Jul 13, 2008


As someone who came to Judaism later in life (i.e. in high school), I have always had a different perspective on some aspects of the liturgy. One in particular is the part of the service called the Kaddish.

The kaddish is sanctification of God's name. There are different kinds of kaddish throughout the prayer service that serve different purposes...most of which I didn't not learn about and understand for many years after I started on my Jewish path. There is Kaddish D'Rabbanan (for after studying some rabbinic text), Mourner's Kaddish (said by people in various levels of mourning), Hatzi Kaddish (used as an internal bookmark to separate parts of the service), Kaddish Shalem (used as bookend at the beginning and end of the service) and few other kind of kaddish that are used on special occasions such as ending the study of a book of Talmud or at the gravesite.

Now, all of these variations on the kaddish have a thing in common: they are in Aramaic and not in Hebrew. This means a novice Jew who is trying to learn Hebrew will still have a hard time understanding what it says.

In my early years and to this day, I always see the mourner's kaddish as different from all the others (even when my untrained ear could not hear the difference).

During the Mourner's Kaddish, those who are mourning stand up and recite the kaddish. This is often an atonal and slower recitation because unlike the person who is leading the service the one saying mourner's kaddish is not likely to feel comfortable reading prayers out loud. If there are multiple mourners in the crowd, the pace of the mourner's kaddish is lowered to the lowest common denominator. Otherwise, the slowest mourner reading would feel self-conscious about reading. I have always liked this equalizing. It shows great consideration within the community.

As a person who went to Catholic school as a kid and who was not familiar with the Jewish liturgy, I remember being totally baffled by the standing and sitting and when to do either. It was never more so than when mourner's kaddish was being said. I was used to stand as a sign of respect for mourners. But the mourner's are standing whenever the mourner's kaddish is said. Was it better to stand and honor them, or sit and let them have the distinction of being mourners? In one sense, by allowing them to stand alone, the community is being informed that those standing are in mourning...which may color in a positive way the conversations one has with those people after the service.

But what if you find yourself standing right as mourner's kaddish starts? As someone who still thinks of standing for respect, sitting down during the mourner's kaddish feels like disrespect. I am always befuddled what to do at this point.

I should note that in almost 18 years of being Jewish (well, I was born Jewish, but 18 years since I started learning about Judaism) mourner's kaddish is the part of the service that people talk the least in. Many people sneak a few words to someone else next to them during the service. (e.g. a greeting, conveying a hello from someone else, asking who they are going to vote for, do they have a place for a shabbat meal...) This does not usually apply to the mourner's kaddish. I guess people feel that God, who gets to hear kaddish multiple times every day from millions of people, will be more understanding. Those saying mourner's kaddish may be the only one saying kaddish for the loved one who passed away.

One of the things that made me fall in love with Judaism was the way in which death and mourning is treated. After all these years, I still think so.

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