Kaddish for a Teenaged Child

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

4 Shevat: Tzitz Eliezer on Saying Kaddish for a Teenaged Child

Seemingly insensitive questions can lead to illuminating Torah nonetheless. On 4 Shevat 5756 (1996), Tzitz Eliezer 22;17 answered a man who objected to a father saying kaddish for his deceased teenager. Our instinct (or, maybe, my instinct; I don’t want to project my limitations onto you) might be to brush off the question. R. Waldenberg instead enlightens us about more than kaddish.

The questioner offered two sources to back up his claim there was no room for a father’s kaddish for a son. Sanhedrin 104a asserts the Mishnah excluded Amon, an evil king of Judea, off its list of Jews who lost their share in the World to Come to avoid dishonoring his son, the righteous king Yoshiyahu.  To explain why the Mishnah does list the evil Menasseh, who had a righteous father, Chizkiyahu, the Talmud say a son can help a father, not the other way around. 

With kaddish alsothen, a father should not be able to help his son.

Second, Yerushalmi Bikkurim 2;1 says the Heavenly Court does not punish those under twenty [notice the Talmud seems to have a sense of adolescence, seems to accept teenagers are not yet fully formed and therefore not fully responsible for their actions; I feel like people in our times claim this awareness to be new or relatively recent, which our Yerushalmi contradicts]. If the departed young man will not be judged for any of his actions, why say kaddish at all?

[Both sources assume, as will more we will see below, kaddish is purely for the benefit of the deceased. Many people today see kaddish as a personal right, part of their mourning process. This responsum does not treat kaddish that way.

In addition, the entire discussion assumes all people who pass away will be found somewhat wanting when they stand before the Heavenly Court.  I stress this because people I know ignore or deny what it says about the essential nature of kaddish. Were we to honestly confront tradition’s certainty just about all people are found wanting when they enter the World of Truth.  I think we would approach our lives differently than many of us currently do, approaching it with the confidence we are largely doing well, generally living as we should.]

First Do No Harm

Tzitz Eliezer knows Noda Bi-Yehuda Tanina Orach Hayyim 8, on the same question. Noda Bi-Yehuda had not heard of a father reciting kaddish for a child, but had no problem with it, as long as the father did not displace a child reciting kaddish for a parent [in the late eighteenth century, the original custom of limiting kaddish to one person at a time still reigned.]

Shvut Ya’akov had taken the same position a generation and a half earlier, with two important additions. First, he proposed the father say kaddish only during the additional three recitations after Aleinu [he does not specify the three; the Ashkenazic liturgy today has only two, one after Aleinu, one after the shir shel yom, the psalm of the day].

In Shvut Ya’akov’s case, however, the deceased’s daughter had been gathering a minyan in her home to say kaddish herself.  Since a child was already saying kaddish (and Shvut Ya’akov registers no objection to a woman doing so), he had less concern about the father of the deceased also getting the opportunity.

When Fathers Can Help Their Deceased Children

Shvut Yaakov directly addresses our questionable text in Sanhedrin. In his view, the Gemara’s idea of a father’s inability to help his son means only when the son has committed transgressions serious and significant enough to lose his share in the World to Come.

[Neither Shvut Yaakov nor Tzitz Eliezer enlighten us as to why that would be true; the idea I offer here is my own speculation. In ordinary kaddish, surviving relatives look to help atone for the deceased by showing s/he impacted them enough to create sanctifications of Hashem’s Name, including a father who has lost a child. In the sad circumstance of a child sinning to the extent of losing his/her share in the World to Come, I believe Shvut Ya’akov was saying that line of the parent’s has been cut off, ended, leaving no room for the parent to atone—it is as if the parent never had this child. Where a parent has sinned so greatly as to lose his/her share in the World to Come, on the other hand, the surviving righteous child clearly still exists, and his/her kaddish shows the lost parent had somewhat of a positive impact on the world as well. Where the person him/herself threw away the World to Come, the person is completely lost to the parent, where the child necessarily continues his/her legacy, building and continuing whatever positive there was.]

