This is a serious prayer. Time to get serious.


I have a difficult relationship with the prayer, Kaddish Yatom.

When I was younger and learning how to pray Jewishly, I assumed that what I learned about praying Kaddish Yatom was the same for all Jews – that everyone in the congregation stood and recited the words together. As I prayed in communities beyond my own, I learned that this was not the case – that this was a mostly Reform Jewish minhag (custom), and that in most other Ashkenazi communities, only the mourners themselves rose to recite the text. As it happens, the Reform minhag mirrors that of the Sephardi rite, although I imagine this is purely coincidental and that the two practices evolved separately.

Since learning of the difference in methods of praying Kaddish Yatom, my own practice has evolved. Especially since my own Bubby Jeanne passed away, I have come to appreciate the value and personal meaning found in having a specific moment to myself (along with other mourners in the congregation) to honor her memory and pray to God. This was particularly apparent when I was praying at a Conservative shul during shloshim. For three times every morning, for thirty days, during shacharit, I rose to say the words of Kaddish Yatom and praise God in memory of my Bubby. As one of the only people standing in the congregation, I felt as though my words carried a unique gravitas. This wasn’t just something that everyone did because it was the proscribed time in the service, this was a particular responsibility and honor that I had.

The Reform innovation of having the entire congregation rise to say Kaddish along with the mourners evolved out of a desire to have the community unite in support of the bereaved during their difficult time. There is also a minhag that this is an opportunity to say Kaddish for those that have nobody to remember them – particularly those who perished in the shoah. While I appreciate and understand these motivations – and even find myself compelled at certain times to utter the words of Kaddish for these reasons – I find that they ultimately detract from the deeper meaning of this part of our worship.

If one says the Kaddish Yatom every time they pray – even if they are not mourning or observing a yahrtzeit – how is the kavannah of that prayer distinguished from when it is being said specifically in memory of someone who has died? Does this not detract from the gravitas, uniqueness, and separateness (a critical component of the Jewish notion of holiness) of it being used only during times of mourning and memory?

This conception is not foreign to Reform Judaism – elsewhere in our liturgy, there are countless examples of prayers that are used only at specific times to ascribe additional holiness and significance. Yet for some reason, within Reform worship practices, the Kaddish Yatom seems to already hold this level of added import. In virtually every Reform congregation and community I have prayed in, the same scenario plays out upon arriving at the Kaddish Yatom: Faces become somber. The tone of voices change; you can hear the added reverence. This is not a prayer you just say. Elsewhere in the service, distractions may abound, but when it comes to Kaddish, the transformation in attitude among worshipers is palpable. This is a serious prayer. Time to get serious.

Even in so-called creative services in summer camps or youth groups, where there may be a near-complete departure from the more traditional keva of the liturgy, the elevation of the Kaddish Yatom can be observed. Amidst a service abounding with joyous Beatles, Phish, Bob Marley, and Mumford & Sons songs, you can be sure that at some point, the attitude of the prayer leaders will change. A serious look will come over their faces. And the community will be instructed to rise for the Kaddish. You can’t mess with THE Kaddish.

So as I prayed mincha earlier this week at school, I was pleasantly surprised when Ally, our shlicha tzibbur (prayer leader) for the day, instructed the community to remain sitting before Kaddish Yatom. She shared with us that many people in the community had been saying Kaddish particularly for loved ones who had recently died, and that she wanted to give these individuals an opportunity to share their stories and honor their memories aloud before the entire community. One by one, these people rose on their own, told us for whom they were praying Kaddish, shared a person story of their connection, then rejoined the community.

While this was clearly a creative addition to the structure of the mincha service, it was actually very much in keeping with the meaning of Kaddish Yatom. As I saw it, this was an opportunity for individuals to stand and recognize this period of mourning or memory as separate from their ordinary/daily lives, for them to ascribe additional significance and holiness to the prayer at this time of mourning or memory, and afterwards for them to sit down among the community and receive their support.

Sitting, listening to these stories as part of the framing of Kaddish Yatom was incredibly refreshing. For me, it is often challenging to remain sitting during this prayer. Usually I am the only one, or one of a very small minority. I feel different and separate – ironically, the very feelings I look for when I am saying Kaddish for someone in particular.

Ultimately, the kavannah of other worshippers is their own domain, and I’m not making a blanket suggestion that the dominant Reform minhag is wrong. However, I think some significantly meaningful aspects of the prayer for individual worshippers may be lost through the current practice. And while Reform worship styles are generally quite flexible and open to innovation, there is a remarkable level of orthodoxy when it comes to Kaddish Yatom. As a result, most Reform Jews have never been exposed to a different approach to this prayer.

For such a significant part of our life-cycle commemorations, this troubles me. It being a prayer that is held to such serious standards, shouldn’t it merit an equally serious approach in our search for understanding and meaning within our worship?

Postscript: Ironically, as I was searching for some sources for this post, I stumbled across an article with a very similar thesis that was written earlier this year for Reform Judaism Magazine.


  1. Tom Weiner says:

    Brilliant. I’m going to share this in-house. We have, for the past couple of years, invited people to stand when they hear the name of family member read for shloshim and yahrtseit. And of course, we invite those to rise who are there for the year of saying kaddish. Then, when they are all standing, we invite the congregation to rise with them, we proceed with kaddish. I really appreciate the way you express the powerful shift in mood and feel when people know kaddish yatom is about to be said.

