What is the Jewish Prayer for the Dead?

Image: A sculpture of a mourning angel. (Maxpixel)

No, it isn’t the Kaddish.

Kaddish Yatom, “the Orphan’s Kaddish” is the prayer of praise said by mourners as part of Jewish mourning ritual. It has no mention of death at all, and no mention of the departed.

The Jewish Prayer for the Dead is a lesser-known prayer called El Malei Rachamim, “God, full of Mercy.” A cantor once told me that if you want a roomful of Jews to cry, just chant the first line of it. Even if they don’t know exactly what it is, they have heard it at the saddest moments of their lives, and they’ll cry. (I don’t recommend doing that, I’m telling the story to illustrate the power of this prayer.)

The text of the prayer, in English:

God, full of mercy, who dwells in the heights, provide a sure rest upon the wings of the Divine Presence, within the range of the holy, pure and glorious, whose shining resemble the sky’s, to the soul of (Hebrew name of deceased) son of (Hebrew name of his father) for a charity was given to the memory of his soul. Therefore, the Master of Mercy will protect him forever, from behind the hiding of his wings, and will tie his soul with the rope of life. The Everlasting is his heritage, and he shall rest peacefully upon his lying place, and let us say: Amen.

When the departed is a woman, the words are changed accordingly. As you can see it is a personal prayer, and a prayer explicitly for the dead. Mourners are not mentioned, accomplishments in life are not mentioned, simply the fact that this person has died and is now with God.

The service leader chants El Malei Rachamim at funerals and at other mourning events: shiva services, memorial services, Yizkor, and at services remembering the Shoah. Normally this prayer is assented to by the congregation and mourners with the word “Amen” but it is said by the officiant. It is a public prayer, not a private prayer.

For the Hebrew and a transliteration of the Hebrew, see Kel Malei Rachamim on shiva.com (an excellent mourning resource, by the way.)

Rabbis and other officiants sometimes omit “for a charity was given to the memory of his soul,” depending on circumstances. I do not chant that line when I officiate at a funeral unless I know for sure that the family has given tzedakah in the name of the deceased, and the line matches their theology. If I’m not sure, I leave it out. I do not teach that tzedakah given after death affects God’s opinion of the dead, nor do I want to include anything in a prayer that might constitute a promise on someone else’s behalf.

For more about Jewish funeral practices and memorials, see these articles:

Jewish Social Skills: Death & Mourning

Jewish Funeral – Why not send flowers?

Five Tips for Shiva Visits

What to Wear to a Jewish Funeral

Can I Go to Shiva Instead?

What to Say When Someone Dies

Death and the Jew by Choice

Mourning for a Non-Jewish Loved One

What is the Mourner’s Kaddish?

Jews at a Christian Funeral: Some Thoughts

Mortality and the Jews



What is the Mourner’s Kaddish?

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.


The Wrong Thing to Say

Image: Meme from the article below.

Good advice. I’m proud to repost it on CoffeeShopRabbi.  I have only recently discovered this blog, but I will continue to follow it.

Marilyn R. Gardner


  1. God will never give you more than you can handle. While some may believe it is theologically correct, depending on your definitions, it is singularly unhelpful to the person who is neck-deep in a crisis, trying to swim against a Tsunami. A wonderful phrase recently came from Support for Special Needs. They suggest changing this from “God will never give you more than you can handle” to “Let me come over and help you do some laundry.” This strikes me as even more theologically correct.
  2. It gets better. Yes, yes it does. But right then, it’s not better. And before it gets better, it may get way worse.
  3. When God shuts a door, he opens a window. Maybe, but maybe not. Maybe he just shuts a door. Maybe there is no window. There was no window for Job. There was a cosmic battle that raged as he sat in distress. There…

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How Did This Happen?

Image: The word “Eicha” (How) in Hebrew letters. 

Eicha?! How?!

That’s the howl that begins the book of Lamentations. That’s the cry of every human heart that suffers a terrible injustice.

How did this happen?

How am I to cope?

How am I to go on living?


The truth is that the world is full of dangers and terrible events, much of it seemingly random. We look to God for justice and mercy and it seems that there is no answer, just a silence. It seems unfair. It is unfair.

I do not know why dreadful things happen. I don’t know why some parents have to bury their children. I don’t know why cruel people seem to go about their business unscathed. I don’t know why cancer and other sicknesses take so many before their time, and I don’t know why the treatments have to be so hard to endure. I do not have easy answers to any of these things.

I believe that some hurts cannot be healed.

Nevertheless, I believe we are given as gifts to one another. We cannot repair a broken heart, but we can sit with the suffering person and let them know they are not alone. We can be there for one another in bad times.

We can give one another room to grieve. We can witness one another’s pain. We can say, “Yes, you are mad at God right now, and I will sit here beside you.” We can summon the strength to not try to fix it.

This is why we are given mitzvot – so that we will know how to be with one another. The world can be a terrible place, but with good deeds, we can make it a little kinder.

So Many Gone

Image: A pile of stones; sunset. Photo by realworkhard/Pixabay.

We’ve lost so many remarkable people in 2016. The New York Times has published a list of “notable deaths” that is fairly staggering.

The latest death, that of Carrie Fisher, has been particularly wrenching for many of us because of her relative youth: it’s one thing to hear about the deaths of people in their nineties, but Fisher was only 60. Her Princess Leia spoke to a generation of young women, arguing that yes, a woman can be a head of state; yes, she can fight the bad guys. Ms. Fisher herself taught us that mental illness is merely a disease, not a scandal.

We lost people who wrote music that was important to many of us: Prince, David Bowie, George Michael, Guy Clark, and Leonard Cohen. Their music is immortal.

