Where did the Kaddish prayer come from and how did it get to what we have today? In a sweeping essay, the final chapter of his highly accessible academic study of prayer Why We Pray What We Pray: The Remarkable History of Jewish Prayer, R. Barry Freundel takes readers through the origins and developments of Kaddish. He studied prayer for his doctorate and in this book he explores the history of six different prayers — Shema, Nishmas, Birkas Ha-Chodesh, Anim Zemiros, Aleinu and Kaddish.
Today we have many different versions of Kaddish — Full Kaddish, Half, Tiskabel, Mourners’, Rabbis’, Graveside and Siyyum (at the conclusion of studying a tractate). And that is all within one “nusach“, edition. The Kaddish text varies among the different nuscha’os. Originally, though, there was just one Kaddish. Based on Midrash Mishlei (on Prov. 14:28) and Sotah 49a), R. Freundel argues that “Kaddish began as a prayer said after a study session.” He dates the initial use of a complete prayer to the Hadrianic persecutions of the second century CE, when Torah study was forbidden by law, Aramaic was commonly spoken, and a messianic redemption was urgently awaited. It seems, therefore, that the Rabbis’ Kaddish, or maybe the Siyyum Kaddish, is the oldest form of the prayer.
Masekhes Soferim (21:5-6) indicates that Kaddish first appeared in prayer services as a conclusion to the Torah reading. It also mentions (10:6, 18:10) Kaddish as the final prayer of the service. Over time, Kaddish began appearing in abbreviated form (Full or Half Kaddish) at the end of sections within the prayer service. Kaddish Tiskabel comes after a section of services containing the Amidah, Full Kaddish at the end of a different section, and Half Kaddish after an Amidah when there are intervening passages before the end of a section. According to R. Freundel, these are all abbreviations of the longer, earlier Kaddish.
Kaddish at a funeral was originally intended for the Torah words of the eulogy or “tziduk ha-din” prayer (Teshuvos Ha-Geonim Coronal, no. 94). A remnant of this origin is reflected in the practice of saying only a Full Kaddish and not a Graveside Kaddish on festive days when eulogies are not given and “tziduk ha-din” is not recited.
At some point, Kaddish transitioned in popular perception to a mourner’s prayer. Masekhes Soferim (19:9) tells of the chazan in Jerusalem who, after the prayer services on Shabbos, would bless mourners and recite a slightly abridged Kaddish to console them. Rambam mentions Kaddish nearly forty times in his Mishneh Torah but never states that a mourner leads it. However, a midrash from the Heikhalos literature (in Eisenstein’s Otzar Ha-Midrashim, p. 84) states that when sinners in Gehenom respond to Kaddish, they are allowed entry to Gan Eden.
This idea found its way into Medieval literature in the late 12th century. Rokei’ach (Commentary on Prayer, no. 77) explains that when a child recites “Barekhu” or Kaddish, he saves his parent from punishment in the Afterlife. This idea is repeated in later works and reflects the introduction of the Mourners’ Kaddish.
Even the Rabbis’ Kaddish is frequently associated with mourners, recited only by a mourner or one who has been one. The Pischei Teshuvah (Yoreh De’ah 376:4), writing in the 19th century, finds a need to state that anyone may recite the Rabbis’ Kaddish. Yet common practice today is to reserve it for mourners.
R. Freundel directs readers interested in a history from where he leaves off, in the 12th century, through the 16th century to R. Ovadiah Yosef’s Yechaveh Da’as 5:59). What R. Freundel shows is how the mystical and eschatological language of a time of persecution is later found meaningful to mourners, leading to a change in function and practice in the Kaddish prayer.[Note that this proposed development of the Mourners’ Kaddish is not religiously radical. See, for example, Mishnah Berurah 132:9 in the name of the Levush.]