Kaddish, Judaism’s most famous response to loss, did not start out to serve that purpose. Phrases that became elements of Kaddish were used in ancient Israel to celebrate the end of a session of communal study. Their recitation marked a transition from learning to living, creating a ritual moment that might impart the strength of the gathering to each of its individuals. This moment of Kaddish, meaning, sanctification and dedication, said: It is time to take our learning from this place and infuse it into the world. Remember! You alone must do it, but you do not do it alone.
Kaddish continued to develop as a marker of transition moments in community prayer. In a short form, it marked the division between internal parts of a prayer service. In a longer form, Kaddish celebrated the conclusion of community worship. At that point in history, there was not yet a “Mourner’s Kaddish.”
In one of the earliest known prayer books, the great Babylonian sage, Sa’adiah Gaon (10th century), noted the Kaddish forms of public worship. He underscored the importance of the most ancient “Scholar’s Kaddish” recited at the conclusion of study and disapprovingly observed that there were some who insisted on reciting this Kaddish at a grave.
Ironically, it is Sa’adiah’s skeptical comment that offers the first witness to what has become one of Judaism’s strongest rituals. Although the greatest leader of his day frowned upon it, the “Mourner’s Kaddish” is a testimony to the religious imagination and creativity of the people who needed a ritual moment that could respond to a powerful need. Once again, Kaddish was to mark a moment of transition when profound reflection must open to living.
Living in the world is an important Kaddish motif, literally beginning and ending the shortest form of the Kaddish: May the great name be magnified and sanctified in the world/b’almah, it begins. This Kaddish ends with the hope that efforts to extol the Great Name might exceed all blessings and songs, acclamations and consolations spoken in the world/b’almah.
Precisely in the middle of this short Kaddish appears a contrasting use of the same Aramaic word, almah: May the Great Name be blessed forever/l’almah and forever/u-l’almey almayah. Two meanings of the same word, world and forever, capture an essential feature of the human condition: We resolve to live in our world, with our losses, even as we aspire to a better future.
This is not to say that such a plan is easy. It is, perhaps, easier to remain in a state of mourning than to venture forth; it is more enticing to stay in the dust-free environment of the House of Study where the world is learned, not lived.
Says the poet, Wallace Stevens: “The way through the world is more difficult to find than the way beyond it.” Kaddish summons the mourner to the dignity of responding to loss with creative and productive living in the world/b’almah, not trying to suspend it or to ignore it.
The mourner who recites the Kaddish prompts the community to say “amen” four times—twice in response to living in the world and twice in an epilogue that looks to the future. At first, the epilogue continues in the Kaddish Aramaic of the everyday world and finally, soaring into Hebrew and into the heavens:
May there be abundant peace from the heavens and life for us… May the One who makes peace in his heights, make peace for us and for all Israel, and we say: Amen.
One who rises to recite the “Mourner’s Kaddish” stands as a heroic example within community that one continues to live in the presence of loss in the world/b’almah, even as one anticipates a better future/l’almah.