by Aryeh Lebowitz
I. The Importance of Kaddish1
Very often, one who loses a close relative will make an extra effort to honor their deceased loved one. In Judaism, the honor given to the dead is most evident in the recitation of Kaddish during the period of mourning. People make great sacrifices in order to ensure that Kaddish is recited on behalf of their relative. Due to the highly sensitive emotions associated with this prayer, people tend to become very defensive of their rights and obligation to recite the Kaddish. Indeed, anecdotal evidence points to many incidents of people becoming agitated when inhibited from reciting Kaddish because they perceive it as a slight to the honor of their deceased relative. The prevalent custom in most shuls is to allow all of the mourners to recite Kaddish simultaneously in unison. In this essay we will carefully analyze the halachic viability of this practice and explore the possible reasons to reject it.
The earliest source for the mourner’s recitation of Kaddish seems to be a passage in Maseches Sofrim (19:9) where mention is made of a mourner reciting Kaddish at the very end of davening. It should be noted, though, that the common practice of a mourner reciting Kaddish only began in the Middle Ages.
The Ohr Zarua (II:50) cites an episode where a very dejected and distressed individual visited Rabbi Akiva and informed him that he has been dead for many years, but has been suffering terribly in the world to come as a result of his many sins. The man told Rabbi Akiva that he was forced to chop wood for a fire in which he himself was consumed. When Rabbi Akiva asked if there was any way to save him, the man replied that he had heard that if only he had left a son who would stand in front of a congregation and call out barchu (thereby causing the congregation to respond with “baruch Hashem ha’Mevorach etc.”) or Yisgadal v’Yiskadash (so that the people can respond “yehei shmei rabba etc.”) he would be released from punishment. The man proceeded to inform Rabbi Akiva that he had no son but had left a pregnant wife behind. The man expressed regret that even if his wife had a boy, there was nobody to teach the child. When Rabbi Akiva heard this he took it upon himself to teach the man’s child to recite barchu and Kaddish and the man was finally spared the judgment of gehinnom.
The Biur Halacha (Orach Chaim 132) extensively discusses who gets precedence to recite Kaddish for the congregation, strongly indicating that the prevalent custom was for only one person to recite Kaddish at a time. The Chasam Sofer (Responsa Yoreh Deah II:345) records that the Sephardic practice has traditionally been for all of the mourners to recite Kaddish in unison. Indeed, Rav Yaakov Emden (Siddur Yaavetz) approves of the Sephardic practice and even initiated that practice in his own minyan for the Kaddish d’Rabanan.
While allowing all of the mourners to recite every Kaddish together would seem to solve any potential disputes over who should recite any given Kaddish,2 this approach might potentially create other problems.
Normally we have a halachic rule, “trei kalli lo mishtama’i,” two voices or sounds cannot be heard at the same time. There are many applications of this rule. For instance, the Gemara (Megillah 21b) says that two people cannot read from the Torah out loud together because two voices cannot be heard. Furthermore, Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 284:5) rules that two people may not read the Maftir from the Navi simultaneously. Finally, the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (135:6) rules that multiple men should not recite Kiddush simultaneously if there are people listening who need to hear the Kiddush in order to fulfill their mitzvah. The Gemara notes, however, that there are some exceptions to the idea that one cannot hear two voices simultaneously. When the voice is saying something that is particularly beloved to the listener (e.g. Hallel, Megillah, Shofar) it is possible to listen to it even when there are two voices speaking simultaneously.[Compounding this problem is that Kaddish, at its name implies, is a davar shebikdusha (a holy prayer), which is only recited in the presence of a minyan. If two voices cannot be heard at the same time, then those reciting the Kaddish do not have minyan listening to them, and are not allowed recite the davar shbkdusha. Even if it could be argued that it is possible to focus on one voice, there could still potentially be a problem of not having a minyan listening to each person reciting Kaddish. –editor’s addition]
What emerges from this discussion is that one who is in a shul where many people are reciting Kaddish simultaneously cannot be said to have heard Kaddish at all. It would therefore seem that such a Kaddish is worthless. Obviously, such a conclusion would be a condemnation of the practice of the majority of world Jewry. It is therefore critical to try to find some justification for the common practice.
Reasons for Recitation of Kaddish
In order to analyze the propriety of any practice relating to the recitation of Kaddish it is necessary to understand the reason why mourners recite Kaddish in the first place.