The Power of Prayer

A discussion in Sotah 10b seems to go a step further, Tzitz Eliezer tells us.  The Talmud questioned why David ha-Melech repeated “beni, my son” eight times after hearing Avshalom had been killed.  The Talmud says the first seven elevated him out of the seven levels of Gehinnom, purgatory, and the eighth, in one opinion, brought him to the World to Come.

Tosafot there questions how that could be, based on the rule in Sanhedrin we are discussing, fathers cannot provide merits for their sons.  Among its answers, Tosafot says the Talmud only denied the father’s ability to help a son where the father chose not to, or we did not know the father’s wishes.  If a father chooses to pray for the son’s betterment, Tosafot thinks Sotah shows it, too, would be effective.

Tosafot, too, opens room for a parental kaddish, although not in competition with someone with more of a right.

Why Hizkiyahu Almost Died Before His Time

As for the claim about people under twenty not being judged by the Heavenly Court (rending kaddish unnecessary), Noda Bi-Yehuda answered with a phrase mori ve-rabi R. Lichtenstein zt”l quoted often, be-hadei kavshei de-Rahmana lama lach (in the suppressed matters of the Merciful One, why are you there?).

[To understand the answer, we have to digress to a conversation the Gemara envisions between Yeshayahu and Chizkiyahu. Berachot 10b thinks Yeshayahu and Chizkiyahu, prophet and king, each refused to go to the other to consult during Sancheriv’s siege of Jerusalem. To force the issue, Hashem struck the king with a life-threatening illness, and sent the prophet to visit him.

Yeshayahu tells the king he is going to die (not the usual bedside manner for a sickroom visit), because he had refused to have children. Chizkiyahu protests he had refrained because he knew they would turn out evil (as they did).  Yeshayahu responds: Behadei kavshei de-Rahmana lama lach, what right do you have to interfere in Hashem’s matters?  Chizkiyahu was right about the future, and yet had no right to try to avert it when a mitzvah obligated him to act otherwise.]

When Noda Bi-Yehuda invokes the phrase, I think he was saying we, too, may not question how kaddish works, may not decide which relatives can be effective in atoning for the deceased and which not. Interestingly to me, he said so despite kaddish being a post-Talmudic innovation; in his view, seemingly, once Jewish tradition decided kaddish was effective, we cannot question when or how it works, must see it as part of how Hashem judges the course of the world.

For all Noda Bi-Yehuda says we may not apply our own logic to such situations, Tzitz Eliezer later cites Sdei Hemed, who knows of no opinions which required kaddish for a child who passed away too young to have any awareness of the world—such a child clearly has no sins, leaving no reason to say kaddish.

I find one of Noda Bi-Yehudah’s proofs particularly fascinating. He says the idea of no kaddish for people under twenty would lead us to deny the right to say kaddish to a five or six year old child of a deceased nineteen year old. A conclusion he finds patently ridiculous.

First, do the math on how old this parent would have been when he fathered the child, a circumstance Noda Bi-Yehudah assumes as common enough to be an issue. Second, Noda Bi-Yehuda also assumes—despite his earlier comment about only one person in a shul reciting kaddish—the five year old would have the same rights as any other bereaved orphan.

Teenagers Aren’t Really Free of Culpability for Their Actions

Tzitz Eliezer now refutes the whole idea we are free of liability for our sins until twenty. He cites a slew of authors who dismiss the Yerushalmi as aggadah, a text whose value does not lie in its literal meaning. Noda Bi-Yehuda had made the point particularly emphatically, expressing astonishment at the possibility life would be a law-free zone for teenagers, who could kill and fornicate and all other abominable acts, without any Heavenly response. 

Noda Bi-Yehudah instead suggests the Yerushalmi only meant the Heavenly Court would not avenge those transgressions in the sinner’s lifetime, but our final judgment includes all the sins we committed from the time we understood what we were doing (even from before Bar or Bat Mitzvah).  Alternatively or additionally, he points out sin blocks and reduces our reward for our good deeds, a result of the contaminating nature of sin.  Whether or not we are punished for sin, it affects who we are, which can justify saying kaddish for its mitigation. 

Which is how Tzitz Eliezer closes, this father can certainly say kaddish for his son, and we can all pray for a time when such tragedies no longer occur.

About Gidon Rothstein

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