    1. Jesse says:

      Thanks, Tom! This was the minhag at my own congregation growing up (coincidentally – also Kol Ami). I think this is a significant way to mark the difference in time for mourners vs. the rest of the kahal. That said, I also still think that the communal recitation of Kaddish Yatom doesn’t allow for the demarkation of it as an especially significant worship practice for the mourners. But certainly, it’s up to each community to work out what is meaningful and appropriate for the kahal!

  2. Dave says:

    Very well said Jesse,

    I think though that the fact that this prayer is said daily by all congregants in most Reform synagogues does not necessarily detract from the significance that this prayer evokes in times of mourning.

    For some mourners, it may be that although they say the Kaddish and praise God daily, it is when they say it in times of mourning that it is most difficult. This provides a contrast as they are used to words of praise coming more easily in happier times.

  3. Dawn says:

    I found this post fascinating, but I wonder if you might have cherry-picked your “Keva” in order to fulfill your hopes for personal “kavana”. You talk of your attendance at Shloshim in honour of your grandmother, but with some adherence to the technicalities that you advocate, you really weren’t a direct mourner. I have no problem with you saying Kaddish for your grandmother and acting as a familial proxy, but why can’t I do the same if I feel the loss keenly as well, thus allowing me to stand at Kaddish Yatom? Is not a community’s sense of mourning just a important as the individual’s? People mourn in a variety of ways and I think it somewhat to disingenuous to expect that only direct family members feel a sense of loss. Certainly it isn’t the same as the mourners, but communal expression of Kaddish Yatom allows for the expression of that pain.

    1. Jesse says:

      Thanks, Dawn. I think, though, that you may have missed my point in some places. I should reemphasize that I’m not suggesting a particular definition of who is an aveil/aveilah – I believe it’s up to an individual to determine if their relationship to someone merits saying Kaddish. What I’m arguing is that there might be more meaning found in saying Kaddish Yatom *only* when one considers oneself a mourner.

      You make the important statement that “people mourn in a variety of ways,” which I most definitely agree with. But you misread me in saying that it is “disingenuous to expect that only direct family members feel a sense of loss.” I didn’t say that I expected this, so I hope I can clarify my argument again here. I am not suggesting that only direct family members feel a sense of loss. I’m not even suggesting that non-family members can’t feel a sense of loss, too. Just this week here in Israel, nearly one million people crowded the streets of Jerusalem to say Kaddish for Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Certainly, they weren’t all aveilim. So I was quite serious when I said that “the kavannah of other worshippers is their own domain, and I’m not making a blanket suggestion that the dominant Reform minhag is wrong for everyone.”

      What I am suggesting is that saying Kaddish Yatom outside of holy (i.e. separate and elevated) times of mourning has the potential to dilute its meaning. What I’m questioning here is the blanket saying of Kaddish Yatom by the entire congregation on a regular basis, which doesn’t allow for the demarkation of significant individual occasions when it can be said by individual worshippers.

      Having everyone say Kaddish Yatom during every service makes it normative. But in Judaism, death – while treated in a very real and human way – is still not normative, and neither are our rituals surrounding death. Think of how we burry people – with an upside-down shovel, to indicate the abnormality and irregularity of this kind of shoveling. If Kaddish Yatom is said all the time by everyone, how then is it different during times of mourning? Is it just an internal feeling on the part of individual worshippers? This being a prayer that is not about internal feelings, rather about external praise, I would argue that this is missing the point a bit.

      So, is – as you note – “a community’s sense of mourning just as important as the individual’s”? I’m not sure if you’re talking about an entire community here (like a congregation), or specific members within the community, but let’s go with the example of the congregation, since that’s the dominant practice within Reform Judaism. In that case, I will risk being politically incorrect, and – with all due respect to the feelings of individual worshippers – say that no, I don’t that think their sense of mourning is just as important.

      I don’t think that there’s a level playing field here, and I don’t believe that Judaism does either. Judaism absolutely does recognize the significance of the community in the mourning process – that’s why we require a minyan to say Kaddish – however I don’t believe it is exactly the same for them as for the mourners. In my example here – while there are certainly other people in our congregation who felt a keen sense of loss at my bubby’s death, it was not the same as mine, just as my sense of loss was not the same as my zaidy’s, my mother’s, or my aunt’s.

      So in that light, a question for you – when you state that the “communal expression of Kaddish Yatom allows for the expression of that pain,” do you believe that when the entire kahal rises to say Kaddish in Reform congregations, everyone is expressing the pain of mourning? I can’t believe this to be true. Certainly, *some* people might be – but how would we know?!

      To sum up: I am suggesting that the meaning of Kaddish Yatom (as an opportunity for individual worshippers to ascribe special holiness and gravitas during the mourning/memory process) may be diluted when the entire kahal says it all the time. Consider: I am thankful all the time for the gift of Shabbat, but I only express this thanks liturgically during Shabbat; I don’t sing L’cha Dodi or V’shamru everyday, as doing so would reduce their special significance on Shabbat. Another example: I find deep meaning in the call of the shofar. Why not begin every day with its rousing blast? Because doing so would dilute the additional meaning and holiness of hearing it during Elul and the Yamim Noraim.

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