The poskim mention four distinct reasons why Kaddish is customarily recited for the deceased:
- Rabbi Yechiel Michel Tukachinsky (Gesher Hachaim I:30:4) writes that the recitation is a fulfillment of the Talmudic dictum “bra m’zakei abba” (a son gives his father merit). Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg (Responsa Tzitz Eliezer XIV:13:4) explains based on the writings of the Arizal that the merit of publicly sanctifying the name of God aids the parent in accruing merit and consequently rising to higher levels in Olam Haba.
- The Chasam Sofer (Orach Chaim I:159) writes that the primary merit accrued on behalf of the deceased is not in the actual recitation of Kaddish, but in causing the congregation to respond with “Amen Ye’hei Shmei Rabba etc.” By serving as the impetus for the congregation’s recital of these special words the mourner achieves merit, which in turn reflects well on his parents in Olam Haba.
- Rabbi Waldenberg (ibid.) cites Sefer Hachaim (authored by the brother of the Maharal of Prague) who suggests a totally different purpose for the mourner’s Kaddish. Sefer Hachaim writes that most deaths can be attributed to the sin of Chilul Hashem, because Chilul Hashem is the only sin so severe that only death can atone for it. As such, when a person dies, painful as it may be, there is an element of divine justice and Kiddush Hashem. When the mourner joins in sanctifying God’s name publicly it is a form of tziduk hadin (acknowledging the righteousness of God’s judgment).
- Rabbi Tukachinsky (ibid. 30:4:1) brings a similar explanation for the mourner’s Kaddish. According to Rabbi Tukachinsky, Kaddish is a form of tziduk hadin, but is not related to any Kiddush Hashem that is caused by the death. Rather, it is a protective measure lest the mourner begin to question the ways of God and with a bitter heart think God to be unjust. In order to reaffirm and acknowledge the truth of God’s judgment, the mourner publicly sanctifies God’s name.3
Applying these Reasons
Whether or not it is necessary for a mourner to recite Kaddish alone may well depend on the reason for reciting it. If one were to assume that the purpose of Kaddish is a form of tzidduk hadin, it does not seem necessary for the mourner to have his voice heard distinctly. If the purpose is to merit the deceased by causing the congregation to say “Yehei Shmei Rabba etc.”, it would seem that the mourner should ensure that he alone is the cause of the response. In fact, the Chasam Sofer (ibid) writes that only the loudest or first person to reach the responsive sections of Kaddish would be the true cause of the congregation’s response, while all other mourners would not be accomplishing anything. Knowing this may lead to somewhat of a ‘competitive Kaddish,’ where each mourner tries to recite the prayer louder or faster than everybody else. If the response of the congregation would have been forthcoming even without the mourner’s participation it would seem that he has not accomplished anything. If, however, the purpose of the Kaddish is to merit the deceased by the public sanctification of God’s name, it may be argued that as long as people realize what the mourner is saying, even if they can’t hear every word precisely from his mouth, the goal has been accomplished. Nevertheless, it would seem that one should try to fulfill all possible elements of the recitation of Kaddish, which, based on our analysis, can only be done if recited alone.
II. Reasons for Leniency
Perhaps Kaddish is Considered “Beloved”
As we have previously noted, the Gemara assumes that two voices may be heard simultaneously if the subject matter is “beloved.” It would therefore seem that if we can definitively mark Kaddish as a “beloved” prayer, it shouldn’t make a difference how many people recite it simultaneously, as the congregation can hear the prayer just the same.
The Gemara (Berachos 3a) records an episode where Eliyahu Hanavi informed R’ Yosi that whenever the Jewish people recite “Yehei Shmei Rabba etc.” God expresses regret for the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash and comments on how fortunate a king would be if He were praised in his home (Beis Hamikdash) in this way. Tosafos (ad. loc. sv v’onin yehei) relates a commonly held belief that we recite Kaddish in Aramaic in order that the angels should not understand the prayer (see Shabbos 12b) and become jealous of us for saying such a beautiful and wonderful prayer. This explanation clearly affirms that Kaddish is unique among prayers, and accordingly it might very well be labeled a “beloved prayer.”
Although Tosafos rejects this explanation for the recitation of Kaddish in Aramaic, they too maintain that Kaddish has a unique status, especially in light of the passage in Maseches Sotah (49a) that attributes the continued existence of the world to the recitation of Yehei Shmei Rabba.
