Image: A yahrzeit candle.
People sometimes refer to the Kaddish as “the Jewish prayer for the dead.” That’s almost right. The Kaddish is a prayer said by mourners, and the people who benefit are the mourners. Saying Kaddish is an ancient and important ritual, a part of the mourning process for Jews.
It didn’t start out that way. The Kaddish began as a doxology, a prayer of praise. We know that it is quite old because it is said in Aramaic, the vernacular of the Jewish People from the sixth century BCE and the eighth century CE, over 1000 years. Hebrew became the lashon kodesh [holy language]- used only for specific religious purposes.
In an early siddur from about 900 CE, the Kaddish is a prayer of praise that separates parts of the service.
To this day, in an Orthodox service, if you get lost, each Kaddish is an opportunity to find your place again, because it means that the congregation is about to move on to another part of the service. A vestige of that practice remains in the Reform service, where we say a Kaddish at two points: just before the Shema and its Blessings, and then at the end of the service. (For more about the Reform Service, see What Goes On in a Jewish Service?)
In the Middle Ages, the practice took hold for the last Kaddish of the service to be called the Orphan’s Kaddish (that’s what Kaddish Yatom means literally.) Mourners in the congregation would say Kaddish daily. While it was sometimes framed as “praying for the dead,” the function of it was that mourners couldn’t isolate themselves. Instead, they had to join 10 other Jews (a minyan) with whom to say Kaddish, usually at the daily prayer services at their synagogue.
If you think about it, it’s brilliant from the psychological perspective. Most people who observe the mitzvah of saying Kaddish for 11 months for a deceased parent report that it is a transformative experience. They are supported as they move through the stages of grief. They have a daily reminder that they do not mourn alone, but “Among the mourners of Israel.”
המקום ינחם אתכם בתוך שאר אבלי ציון וירושלים
“May God comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” – Traditional to say to a person in mourning
For the text of the Kaddish in Aramaic, a recording of the prayer, and a transliteration, see the My Jewish Learning page.