As we proceed through the Shaḥrit service we arrive at a curious junction. Having just finished reading T’hillim 30 and just before we start the exhilarating and joyous songfest called P’sukei d’Zimrah – we recite Kaddish Yatom, commonly known as Mourners’ Kaddish. It feels awkward to pause our celebration in order to provide our grieving congregants an opportunity to mourn the loss of their close relatives. Yet here we are.
The relatives deemed as close (mother, father, spouse, son, daughter, brother, unmarried sister) are found in Vayikra (Leviticus) 21. As with all kaddish prayers Kaddish Yatom is recited only when a minyan (10 men) is present. Others may “join” in saying Kaddish Yatom but mourners alone stand during the recitation. This strict list seems harsh and the rules a bit insensitive to 21st century Western culture. After all, don’t all of us have a special someone not on that list? Aren’t we all family? Don’t we all share in each other’s sorrows?
The Judaic perspective on mourning is one of “compassionate boundaries.” Those standing have suffered the loss of a close relative. They will remain vigilant in their obligation to recite kaddish long after well-intentioned acquaintances lose interest. By remaining seated while mourners stand, the community shows respect for the unique personal sorrow of the bereaved.
The requirement of a minyan offers an opportunity for us to love our neighbors as ourselves; we contribute to the ability of others to say kaddish through our steadfast attendance of services. It is a strong community when members show compassion toward one another through the thoughtful devotion of helping make the minyan in case any are in mourning.
Kaddish Yatom includes the following additional verbiage:
May there be great peace from heaven and life for us and all Israel – and say: Amen.
May He who makes peace in His high places make peace for us and all Israel – and say: Amen.
Notice that the Mourners’ Kaddish does not mention death while shalom (peace) is mentioned three times. The word “shalom” is often misunderstood; rather than describing a lack of pain or conflict, the Judaic concept of “shalom” is the rectification of opposites, a dynamic tension resulting in an equilibrium we perceive without comprehending – “the peace of G-d which passeth all understanding” [Phillipians 4:7].
To quote an unknown author, “It takes sadness to know happiness, noise to appreciate silence, and absence to value presence.” This is a poignant depiction of shalom, the bittersweet mix of conflicting emotions we experience when a loved one passes away. We grieve because we love. The initial collision of emotions transforms over time as the veritable tsunami of grief gradually gives way over the years to occasional waves of sadness.
Eventually we have a mix of fond recollections and pleasant memories infused with a measure of sadness which never ends – and for that we are grateful. Death is part of life. Death is natural and expected, part of our nefesh experience; brought to mind every time a man dons his kittel.
We are beckoned to celebrate life while conceding that our own days are numbered. Far beyond mere poetic verse, Kaddish Yatom reminds us to examine our lives so we honor our departed loved ones through the words and actions we choose each day. It provokes us to live our lives so that one day our close relatives will desire to honor us.
Few people go their entire lives without experiencing the death of a close relative; such loss is practically inevitable. As we hear others recite Kaddish Yatom during services we realize that we will one day stand to say Kaddish Yatom for members of our own family. May this remind us to cherish the years, the days, the moments we still have with our loved ones, ever in praise to our G-d, “O King, who brings death and gives life, and makes salvation grow.”