But perhaps it can be argued the status of “beloved” relates to how people commonly view the thing recited rather than its halachic significance. While Kaddish may be a very significant prayer, and even beloved to God and the angels, an informal survey of contemporary shuls will likely reveal that most Jews don’t share this enthusiasm for Kaddish. In fact, the Gemara (Berachos 2b) assumes that one is less likely to neglect reading the Megillah than he is to neglect reciting Shema, because Megillah is more beloved, even though Shema is a biblical commandment and is the more halachically important of the two. Apparently, the definition of “beloved” depends more on the endearment of the prayer to the masses than the true worth of the prayer in heaven. If people don’t demonstrate a love for Kaddish, they will not be motivated to listen carefully enough to hear Kaddish when multiple people are saying it simultaneously.
Does being “beloved” necessarily help?
The Rishonim debate why we may assume one is capable of hearing two voices simultaneously when the subject matter is beloved. The Meiri (Megillah 21b) writes that when the subject matter is precious to us we are able to focus so intently that we can actually hear both voices even as they come simultaneously. If this explanation is correct, there is no reason to assume that the same should not hold true for hearing two people reciting Kaddish. The Ritva (Rosh HaShana 34b), however, maintains that when the subject matter is of particular interest to us we focus more intently on the shaliach tzibbur, whose voice we are supposed to hear, and are more capable of blocking out other voices that may be interfering. If this is true, it may be argued that when mourners recite Kaddish, the absence of a clear leader, or single person whose Kaddish we are trying intently to hear, leaves us unable to hear any Kaddish at all regardless of the beloved nature of the subject matter.
Interestingly, Rabbi Yaakov Ettlinger (Responsa Binyan Tziyon 122) explains that, while he can’t be certain what the Sephardic practice of allowing large groups to recite Kaddish together is based on, he posits that it may relate to a fundamental variance in the general style of prayer between Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews. The Gemara states that with beloved subject matter two voices can be heard because the listener pays careful attention. Rabbi Ettlinger suggests that whenever there is a reason to believe that the listener is paying careful attention, regardless of the subject matter, he may hear the voice clearly. Sephardim have the practice of reciting their entire prayer service out loud and in unison. Nobody goes any faster or slower that the shaliach tzibbur. As such, they do not have a problem hearing one voice over the other since each word is pronounced at the same time by all those reciting Kaddish. Ashkenazim on the other hand, writes Rabbi Ettlinger, don’t pray together with the shaliach tzibur, and when it comes time to recite Kaddish each person says it as his own pace and not together with everybody else. That is why the traditional Ashkenazic practice had been, and so remains in the German Jewish community, to only allow one person to say Kaddish at a time.[In a similar vein, Tzitz Eliezer (ibid.) quotes the will of Rabbi Naphtali Amsterdam, who ordered his sons not to say Kaddish for him if they will need to recite it at the same time as others mourners, since doing so is improper. The only exception he allowed is if they recite it word for word together with the others. Rabbi Amsterdam writes that the problem of two voices is only when they are not in sync with each other, but if the two voices are completely in sync there is no problem.–editor’s addition] [In regards to the problem of davar shebikdusha, many poskim write that the obligation is that the Kaddish be recited in the presence of a minyan and that a minyan answer amen. Therefore, if the Kaddish is recited in unison with the other mourners, there is no problem if there are not ten people that listening specifically to each individual mourner’s Kaddish. –editor’s addition]
Even assuming that two voices cannot be heard simultaneously, it may be argued that Kaddish may be recited by a group of people together. Unlike the examples provided in the Gemara (Shofar, Megillah etc.), there is no formal requirement to hear Kaddish. The requirement is to answer to a Kaddish that is being recited. One may argue that it is similar to a beracha, where as long as you know that the person is reciting the beracha, even if you can’t hear exactly what he is saying, you should respond with an amen. This is evident from the report of the Gemara Sukkah (51b), that in the large synagogue in Alexandria where the congregation was too large to hear the shaliach tzibbur, they would wave flags to signal when it was time to answer amen. Apparently it was unnecessary to hear the blessing at all in order to respond to it. One can reasonably suggest that when multiple people recite Kaddish we can certainly respond at the appropriate times.
There are sources, however, that indicate a requirement to actually hear the words of Kaddish. The Beis Yosef (Orach Chaim 56) writes that the listener is required to hear the entire Kaddish until its conclusion. The Magen Avraham (Orach Chaim 56:9) adds that we limit the length of the response of the congregation in order to ensure that they will be able to listen to the entire Kaddish.
