Kaddish For A Gentile

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Kaddish has attained an important status among contemporary Jews as the prayer for the deceased, the uniquely Jewish way of sending off a loved one. It is not only a religious ritual but a cultural symbol, a communal act of commemoration and honor. Can we share that special prayer with those outside our faith community? Does it lose its special quality if we fail to reserve it for those with whom we share our faith?

The primary such case would be that of a convert to Judaism. When his gentile birth-father dies, may a convert recite kaddish for him? This is hardly the only case. Many Jews only know how to mourn with the traditional Jewish rituals. When a close gentile friend passes away, what can such a Jew do to express his loss? Kaddish is the natural outlet.

R. Ovadiah Yosef (Yechaveh Da’as 6:60) quotes two sources that are relevant to this question. Maharik (Responsa, no. 44) rules that you may say kaddish for a non-relative because the prayer is meaningful regardless of whom recites it. However, regarding gentiles, the Sefer Chasidim (790) says two seemingly contradictory things. On the one hand, he writes that you may pray for a gentile who helped you, basing himself on the Yerushalmi (Megillah 3:7) that when you mention Charvona, you should bless his memory. However, Sefer Chasidim also states that a convert’s prayers for his parents will not help.

R. Yosef quotes R. Aharon Walkin (Zekan Aharon 2:87) who rules that, in theory, a Jew may recite kaddish for a gentile. However, in practice this might cause confusion and should be avoided.

R. Yosef suggests that this concern was only relevant in a place where only one person said kaddish at a time. Now, when in most synagogues multiple recite kaddish simultaneously, you may say kaddish for a gentile without worry. Earlier in his responsum, when addressing the issue of praying for a sick gentile, R. Yosef dismisses the concern that the particular sick individual may be classified as an idolator. Say your prayers, R. Yosef rules, and let God decide whether to listen.

The same sentiment seems evident in his discussion of kaddish. It does not matter whether the deceased was Jewish or gentile, righteous or wicked. Say kaddish and let God decide how to respond.

R. Ya’akov Ariel (Be-Ohalah Shel Torah 1:60) offers what I believe is a profound suggestion resulting in a reasonable compromise. He points out that the biblical source for the kaddish refers directly to gentiles: “Thus I will magnify Myself and sanctify Myself, and I will make Myself known in the eyes of many nations; and they shall know that I am the Lord” (Eze. 38:29). The theme of this source reminds us not only of kaddish but also of another prayer.

The core prayers speak as a community: help us, heal us, redeem us. While individually we may be unworthy, as a group we deserve divine assistance. However, at the end of the service we move beyond our prayer community and pray for the world at large to recognize and worship the one true God.

This prayer, Aleinu, is a universal turn in the prayer services. R. Ariel proposes that kaddish be recited for a gentile specifically after Aleinu, both so the person not appear as an orphan and for a universal reason. As we pray for all people in the world, we add a special prayer for the gentiles we wish to honor.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.


  1. It should be clear (and perhaps is in the teshuva of Rav Ovadiah that you are quoting) that Sefer Chasidim is not speaking about the Kaddish. I’m not sure that there needs be a necessary connection between reciting kaddish and ‘praying for a person’.

  2. Very nice. To aniboker’s point, the story about the gentile is translated toward the bottom of p. 205 into p. 206 at http://tinyurl.com/ctulzop

  3. can you explain what you/R ariel mean by “so the person not appear as an orphan”?

  4. aniboker: True that Sefer Chasidim is not speaking about Kaddish. But it seems to me (and to R. Ovadiah Yosef) like a very logical extension.

    Emma: The general practice is not to say Kaddish if both your parents are still alive so people don’t think one of your parents died.

  5. in 1905 1,100 american and british jews send a memorial address to clara hay pledging to recite kadish every yom kippur in memory of her husband sec of state john hay (he had spoken out vigorously after progroms

  6. strange that the sefer chasidim gives no reason why the ger’s prayers wouldn’t work – maybe he doesn’t think any would, it’s just you’re allowed or,imho more likely, based on kaddish that really (flack jacket on ) only a child’s kaddish is special for the afterlife impact(see original r’ akiva story) and a ger is no longer halachically the child.

  7. Interesting piece. IIRC, R. HS said in a recent lecture that he opposes the practice of non-lineal descendants (like nephews or friends) saying kaddish. I wonder how RHS would rule on this question. Kaddish for a gentile father which, assuming you accept that prayer and kaddish are the same, is frowned on by the Sefer Chasidim, even though a lineal descendant, and kaddish for a gentile acquaintance which seems to be OK according to the sources cited above.

