Today marks the last day I am saying Kaddish for my in-laws, who passed away 21 days apart. I have been doing so for the past 12 months. Kaddish is a prayer said in Aramaic many times through the Jewish prayer services three times each day. Normally, Kaddish is said for 11 months, but due to the proximity in time that both of my wife’s parents died it has been 12 months instead of the typical 11.
These thoughts are my thoughts and not meant as a critique or advice to anyone, but a reflection on what I am thinking. Mourning is and needs to be a personal experience. No one can or should tell anyone else how to feel or how to mourn their loss. Kaddish is just one small part of it.
Over the course of these 12 months I have made an attempt to not only say Kaddish but to make an extra effort to make sure I wasn’t just fulfilling the obligation that I was instructed—which is and was to say it only once each day. In Judaism, and probably other religions, there is a distinction between rituals taken on by choice and rituals taken on out of religious obligation. When one takes a religious observance voluntarily it is instructed that the action must be done with all of their heart because it is a choice and not something forced upon the individual.
In Judaism, I believe we have a recipe for mourning. That recipe is as follows: When someone initially passes away, that is a time filled with trauma. It is similar to the feeling of when someone you love is rushed to the ER. The shocked family is relying on the expertise and experience of trained professionals at that time. Additionally, the closest family helps navigate the open wounds of trauma. Then there is the funeral service—the operation, if you would. The funeral is the procedure that in some cases provides the first step toward closure for some. It is the realization and visualization that the person is not coming back. After this procedure there is the immediate process of the initial healing. I liken this to when one receives stitches. These stitches stay in for a prescribed period of time before being removed, and the wound is generally cleaned and dressed; so too in mourning. The wounds are still painful, but the visitors are the bandages and the stitches that work in the process of suturing the wound. Then we have the 30-day period that follows. During the initial days after a medical procedure you usually have one or more follow-up visits to help ensure that you are on the path to recovery. So too in the recipe for mourning. During the initial 30 days the wounds hurt and have not yet started to recover. Following the 30-day period comes the 11 months of Kaddish, and in my case, due to the circumstances, 12. There are reasons given why we normally practice the ritual for 11 months, and not a full year, as we do for the rest of mourning rituals, but I feel that this is also done in part to internalize the recipe for mourning. In this recipe, the 11 months is the period after a procedure that the doctor will be monitoring the wounds and scars to ensure they are healing properly. The 11 months is the period that a mourner is focused on mourning. The 12th month is when the doctor and patient start to become focused on the future to ensure that the patient has “completely healed.” While one never completely heals from losing a loved one, in the 12th month the mourner realizes they will always have a scar and that scar will never go away, but it is a scar that serves a purpose. It is a reminder of the memory of the trauma of loss. The final month is unconditionally for the living survivor.
I have had a few conversations with a few people, one person in particular on a few occasions, about Kaddish, as I have pondered the question as to whether the purpose of Kaddish is for the living or the deceased.
If you believe that Kaddish is to benefit the souls of the departed, then I chose to take on this responsibility with all my heart to help the souls as often as humanly possible—because they cannot pray or live at all anymore. The saying of Kaddish on their behalf is a blessing for them, and since they can’t make any more blessings in this world, this can help them. I am aware of the teachings of our rabbis who say one time, once a day, and maybe that when it comes to helping one’s soul, that is the recipe, and adding more has no effect. However, if given the chance to have mulligan after mulligan every day, to have a chance to repeat the Kaddish many times affords the person saying Kaddish the opportunity to say it with the utmost kavanah, with a full heart and mind, focused on its purpose of elevating the souls of the departed. Additionally, the Kaddish prayer is a sanctification of God’s name, with the same holiness and meaning as Kedusha, which is held in the highest level of importance in our prayer services. The opportunity to lead and say those words multiple times a day should not be overlooked.
If you believe that Kaddish is for the living and serves to be part of the recipe I spoke about above, then I took this responsibility to try to aid my wife’s healing and the healing of her family. As I said above, this is not to say I should or would be critical of anyone’s choices in the same circumstances. Every person’s relationship in a marriage and partnership is different and should be. There are many times and ways to try to be there for your spouse, and I hope that my taking on this responsibility voluntarily helped a tiny bit.
By Jay Goldberg
Jay Goldberg is the volunteer director of food service and catering at Ohr Torah in West Orange, as well as VP of software development at Veritext. He has been married to Debbie Goldberg for 29 years and they have four children.