for the students of Rabbi Akiva, said to have died during the period of the omer; for the victims of the Shoah; for the fallen soldiers of the State of Israel—the Kaddish Yatom’s spirit of defiant hope in the face of overwhelming opposition might still continue to resonate.

Dedicated to the memory of Dr. Shlomo Sprecher z”l in recognition of his deep love of biblical (and all) scholarship. From his loving wife, children, and grandchildren on his fourth Yahrzeit (18th of Adar).


May 4, 2016


Last Updated

March 24, 2024


View Footnotes

Dr. David Shyovitz is Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Northwestern University, with a joint appointment at the Crown Center for Jewish and Israel Studies. He received his Ph.D. in medieval Jewish history from the University of Pennsylvania and studied at Yeshivat Har Ezion. He is the author of A Remembrance of His Wonders: Nature and the Supernatural in Medieval Ashkenaz.