  8. R’ Steve,
    IIRC he said it wasn’t of real value, not that he opposed it.

  9. “The general practice is not to say Kaddish if both your parents are still alive so people don’t think one of your parents died.”

    right, but i thought one of the primary categories of ppl this post is about is a person who wants to say kaddish for a non-jewish parent. Or did that line refer only to saying kaddish for a non-parent gentile?

  10. it wasn’t of real value

    vs. “Say your prayers, R. Yosef rules, and let God decide whether to listen.”

  11. My father was at YU in the 1950’s when his uncle passed away leaving his sister (my father’s mother) as his only surviving relative. My father said kaddish for the year and continues to do so on the yahrtzeit. He recalls that his rebbeim (probably R’ David Lifshitz and maybe even the Rav) weren’t happy with his specifically because both his parents were alive, but he did it anyway. (I imagine his mother asked him to and his father was fine with it as well.)

    Incidentally, my father’s parents were Galitzianers and he got many of his hanhagot from the Spinker-Ulemer Rebbe who was his neighbor. (It’s my mother’s side that’s the Litvaks.)

  12. I said kaddish for my grandmother when she passed away and continue to do it on her yahrtzeit. She asked me to before she died and my parents gave me permission. The Rema says it is allowed.

  13. r’gil,
    R’HS would say “it gives people the heebie jeebies”

  14. Regarding Kaddish said by a ger for his/her non-Jewish parents

    The Rambam in Hilchos Avel 2:3 says that a Ger is not obligated to mourn for either of his parents. This is so because someone who is a Ger is considered as if he is reborn, and therefore has no Halachic relationship to his parents (Yevamos 22a; Bava Kamma 88a). The Beis Yosef (Yoreh De’ah 374) quotes the Mordechai in the name of the Ri that a convert must mourn for his mother, but the Rema in Shulchan Aruch Yoreh De’ah 374:5 explicitly disagrees with this view.


  15. issacson — The history of Kaddish Yatom is to some extent independent of Avelut as such. The starting off point for what became Kaddish Yatom, in my view, is Sanhedrin 104a with a big jump in the Machzor Vitri midrash http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=33694&st=&pgnum=178 (starts on the previous page).

  16. r’ isaacson,
    that coheres with my earlier comment-note obligated vs. does it have value issue.

  17. R. Joel et al.
    Correct. RHS said both that kaddish for a non-linear relative is of little value and that saying kaddish while parents are alive (I guess for a deceased grandparent) give the parents the (unnecessary) heebie jeebies. I take from this that he thought that a non-linear rerlative should not say kaddish, but for a grandparent it would be OK even if the parents are alive.

  18. See also the Riaz (mid 13th century):

    ספר אור זרוע חלק ב – הלכות שבת סימן נ

    מנהגנו בארץ כנען וכן מנהג בני רינוס לאחר שיאמרו הצבור אין כאלהינו עומד היתום ואומר קדיש אבל בצרפת ראיתי שאינם מקפידים על כך מי שיאמר קדיש אם נער יתום או נער שיש לו אב ואם וכמנהגנו מסתברא משום מעשה שהיה דמעשה בר”ע:

  19. As far as I am aware, multiple people saying Kaddish Yatom (as opposed to one designated person) is a very late minhag among Ashkenazim. I don’t have the original mareh makom in the source sheet I created a few years ago, but what I have is:

    In 1745, Rabbi Emden annotated in his Siddur on the Mourner’s Kaddish,

    “About the difference regulations of the Ashkenazim, in the matter of who takes precedence over whom in the saying of Kaddish and who defers to whom, I will not treat here, since this is entirely a matter of custom. (And how fine and fitting is the custom of Sephardim, that when there are many mourners, they all have the privilege and say it all together. In a matter that is not essential or of primary importance, dissention and the toil of extracting the finer points of law are futile).

    By 1831, the Chatam Sofer in Pressburg, now Bratisalava, endorsed the change for the Ashkenazic community that is our custom today:

    “The Sephardim have a custom that all the mourners say the Kaddish in unison; and to all of them the congregation responds. The sage Rabbi Emden wrote the custom of the Sephardim, that everyone says it together, was correct.”

