After deaths of loved ones, the Jewish people have always found consolation in prayer. Through Kaddish, Yizkor, and Yahrzeits, prayers help not only to connect us to G-d, but also to elevate the souls of our deceased loved ones.
Kaddish is one of the most recognizable and universal prayers in Judaism. The rhythms and intonations are repeated in nearly every Jewish service and are recited daily across the world. Despite being an extremely holy prayer, it is not written in Hebrew, but instead Aramaic. According to Maurice Lamm in “The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning”, Kaddish was so vital to Jews that it was written in the most common language of the time, making it easily understandable.
Kaddish is an interesting choice for a mourner’s prayer because it does not mention death or the deceased. It is a prayer for the living, affirming G-d’s justice and speaking of the value of life:
“Glorified and sanctified be G-d’s great name throughout the world which He has created according to His will…May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity…May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us and for all Israel; and say amen.”
According to the Chabad article “What's the Main Point of the Kaddish?”, “The main point of the Kaddish is the congregational response: ‘May His great name be blessed forever and ever and ever.’” It restores the “radiance” of G-d that is “diminished” when someone dies.
Lamm writes that the Kaddish functions as a form of consolation. The repetition of “peace” and “life” in the prayer can uplift a mourner. “Indeed, the very crucial moment when man’s faith is most shaken, when very likely he feels rebellious against God for the for the death that has befallen him, he rises to recite the praises of the creator: yisgadal v’yiskadash.”
Another function, Lamm writes, is for parental esteem. He writes that Kaddish is a “spiritual handclasp between the generations,” as the deeds and prayers of a child can redeem and further elevate the souls of the parents.
There are many “kinds” of Kaddish, such as the Half-Kaddish, Rabbi’s Kaddish and Whole-Kaddish, but it is the Mourner’s Kaddish that most pertains to death and mourning. It is to be said by the children of the deceased parent after burial in the cemetery, then every day for eleven months and every year on Yahrzeit. For other close relatives, Kaddish is said every day for thirty days. A minyan is required, and it is preferable for one to stand during the Kaddish.
A lengthier memorial prayer, Yizkor, is held four times a year: the last day of Passover, the second day of Shavuot, Shemini Atzeret, and Yom Kippur. According to the Chabad article “Yizkor- The Memorial Prayer”, Yizkor, which means “remember”, is also a pledge to give charity in the deceased’s memory so their soul ascends higher. According to Lamm, it is recited on those holidays because they are when Deuteronomy 15-16 is read. The passage contains the phrase, “Each man shall give according to his ability.” For Yom Kippur, Lamm writes of an additional reason: thinking of those who died humbles us and reminds us of our mortality, prompting us to repent.
One year after the death date of a loved one is their first Yahrzeit. It is an annual day of memorial often commemorated by the lighting of Yahrzeit candles, which should be allowed to burn out on their own. On Yahrzeits, one should commit themselves to study Torah and give charity. Other customs include serving food and spirits after the morning services, sponsoring a Kiddush on Shabbat, visiting the deceased’s gravesite, and, according to Lamm, refraining from meat and wine.
Through Kaddish, Yizkor, and Yahrzeit, the deceased are properly memorialized – their souls can rise higher, G-d can be praised, charity can be given, and Torah can be studied. These are crucial aspects of Jewish death and mourning.
What was covered in this article is a very basic outline; for details, contact your clergy. They are well-versed in Kaddish, Yizkor, Yahrzeit, and other aspects of Jewish mourning.
We aim to run these articles the last week of every month. If you have questions or are hoping there is something specific we can cover, please feel free to reach out. The writers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and avandekamp@ jewishomaha.org.