Exploring Kaddish: Some Resources and an Invitation

UPDATED 7/27 : See clarification on Aramaic and names of God below. Also see post-Siddur Study “More on Kaddish” resources and notes.

KaddishIs Kaddish — in its various forms — “prayer,” as in some combination of praise, request and/or submission to God? Or is it a recitation, more like the Shema? Is it a mystical device? Or punctuation, signaling a tone-shift in prayer services? None or all of the above? And where does “praying for the dead” figure? Explore.

Has this prayer, recited so often in Jewish services, become such a fixture that you no longer process its meaning? Were you, perhaps, taught to recite the ancient language without understanding the Aramaic words? Some creative translations and alternative readings can help break through the kaddish-trance.

Temple Micah’s lay-led Siddur Study group will be exploring the questions above and others on July 26.  Materials are here to whet the appetite and for those who cannot join us in person. No background in Hebrew or prayer is needed. No preparation required. All are welcome.

(Meetings generally begin roughly half an hour after morning services end, i.e., sometime between noon and 12:30 p.m. in the summertime.)

Join Siddur Study at Temple Micah in person, July 26.
If you’re not in our physical neighborhood,

join us virtually by posting comments or questions here.

Some Kaddish Basics


Kaddish [“sanctify”] seeks to sanctify “his” name. Many translations speak of sanctifying “God’s name,” perhaps in an attempt to avoid gendering God — like Hebrew, Aramaic has no neuter, only masculine and feminine language — but the Aramaic does not include any word for “God” or name of God.

UPDATE: “The Aramaic” was short-hand for “The Aramaic words of the kaddish.” It was not intended to say that Aramaic, as a language, or as used by the Rabbis more generally, does not have names for God. Apologies for being unclear. And thanks to one participant in Siddur Study who read it this way and shared a fascinating suggestion about “sh’mei raba,” usually translated as “his great name.” See “Aramaic, Arabic and Jewish Names of God.”

resources to explore

Daniel Landes offers a succinct and helpful introductory essay, “The Puzzling Power of Kaddish,” in My People’s Prayer Book, Vol 6: Tachanun and Concluding Prayers (Jewish Lights, 2002. pp. 24ff).

Landes tells us that — in addition to the burial version, recited only at graveside — there are four forms of Kaddish:

  • Kaddish d’Rabbanan (“rabbis’ kaddish,” upon completion of study);
  • Chatzi Kaddish (“half kaddish,” completing a section of prayer);
  • Kaddish Shalem (“complete kaddish,” at the close of the Amidah); and
  • Kaddish Yatom (“orphans’ kaddish,” usually rendered “mourners’ kaddish)

Landes cites some unusual qualities of Kaddish:

  1. For at least 1300 years, individuals other than the prayer leader have traditionally been offered an opportunity to lead kaddish.
  2. Regardless of where a person might be in her/his own prayers, the individual is expected to respond to kaddish.
  3. Responses to kaddish are to be “full voice,” with complete concentration.

For full discussion and citations, use the link above or visit Jewish Lights. Full ebooks and print copies are available as well as free on-line selections from this work.

For some history of the Kaddish, see Rabbi Richard Sarason’s “10 minutes of Torah” notes on Kaddish d’Rabbanan. Image above, from Mishkan T’filah, is part of the materials shared in this teaching.

additional messianic hope

Most North American rites and prayers — including those in Mishkan T’filah (URJ, 2009) and most of translations here — are based on Ashkenazi tradition. The Sephardic kaddish differs from the Ashkenazi in one line, emphasizing the role of the messiah in bringing about the Kingdom:

וְיַצְמַח פֻּרְקָנֵהּ וִיקָרֵב מְשִׁיחֵהּ.
ve-Yaẓmaḥ purkaneih ve-karev meshiḥeih
May He make His salvation closer and bring His Messiah near

This line appears in the free translation from Reb Zalman (z”l) below.


Breaking the Kaddish Trance

Here are a few additional resources meant to change perspective on the kaddish one way or another:

First, consider this teaching from Rabbi Judith Abrams, a graphic depiction of the kaddish’s “mystical ascent.” Pages 112-113 in The Other Talmud: The Yerushalmi: Unlocking the secrets of the Jerusalem Talmud for Judaism today. (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2012).

Some years ago, the Havurah Institute published Richard Heiberger’s translation. He designed the English to have the same “cadence, assonance and meaning” as the Aramaic so they can be recited in unison.

Decades earlier, Marge Piercy’s “Kaddish Poem” was included in Or Chadash (A New Light): New Paths for Shabbat Morning, the 1989 “preliminary draft edition” siddur from P’nai Or Religious Fellowship. It now appears on Aquarian Minyan’s website.

Sheri Lindner’s “Kaddish Revalued” appears on Ritual Well. Ritual Well contains many additional references relating to mourning and the kaddish.

Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi — whose memory is for a blessing and whose teachings influence so many who did not know him (28 August 1924-July 3, 2014) — shared his “kaddish, freely translated” with Open Siddur last year. This year, many students are reciting kaddish for Reb Zalman, perhaps relying on this version [with the messianic line of the Sephardic rite, as noted above]:

I pray –
that the power residing
in God’s Great Name
be increased and made sacred,
in this world
which God created freely
in order to preside in it,
[and increase its freeing power
and bring about the messianic era.]
May this happen
during your lifetime
our lifetimes,
and those of all the house of Israel.
Make this happen soon, without delay.
We express our agreement and hope
by saying *AMEN*
… (Full text here)
— Zalman Schachter-Shalomi
Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 Int’l license.

Finally, for an interesting comparison, here is an Aramaic recitation of “The Lord’s Prayer,” the Christian prayer often used by scholars in the study of kaddish, and vice versa.

If you have resources to share on the kaddish, please post them here or contact the author at songeverday at gmail.com.

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Virginia blogs on general stuff a vspatz.net and more Jewish topics at "A Song Every Day. Manages WeLuvBooks.org. CommunitythruCovid.com is on hiatus.

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