    Obviously, the discussion in this post only makes sense within the context of this democratized chanting of Kaddish Yatom.

  20. also, i thought the post-aleinu kaddish _is_ a kaddish yatom, so how does saying kaddish then help someone who is not an orphan?

  21. IH: Obviously, the discussion in this post only makes sense within the context of this democratized chanting of Kaddish Yatom

    Why is that? Someone saying kaddish for a friend could be considered a low chiyuv who only says it if no one else has a chiyuv.

  22. Gil — Technically true, but unlikely when you look at the recorded Sh”ut before the democratization.

  23. You mean like the Zekan Aharon I quoted in this post?

  24. No, like:

    In the 14th Century Responsa of Rabbi Ya’akov ben Moshe Moelin in Mainz, a Rabbi asks him for his view on:
    “I have observed that in Austria no distinction is made between a resident and a visitor. They are treated equally, even the strangers who come from a distant land. But Rabbi Meir Segal instituted the custom in his community that the Kaddish is not recited except by the regulars who go there always. […] The orphan’s Kaddish belongs to the townspeople” Moelin notes “In those places where they make no distinction between residents and visitors, it may be that they made a decision to overlook the difference owing to the throng that was there. For a huge number of people were present there in the hour of wrath [refugees from pogroms] and so the townspeople made the concession”.
    Moelin was also asked who had priority when there were 3 (resident) brothers and a visitor. He replied that all 4 must cast lots against each one of them. “For the orphan’s Kaddish, a stranger has the same standing as a citizen of the town, and the poor man is like the rich man, and the child is like the adult, and the ignorant is like the learned.”

    Source: Wieseltier (and may also be in R. Freundel’s abbreviated version in Why Do We Pray What We Pray.


    Emma raises a good point. Today, Kaddish Yatom is said for spouse, siblings and (sadly) children — none of which are relevant to its stated purpose.

  25. It is not covered in R. Freundel’s Why We Pray What We Pray, but on pp. 280-281, Gil, you will find some further support for the liberal allowance you make in your post.

  26. i thought my point was that i am still trying to understand why saying kaddish after aleinu, specifically, is good b/c it helps someone “not appear as an orphan” when (1) they may well be an orphan saying kaddish for a gentile parent and (2) kaddish after aleinu is a kaddish yatom, anyway.

    re: 1, i figured out that the reasoning is perhaps intended to apply only regarding kaddish for a nonparent. still do not understand 2.

  27. Emma — apologies. I guess, then, I’m making a point tangential to your point 🙂

  28. IH: What part of that Gemara are you talking about? The story about R’ Akiva is in one of the Masechtot Ketanot- Soferim, I think.

  29. Joseph Kaplan

    ” It does not matter whether the deceased was Jewish or gentile, righteous or wicked. Say kaddish and let God decide how to respond.”

    This is one of the most sensible things I’ve read in a Jewish blog in a while.

  30. r’ nachum,
    It’s ספר אור זרוע ח”ב – הלכות שבת סימן נ

  31. guy_incognito

    Thank for this post. I am in this position where I’ve converted but my father isn’t Jewish. I’m not at the point where I need to ask a rov about this but I just assumed that I wouldn’t be able to sit shiva or say kaddish for him. I appreciate the discussion since I’ll now have some data by which to ask the question.

  32. This issue was also addressed by R’ Oshry in his Holocaust responsa (She’elot Uteshuvot Mema’amakim), where, IIRC, he permitted a group of survivors to say Kaddish in memory of a non-Jewish woman who saved their lives.

    An interesting side note: Rabbi Solomon Freehof, in his Reform responsa, deals with the issue of whether a non-Jew (in this case, an intermarried spouse who regularly attended Temple with his Jewish wife) may say Kaddish for his non-Jewish relatives. While it’s not surprising that Freehof answered affirmatively, I wonder how much of his reasoning would pass muster with an Orthodox rabbi.

  33. Nu, and my cousins sat shiva for their adopted mother. These things happen, and thank God they do.

  34. Joel: He said Sanhedrin 104a.

  35. Nachum — Was away, sorry. The key passage is:

    ומפני מה לא מנו את אחז אמר ר’ ירמיה בר אבא מפני שמוטל בין שני צדיקים בין יותם לחזקיהו רב יוסף אמר מפני שהיה לו בשת פנים מישעיהו שנאמר (ישעיהו ז, ג) ויאמר ה’ אל ישעיהו צא נא לקראת אחז אתה ושאר ישוב בנך אל קצה תעלת הברכה העליונה אל מסלת שדה כובס מאי כובס איכא דאמרי דכבשינהו לאפיה וחלף ואיכא דאמרי אוכלא דקצרי סחף ארישיה וחלף מפני מה לא מנו את אמון מפני כבודו של יאשיהו מנשה נמי לא נמני מפני כבודו של חזקיהו

    This seems to be the source for the concept that a son earns merit for a father which is the basis of saying Kaddish Yatom.

