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TCS Question - Why do we say the Kaddish when mourning for a loved one?

Judaism has a whole series of regulations and rituals which are undertaken as part of the mourning process. For many people the most important responsibility on those who are mourning for a loved one is the recitation of the mourners Kaddish, the prayer with which we conclude almost every service.

While the Kaddish does not speak about death, rather it is a statement about God’s sovereignty and supremacy. It has become the prayer which is most associated with the Jewish rituals of mourning.

Before coming to the why of saying the Kaddish it is important to deal with the who. Traditionally there are seven relatives for whom we are supposed to recite the Kaddish as mourners. This list is taken from the Torah (Leviticus 21), where the Priest is told that he can defile himself for his mother, father, wife or husband, son, daughter, brother and sister. These are the official relatives for whom we mourn, and say the Kaddish. However, there is also the principle that ‘those we mourn for, we also mourn with’. In this way a person mourns for their husband or wife, and therefore mourns with them for their parents-in-law.

The Kaddish became the prayer which is associated with mourning as a result of a story involving Rabbi Akiva (one of the greatest Rabbis of the Talmud). It is said that he encountered a man who was dead, but had not been able to ascend to heaven, and was suffering continued punishment here on earth. He told Akiva that the only way to be redeemed would be for his son to stand among the community and recite the Kaddish, and for the congregation to respond and bless God’s name. The challenge was that his son, as it transpired, had received no Jewish education. Akiva went and found the boy, he taught him the prayers, so that the boy could recite the Kaddish freeing his father’s soul to rise up to Heaven.

Finally there is the how of reciting the Kaddish. The first tradition is that the Kaddish should only be recited with a minyan, ten people, present. And then for a parent we recite the Kaddish for eleven months (we do not recite it for a full year, as no-one should require a full years worth of Kaddish) and for the other relatives the tradition is that we recite the Kaddish for thirty days, throughout the month of Shloshim. Jewishly mourning for a parent is more intense than anyone else. It is for this reason that when the ritual of kriah (the tearing of a garment or a ribbon) is fulfilled it is torn above the heart, while for everyone else the tear is on the other side. 

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