Change in Practice and Reaction
As noted earlier, Rav Yaakov Emden suggested that we follow the Sephardic practice of having all of the mourners recite Kaddish together, but was met with significant criticism from the Chasam Sofer. The Chasam Sofer argues that we cannot change ancient Ashkenazic practice, and suggesting such a simple solution would imply that the extensive discussions in earlier sources relating to who has precedence in reciting Kaddish were all misguided – a charge not easily leveled against the Torah giants of previous centuries. Similarly, Rav Yaakov Etlinger (ibid) was asked about a community in which many shuls with different customs had merged. The rabbi of the combined shul decided that in order to preserve peace, all of the mourners would be permitted to recite Kaddish together. Quite proud of his idea, the rabbi presented it to Rabbi Ettlinger. Rabbi Ettlinger’s reaction was fierce: “How can you consider changing a custom that has been observed in all Ashkenazic countries for more than 300 years and claim it is a ‘great and appropriate’ idea?! You are following closely on the heels of the revolutionary thinkers of our time who have changed various customs relating to tefillah!”
As noted previously, in contemporary shuls it is very common for all of the mourners to recite Kaddish simultaneously. This is clearly not the traditional Ashkenazic practice and it is not entirely clear when the practice changed. While contemporary poskim do not demand reverting back to the ancient practice,4 they do remain sensitive to the concern of not being able to hear two voices simultaneously. Rav Moshe Shternbuch (Responsa Teshuvos V’hanhagos Orach Chaim II:42) writes that when multiple people are saying Kaddish in a single shul, they should gather at a central location in the shul so that they can be sure to say the words together without any variance in pace, thereby ensuring that the listener will be able to make out each word. On the other hand, Responsa Mishnah Sachir suggests that it is best to spread the mourners throughout the shul. By spreading them out, those standing in each section will be able to hear the individual voice of the person reciting Kaddish in their section of the shul, thus ensuring that each mourner’s voice is not drowned out by the voices of the other mourners.
While some customs are difficult to justify from an academic or historical perspective, it is evident that the custom of all mourners reciting Kaddish has gained a strong footing in many communities and cannot easily be changed. The likely reason for the development of this practice is in the interest of preserving a sense of peace in the community, certainly a noble goal. It has also been suggested that in large communities that had only one big shul, many situations arose in which a rotation would have left many mourners without the ability to recite Kaddish at all during their entire year of mourning. This was particularly difficult in places where most of the congregation was unable to go to shul during the week and consequently had fewer chances for saying Kaddish (see Responsa Mateh Levi II:3). While we may not be able to alter long held communal customs and ask for other mourners to refrain from reciting Kaddish when one person is already reciting it, we can certainly make every effort to limit other distractions, such as needless talk and the like, during the mourners’ recitation of Kaddish.
Most of the sources and structure of this essay are based on a chapter in R. Ari Wasserman’s Hegyonei Haparashah. ↩
Indeed, Rav Yaakov Emden in his commentary to the siddur maintains that the ideal would be to adopt the Sephardic practice of having all of the mourners recite Kaddish together. In fact, Rav Emden writes that he sees no reason to bother expounding the laws of precedence in reciting Kaddish because the entire matter should be irrelevant if everybody says Kaddish together. See Responsa Chasam Sofer, Orach Chaim I:159 who vehemently disagrees with Rav Emden, and argues that it is rather audacious to suggest that extensive discussions of Rishonim about this halacha are unnecessary. ↩
Regardless of the reason suggested, it seems strange that some mourners should have precedence over others. After all, if the purpose is to either accrue merit for the deceased or acknowledge the righteousness of God’s judgment, why should a mourner still in shloshim gain precedence over a mourner in the year of mourning. Chasam Sofer (Orach Chaim I:159 and Yoreh Deah II:345) suggests that all shul issues follow the rules of partnerships. It is understood that the mourner in the year of mourning forgoes his own right in favor of the more recent mourner, because as an equal partner he would want to ensure that when his children are mourning him, they will be guaranteed the opportunity to say Kaddish in the early stages. ↩
See, for example, Responsa Tzitz Eliezer IX:16:4 who says that in order to preserve the peace it is worthwhile to allow everybody to recite Kaddish. ↩