  36. Oops, cut-n-paste error missed the key following clause:

    ברא מזכי אבא אבא לא מזכי ברא דכתיב (דברים לב, לט) ואין מידי מציל אין אברהם מציל את ישמעאל אין יצחק מציל את עשו השתא דאתית להכי אחז נמי לא אימני משום כבודו של חזקיהו

  37. IH: That’s all well and good, but I don’t know why you chose this in favor of the much more explicit story, in which R’ Akiva saves a dead man from eternal torment by teaching his son to say Barchu. (That’s probably shorthand for being the shaliach tzibur, as tefilla begins with Barchu; since it ends with Kaddish Shalem, you can see how the transition may have occurred. But even without that, you’ve got children being a merit for ancestors. Of course, you can argue that Soferim is a much later source…)

  38. Nachum – I chose both. The R. Akiva midrash, which first appears in 11th century Machzor Vitri, was the second half of my comment:

    The history of Kaddish Yatom is to some extent independent of Avelut as such. The starting off point for what became Kaddish Yatom, in my view, is Sanhedrin 104a with a big jump in the Machzor Vitri midrash http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=33694&st=&pgnum=178 (starts on the previous page).

    And the Or Zarua illustrates that the midrash had taken sufficient hold by the 13th century to explain why the kahal should be makpid to davka have an orphan lead the Kaddish after Ein Keloheinu on Shabbat (Kaddish Yatom is not yet daily, it seems).

    Do you have any textual evidence of the development of our present minhag between the Bavli and Machzor Vitri? [IIRC the Masechet Sofrim reference is not to Kaddish Yatom, but to the one-time Kaddish le’Achar K’vura].

  39. MiMedinat HaYam

    1. Kitzur SA discusses the procedure of a “gabbai” assigning individual kaddishim throughout the tfillah according to various rules.

    2. when i declined saying the half kaddish at a syrian “knis” after getting a weekday shlishi (or shabbat “acharon”), i was clearly told i was offending them, and that saying this particular half kaddish (i have parents, and they happened to know about that) is a particularly great honor they were giving me.

    3. partial change of topic: why is there an insistence on someone saying the kadddish after aleinu (or shir shel yom)?

  40. R’MMHY,
    IIRC R’YBS held that this kaddish was really the concluding one of the tfila (not kaddish shalem) and thus was required. Don’t remember hearing why that conclusion was reached. Also have seen it oth ways (i.e. single one said either after aleinu or shir but not both-when I asked why the answer was usually that’s the way we always did it)

  41. MiMedinat HaYam

    joel r — thats my question — what was the “conclusion” / reason for this kaddish? or shall i say, the insistence on it? (SA / rema says after aleinu, no reason. i assume, and heard, interpret after aleinu to mean after shir, except nusach sfard.)

    and the kaddish “al yisrael” after “ketoret” is also often insisted on.

  42. MMhY/R’ Joel — It’s the evolution. Note Sefer ha’Rokeach Siman 53 (http://www.hebrewbooks.org/pagefeed/hebrewbooks_org_41285_70.pdf):

    ומתפלל מוסף בלחש מגן מחיה וקדוש תכנת שבת רצה ומודים שים שלום וחזן מתפלל מגן ומחיה נעריצך ואו’ קדושה לדור ודור תכנת רצה ומודים וברכת שלום וקדיש גומר כו’ אין כאלהינו פיטום הקטורת ועומד היתום ואו’ קדיש ויוצאין מבית הכנסת:

  43. IH: As I wrote, the Soferim reference is to Barchu, and I’m pretty certain it’s part of the same chain. Of course, while it may not be as old as the Bavli, it’s certainly older than the Machzor Vitri.

  44. MiMedinat HaYam

    IH — no reasoning given. and even complicates r joel’s mention of after when to say (what form of) kaddish. and only the yatom, not as an elective.