We lost giants, too: Elie Wiesel, Shimon Peres, and Muhammed Ali. On some level, they will be with us forever, but they are gone from this life.

It’s a lot, and these are only a few of the names. On one level, these are people we did not personally know: we don’t mourn them in the same way we mourn for someone close to us. On another level, though, their work or their art put them near the our hearts. We feel the loss. The fact that their work is finished is hard to accept.

May their dear ones be comforted in the arms of friends and family. And may the rest of us carry their memories forward.


The Ghost Ship Fire

Image: A woman grieving, black and white. Photo by unsplash/pixabay.

The first I knew about it was when my phone rang by my bed. It was my ex-father-in-law and still dear family, Jim Scott, asking if I’d heard from “the boys.” My sons are in their 30’s, but to some folks they’ll always be “the boys.” No, I hadn’t… why?

Friday night there was a terrible fire in Oakland’s Fruitvale district. I had heard about it on the radio before I went to sleep, described as a “warehouse fire.” I hadn’t thought much about it. By morning the building was being described as an artist collective, and there had been a party there, then a fire with many, many casualties.

“I am sure they weren’t there,” I said, on automatic pilot. “I’ll get back to you.” I phoned the elder son, the artist, and he was slow to answer (not a morning person – but neither am I.) He works in an artist collective, but in another part of town, and my mama-instinct told me he hadn’t been there, but we needed to hear his voice. He answered, thank God.  I ascertained that he was alive, and told him to call his granddad immediately.

I texted his brother the musician, and yes, he was fine. I told him to get in touch with Granddad. Then I began thinking about all the mothers and grandfathers and friends everywhere hearing about that fire. I looked on Twitter for news.

People, when something like this happens, remember that survivors and friends are combing social media and the news, hoping for information. Out of human decency, please DON’T:

ANALYZE the situation based on little information, and PLACE BLAME.

BLAME the victims for being foolish. (The things I saw used ruder words.)

MAKE JOKES. (I can’t believe I need to say that.)

SPEAK HATEFULLY about groups to whom the victims might (or might not) belong (in this case, African Americans, Californians, liberals, Oaklanders.)

MAKE GHOULISH SPECULATIONS (Again, can’t believe I have to say that.)

As I write, on Sunday afternoon, they are still searching for bodies in the ashes. So far, all my sons’ friends are accounted for, but as Aaron said to me, friends of friends died in that fire. This was close to home.

Think carefully before posting anything but sympathy in the wake of a tragedy. Please. It is a mitzvah to comfort mourners, but surely it is one of the worst of sins to torture them.


This is a photo of my sons that I took about a year ago. Good guys, both of them.

Update, 12/4/16, 7:34pm, PST: At this writing 33 bodies have been recovered from the scene, and 7 of them identified. I know of two people whose families and friends await news; I hope I don’t learn of more. 

Update 12/6/16, 3:46 pm, PST: 36 bodies have been recovered, and 90% of the building has been searched. The Oakland Fire Dept does not expect to find more bodies. I know of one family who expects bad news; they are still waiting for identification of the remains. I know that this is no longer fresh news, but keep in mind that families are still waiting for identifications, no funerals have yet taken place, and the criminal investigations are just beginning. California Governor Jerry Brown set an example for all of us when he declined to speculate on causes this morning.

Life is Unfair. Now What?

Image: Rabbi Stacey Blank blowing the shofar. Photo by Tamir Blank.

Yesterday I wrote about the Unetaneh Tokef, one of the harshest prayers in the Jewish liturgy. It reminds us that we do not know what lies ahead: we do not know who will live, and who will die, or by what means any of this will happen. The prayer is graphic and dreadful. It pulls no punches; it reminds us that none of us are immune to tragedy.

After the “Who will live and who will die” section, though, it talks about “how to avert the severe decree.” That’s the second place at the prayer loses many of us: what? We can avoid dying? Avoid tragedy? What sort of foolishness is that?

The prayer seems to say that God punishes the wicked with sorrows, and that the good will not suffer.  Any reasonable person knows that is nonsense. Bad things happen to good people every day. If we know anything at all about life, we know that it is not fair.

What shall we do, then, with the line in the prayer, “But teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah avert the severe decree”? It comes almost at the end, just before a paragraph on the mercy of God. But for those who have suffered a terrible loss, where is the mercy?

I do not believe that we can ward off misfortune with teshuvahtefilah, and tzedakah. Instead, I believe those are means with which we may work our way towards a life after tragedy.  Teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah are the tools with which we can build a bridge towards life. If we have not yet suffered misfortune, we can use the three to build a strong, rich life that may be a source of sustenance in bad times. If we have already suffered a tragedy, these are the tools for working our way back towards life.

Teshuvah involves taking responsibility for our own actions and changing our own behavior as needed. It reminds us what is in our control, and what is not. Tefillah is prayer, which can power and shape the changes we choose to make. Tzedakah is giving for the purpose of relieving the misery of others: it takes us outside ourselves and our troubles, to notice and act to relieve the troubles of our fellow human beings.

If you are carrying the burden of a tragedy, first of all, my sympathy. You didn’t sign up for it, and you didn’t deserve it.  I do not believe that God “sends” misery to people to test them, or to punish them, or any such thing. We cannot avoid  falling victim to these things, but we can choose our response to them. I have personally found teshuvah (personal responsibility), prayer, and charitable giving to have remarkable healing power, not to “get me over” my private sorrows but to carry me back into life.

For individuals who suffer trauma,  the Unetaneh Tokef offers a possible path not to forget a tragedy, but to find a way to choose life despite everything.