Why is Kaddish so Important?

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

Part 1

Nobody would argue that kaddish has a central place in Jewish practice today. In the minds of many, it is the centerpiece of aveilus, mourning. At any given moment in a shul, there are numerous mourners reciting this tefila, and missing this opportunity is viewed as almost sacrilegious. Would it be surprising to know that there is no Talmudic source for a mourner reciting kaddish? (It first appears in Maseches Sofrim, but only referring to the time of the burial) Kaddish also presents itself in the order of tefila, inserted by Chazal at various points, reiterated throughout tefila. In fact, it is the most often repeated of all prayers. Why? Furthermore, it happens to be that the one halachic reference to kaddish in the Talmud refers to reciting it after completing some learning of Torah (a vague reference, to be sure). What, then, is the common denominator here? How could one tefila be relevant to mourning, the order of tefila and learning Torah? We will set out to explore this important tefila over the next several articles.

The starting point for this endeavor lies in two places in the Talmud, along with some commentary by Tosafos. In Maseches Berachos (3a), we find a conversation between Eliyahu HaNavi and Rabbi Yose. Rabbi Yose had chosen to pray in one of the ruins of Yerushalayim. After some back and forth, Rabbi Yose reported hearing a Divine voice, telling him the following:

“Woe to the children, on account of whose sins I destroyed My house and burnt My temple and exiled them among the nations of the world! And he said to me: By your life and by your head! Not in this moment alone does it so exclaim, but thrice each day does it exclaim thus! And more than that, whenever the Israelites go into the synagogues and schoolhouses and respond: ‘May His great name be blessed!’(yehei shmei hagadol mevorach…)  the Holy One, blessed be He, shakes His head and says: Happy is the king who is thus praised in this house! Woe to the father who had to banish his children, and woe to the children who had to be banished from the table of their father”

This should seem like an odd story to most people. Beyond the anthropomorphic liberties being taken, how do we begin to understand this lamenting by God? And what is so important about this specific prayer? 

There is another, more well-known reference in the Talmud depicting the importance of yehei shmei rabba (Shabbos 119b):

“R. Yehoshua b. Levi said: He who responds, ‘Amen, May His great Name be blessed,’ with all his might, his decreed sentence is torn up, as it is said, When retribution was annulled in Israel, For that the people offered themselves willingly, Bless ye the Lord: why when retribution was annulled’? Because they blessed the Lord.”

This should seem to be even more troubling. What type of formula is this? What is this causal relationship? And why this specific tefila?

The fact that the Talmud isolates this particular line from kaddish indicates one important fact: the essence of kaddish, the main idea of this tefila, can be found in this one line recited by the chazzan and the congregation. What is so important about this one line?

The Aruch Hashulchan (OC 55:1), when discussing kaddish, offers us a brief history of its development. He writes how this prayer was introduced by the Anshei Kneses HaGedola soon after the destruction of the first Temple. In essence, this tefila is addressing the chillul Hashem, or desecration of God, that emerged from these devastations, including the destruction of the Temple and ravaging of Eretz Yisrael, as well as the diaspora of Jews across the world. The tefila, then, is the verbalization of our desire for the name of God to become great and powerful throughout the world. 

This serves as a much needed introduction into understanding the importance of kaddish. When we think of the terrible sequence of events involving the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash and subsequent exile, we are faced with our flaws and defects, and how these led to the dreadful yet necessary consequences. We are reminded about these flaws every day that we do not have the Redemption, the door open for repentance. However, that is Bnei Yisrael looking inwards. There is an equally important idea that was the direct result of the Temple's destruction, and this is the desecration of the name of God. But what exactly is this referring to? One idea of chillul Hashem (desecration of God's fame) is an active engagement in the defilement. For example, someone who violates Shabbos in public is engaging in chillul Hashem. But there is another concept of chillul Hashem - namely, the inability to completely sanctify God. As long as the Bais Hamikdash lies in ruin and Bnei Yisrael exiled, and as long as the redemption does not materialize, there is no mechanism that allows for a complete sanctification of His name. As the Jewish people, we play an essential role in bringing this about. Therefore, we see in this tefilah a unique request from us to God. We are not requesting any self-benefit whatsoever. We are not turning to God for our needs. We are not beseeching God to elevate ourselves. This tefila focuses our attention on the importance of sanctifying the name of God in the world, how much we desire for this result. And this can only emerge through the geula asida, the future Redemption. 

This explanation can now help us with the two ideas in the Talmud. In the first story, God laments the current state of affairs, provoked to this feeling by the recitation of yehei shmei (not literally, of course). What this could be referring to is the resulting chillul Hashem that emerged from the Temple's destruction. Bnei Yisrael had to be punished in such a manner for their straying from God. But in doing so, the ability for mankind as a whole to embrace God was now interrupted, only to be fulfilled in the times of Moshiach. The recitation of this tefila reflects the great importance we place on the chillul Hashem that exists today. God is “noting”, so to speak, this reality that emerged from the Temple's destruction. However, Bnei Yisrael’s involvement in this tefila demonstrates our understanding of this loss.  The importance of this idea is the main feature of the statement of Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi. Tosafos points out that the idea of saying this tefila with all of one’s might (koach) really means with all his intention (kavana). Does this mean one should be closing his eyes even tighter when reciting this tefila? Doubtful. Instead, what Tosafos is telling us is the need for this idea to be internalized. The importance of the inability for God to be completely sanctified in this world must be clear to us, evident in our recitation of kaddish. If this idea is truly clear to us, it can have a powerful result. One should not simply believe that kavana in kaddish means he is forgiven for all his sins; putting aside the causal absurdity of such a concept (it completely negates teshuva), what need is there then for Yom Kippur? What it could mean here is that his relationship with God changes, in so far as how man views God, provided this idea is internalized. When man is able to view the importance of God’s name being sanctified in the world at large, he is demonstrating a greater understanding of God. He sees God in a different way, and this by definition changes how he relates to God.

At this juncture, we can see how important the tefila of kaddish is. The question that we must now take up is its halachic evolution, which we will get to, bezras Hashem, next week.