    2. ? נעריצך ? from the rokeach? wasnt he from worms ( = germany)

  45. Nachum — is the reference you have in mind (19:12)?


    [I yes, agreed that is part of the evolution, but quite different from Machzor Vitri — and I suspect you are conflating the two].

  46. MMhY — and some further (confusing/enlightening) info from Elbogen (p. 71):

    Since about 1300, עלינו, “It is our duty,” is named as the conclusion of the daily service. In all rites it stands at the very end; only Ashkenaz cites it as the first in the group of additions now to be mentioned, and adds to it also על כן נקוה, “Therefore we hope.”

    You will note no mention of Aleinu in the Sefer Rokeach quote above.

  47. MMhY — On נעריצך, I must confess ignorance as I have not studied the use of the kedusha variants in sufficient detail to respond. I suppose, for completeness, one should also check for printers emendations/mistakes in editions of Sefer ha’Rokeach in that regard.

  48. MiMedinat HaYam

    skip that נעריצך line.

    but the question remains — reason, not when. and we complicated the situation by bringing up the kaddish “al yisrael” (actually, thats a sfardi terminology, buts its accurate) issue.

    i know about aleinu being late rishonim addition (and yom probably too). but question of why remains. historical note: aleinu was written by yehoshua after entering israel from the west; “al kein” was written by “achan” a short while later for whatever reason he did (i wont get into that.)

  49. MiMedinat HaYam

    IH — that masechet soferim you cited is not even practiced today (different kaddish) and is interestingly, a form kept by some nusach ashkenaz after kabbalat shabbat, not after musaf as cited there.

    and no mention of aleinu after kiddush levana in 20:1-2.

    note frankfurt minhag of no aleinu when mincha is immediately followed by maariv, since “aleinu” is the conclusion of tfillah, and no conclusion of tfillah there. MP or Treasures will confirm.

  50. MiMedinat HaYam

    which probably accounts for no “aleinu” on YK, when the tfillah (supposedly) never ends till maariv.

  51. MMhY — The Masechet Soferim 19:12 cite was in reference to Nachum’s contention at 12:32am and 3:16pm. Perhaps he has another passage in mind, but I suspect he is conflating it with Machzor Vitri citation.

    Regarding the placement of Kaddish Yatom in the service, I am just observing that Sefer ha’Rokeach (about 100 years after Machzor Vitri) clearly places it at the very end of Shabbat Musaf, just as people are leaving.

    But, perhaps Masechet Soferim answers your question of why. I.e. originally, it was not said by the orphan at all — rather:

    לאחר שיגמור החזן תפלה של מוסף הולך לונע ] אחורי דלתי של
    בית הכנסת או בפני הכנסת ומוצא שם האבלים וכל קרוביו ואומר עליהם
    ברכה ואחר כך אומר קדיש ואין אומר בעלמא דעתיד לחדתא אלא על
    התלמוד ועל הדרש:

    This then evolved to an orphan saying it in shul, at the corresponding time within Beit ha’Knesset.

  52. IH, I’m all mixed up. I’m talking about the story of R’ Akiva and the dead tax-collector’s son. It seems to be in multiple sources, most of them early or relatively so, with one very late one changing “Barchu” to “Kaddish.”

  53. Tefilla used to end with Kaddish Shalem. It seems clear that orphans would lead tefilla and thus finish with that, and so Kaddish got identified with mourning. With a proliferation of orphans, perhaps during the Crusades, there was a push for more opportunities to say Kaddish (since only one person could say it at a time, as Yekkes do today), and so various things already said privately at the end of tefillah- Aleinu, etc.- were made an “official” part of tefilla, with a Kaddish following each. Or so the story goes.

  54. Nachum — the first known source for the R. Akiva/Barchu is Machzor Vitri. Review the few sources here; or, if you like, I can send you my source sheet from a Tikkun Leyl Shavuot shiur I did not on the subject a few years ago.

    If I did it again, I would add in the Masechet Soferim text which nicely shows an intermediary stage. Thank you for pushing me to find it.

  55. Before this post rolls off the screen, I want to express surprise at the lack of interest. The Hirhurim readership endlessly talks about liturgy as it relates to women and yet the mourner’s Kaddish – which dominates each of our lives a few times, 11 months at a time – seems to leave the readership mute. Why?

Leave a Reply

Subscribe to our Weekly Newsletter

The latest weekly digest is also available by clicking here.

Subscribe to our Daily Newsletter



%d bloggers like this: