All our Jewish lives, we have been told that when a close relative — parent, sibling, spouse, child — dies, we are to come to the synagogue to recite Kaddish.
Kaddish is not a prayer about death, but a doxology, a prayer of praise to God. So, even in our grief, we are to stand up in the midst of our community — a minyan, a quorum of at least 10 Jews — to declare our continuing faith in God and the divine plan.
Kaddish is no ordinary prayer. Its words and litany, rhyme and rhythm are part of the collective Jewish unconscious. It holds the mystery and the magic of existence that come from before the beginning and that will ripple until the end of time.
Kaddish is not only a faithful affirmation of God, but also words of condolence spoken directly to God. One of God’s children has left this temporal earthly world, and God, Godself, is bereaved. So, in the words of the famed writer of our people, Shmuel Yosef Agnon, as we say Kaddish, “we pray for us, and for Him [God].”
And, by coming to recite Kaddish, we speak also to the soul of our loved one who has died. We say:
I will miss you, and I will always yearn for you, but, in submission and humility, with love and blessing, I release you and give you back to God. I assure myself and you that there is nothing to fear.
Your precious soul will be safe and well in God’s holy presence, for with God, all is good. And, in case you or I have any doubts, I proclaim and affirm — for you and for me to hear — our ancient truth: “Magnified and sanctified is the Great Name of God.”
We come to recite Kaddish for 11 months — from the time of the funeral until one month before the first yahrzeit, the first anniversary of the death.
Why 11 months and not the full year? Tradition teaches that in the year following death our loved one’s soul is being judged. Enough good deeds earns eternal reward; too many evil deeds means eternal punishment. So, we learn that each time we recite Kaddish we are adding to our loved one’s “mitzvah points,” earning additional merit for one who might be deficient.
Yet no one could be so evil that it would take a full year of earning more merit to achieve Paradise. Eleven months should be sufficient for even the most needing soul. Thus, we recite Kaddish for 11 months, confident that our Earthly assistance has been enough to assure that our loved one will enter eternal Eden.
Still, with all these worthy reasons for reciting Kaddish — and even with all the compelling Jewish stories about the gathering of 10 and the waiting for the 10th so that a mourner can say Kaddish — the reality is that most modern, liberal Jews do not regularly come to synagogue for the three daily services to recite Kaddish. Many do not even come once a week on the Sabbath.
My rabbinic colleagues and I have often lamented that the recitation of Kaddish with a minyan, which only a generation ago was one of the most widely observed Jewish ritual obligations, has largely fallen — no pun intended — into the graveyard of contemporary indifference.
And, then, my father died.
I was deeply committed to the idea of honoring my father through the daily recitation of Kaddish. I am, after all, his kaddish-el, his son, whose duty and blessing it is to say Kaddish for him.
Yet, even though I am deeply committed to daily prayer and meditation, I did not always go to synagogue for the thrice-a-day services, and I even found myself missing an occasional Sabbath service.
And since I was deeply imprinted with the Jewish mindset that Kaddish may be recited only in a minyan, when I did not go to a synagogue to be part of a minyan, I did not say Kaddish.
Yet, on the days when I did not recite Kaddish, I felt an emptiness and a longing; there was something missing from my mourning.
So, eventually, I gave myself permission to say Kaddish alone. This may seem to be a rather radical departure from Jewish law and custom, and some may find it to be in direct opposition to one of the most important reasons for saying Kaddish. But this concept is not without precedent in the modern, liberal Jewish world.
When Jews moved out of the small villages and inner-city neighborhoods where the synagogues were close to our homes, many of us gave ourselves permission to drive to the synagogue on the Sabbath and holidays. Even though traditional Jewish law prohibits riding on Shabbat , some of us may declare it to be a greater good to come to the synagogue to pray along with our community than to stay home alone.
Here, too, we declare that when circumstance or choice inhibits praying with a minyan, it is a greater good to say Kaddish alone than to not say Kaddish at all.
Yet, my solitary, personal Kaddish-saying needed a perspective, a context. It needed what our sages call a haskamah , an imprimatur, or a kavannah , a clearly articulated spiritual intention.
So, I composed a kavannah .
First it asks heavenly and angelic beings to be with me, to make a minyan of both Earth and heaven. Then it speaks words of love and blessing directly to the soul of my beloved deceased, and, finally, it speaks to God, bringing my humble yet heartfelt Kaddish-words of gratitude and praise.
It is still best to say Kaddish in a community, for in a community there is history and energy, mutual responsibility and unity, friendship and comfort — and love.
But, for those times when circumstance or choice keep one from being with a minyan to recite Kaddish, this kavannah can serve as the prologue for saying Kaddish alone.
This kavannah can also be a very powerful prelude to the recitation of Kaddish at the dedication of the gravestone and at the yearly yahrzeit.
It also can bring focus and spiritual energy to the collective recitation of Kaddish at the four-time-a-year Yizkor services, and every time the community gathers to say Kaddish for those who died sanctifying God’s holy Name.
I hope that this kavannah may be “the words of your mouth and the meditation of your heart,” as you honor those who have gone to the Great Beyond.
With you, I pray that their memories will be an everlasting benediction and a continuing inspiration.
Rabbi Wayne Dosick is the spiritual guide of the Elijah Minyan, an adjunct professor at the University of San Diego, the director of the Soul Center for Spiritual Healing and the author of “Soul Judaism: Dancing With God Into a New Era,” among others.
Kavannah Before Kaddish*