Sunday 22 December 2019



In this article, we explore the fascinating if not somewhat astonishing developments surrounding the evolution of the Kaddish into a mourner’s recitation or prayer.

I have drawn extensively from Professor David Shyovitz’s research on this matter.[1]


It was only around the late 1100s that European Jewish communities began to recite a Kaddish in honor (or as intercession on behalf) of a parent who had passed away.  And even then, this did not take place on a daily basis as it does today, but only once a week.

The Kaddish in its own right was already centuries old as it had formed part of the general prayer service since much earlier times. However, it was only in the 12th-century that did it began to be used specifically in reference to the dead, although ironically the Kaddish contained no reference to death.

The transformation from the older Kaddish into a new Mourner’s Kaddish began with the German custom of appointing one orphan from the community to recite the Kaddish on Saturday nights at the conclusion of Shabbat.

 Then, according to Shyovitz, once this custom was firmly established, suddenly:

“...within several decades, this liturgical development had exploded... the Mourner’s Kaddish was being recited daily, and then thrice daily...”

This spread from the Rhineland to France, Austria and then to Spain and Italy. At the same time, there was also a corresponding increase in Halachic responsa literature with questions and answers about how long the mourner should recite the Kaddish; what happens to the time period in which Kaddish is recited during a leap year; What if one parent is still alive; and could a child under thirteen recite the Kaddish?

Also, since only one person would recite the Kaddish at that time, questions arose as to how to nominate that person. In some places it was the latest person to lose a parent; in other places a resident had priority over a visitor; and in other places lots were simply drawn up to determine which individual would lead the Mourner’s Kaddish.

Shyovitz explains how the recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish became synonymous with the Saturday evening prayers:

“Before long, it was impossible to remember a time when the Mourner’s Kaddish was not a key component of the liturgy—to the extent that congregants were increasingly in doubt as to whether non-orphans could be permitted to lead services on Saturday nights at all if no orphans were present.”

This dilemma was later put to R. Jacob Molin of Mainz, known as the Maharil[2] (d. 1427), who responded:

“[T]hose whose parents are alive need not fear to recite Kaddish or to pray on Saturday night.”[3]

Similarly, around the same time, R. Moshe Isserlein was forced to explain:

“[T]here is no prohibition in the matter— for the evening prayer was not established [only] for orphans!”[4]

Eventually, the Maharil got so upset with the emphasis placed on this new Mourner’s Kaddish that he wrote:
“Even adults focus a great deal on the Mourner’s Kaddish, more than on the other Kaddishes and on Barkhu, because this Kaddish is extra, and not mandatory, and [these people] therefore think that it will bring greater relief to their relatives than other prayers.
But I do not agree with them in this matter. For the opposite is true. He who performs a mandatory action is greater [than he who performs a voluntary action].”[5]

The Maharil was not the only rabbinical authority who felt that an obsession seemed to be developing around the Mourner’s Kaddish, because R. Yitzchak Tyrnau[6] also lamented:

“[I]t is commonly found in the mouths of people that Kaddish is the most significant [mourning ritual].”[7]


Taking all these expansions and aspirations of the common people around the Mourner’s Kaddish into consideration, Shyovitz asks:

“How did such an ostensibly minor innovationthat an existing component
of the liturgy simply be recited by an orphan once a weekspread so rapidly and
become so deeply entrenched?”

Shytovitz explains that although the Kaddish has no direct reference to death, the fact is that even going back a thousand years to early Talmudic times, there has always been a tacit association between Kaddish and the afterlife and eschatology (i.e., matters of death, destiny, end of days etc.).[8]
The Talmud, for example, references the response in the Kaddish of ‘yehei shmei raba mevorach’ and says that he who responds with it is ensured of a place in the world to come[9]:


There is also the well-known story of R. Akiva[10] who meets a ‘dead man’ in a cemetery. He’s face is black as coal and he is sentenced to a life in limbo wearing a heavy crown of thorns. R. Akiva refers to this man in the third person as ‘oto ha’ish’ (that man) and discovers that he was a corrupt tax collector in his previous life. 

The man informs R. Akiva that he will only be released from this torment if R. Akiva locates his surviving son and teaches him the response to the Kaddish and the Barechu. R. Akiva locates the son but has difficulty in teaching him to read. Eventually, he leads the service and the father is released from limbo.[11] 

[See Appendix below for the full version of the story.]


Notwithstanding these few earlier and vague references to the response to the Kaddish (and Barechu) as an influence in assuring a good afterlife, the question remains as to why specifically, only so many centuries later in the 12th-century did the Kaddish suddenly become so directly related to death and eschatology that it became institutionally established as the official Mourner’s Kaddish?

The possible answers to that question are intriguing:



Most scholars take the position that as a result of the First Crusade of 1096, it became necessary to commemorate those Jews who had been killed in the Rhineland; and the Kaddish, considering its earlier vague association with eschatology, was considered the most appropriate choice.

This explanation resonates with the historical emergence of other prayers and piyutim (dirges) composed at that time, such as the Av Harachamin (which we recite after the Torah Reading on Shabbat mornings) which commemorate the Jewish martyrs who perished during the Crusades.[12]


However, Shyovitz maintains that the deaths from the Crusades were not the reason for instituting the Mourner’s Kaddish. This is because, according to the literature, the innovation of this new Mourner’s Kaddish was never intended to be commemorative but rather intercessory!

In other words, it does seem that the Mourner’s Kaddish was instituted specifically as a means to ‘save’ an individual's soul from the punishments of hell and it would not have been selected as a communal form of commemoration of a recent persecution! In fact, it would have been  considered insulting to commemorate martyrs with a Mourner’s Kaddish.

As Shyovitz puts it:

“For medieval northern European Jews, it would be inconceivable to imagine that the martyrs of 1096heroes who left an indelible mark on the identity and collective consciousness of Ashkenazic Jewrywere suffering in hell, or that they required any intercession whatsoever.”

A martyr was kadosh, holy, and believed to go straight to heaven. Some were even prepared to die al kiddush Hashem - while sanctifying G-d’s name. There was no need for any intercession for a martyr. Some authorities, like the Maharam of Rothenburg (d. 1293), even maintained that an orphan of a martyr should not recite the Kaddish as it would cast aspersions on the martyr him or herself.[13]

Shyovitz therefore maintains that the institution of the Mourner’s Kaddish at that juncture in history had more to do with the “changing beliefs about the nature of the afterlife and the relationship between the living and the dead,” and these ‘changing beliefs’ were being discussed and formulated at around that very time.


Shytovitz explains that the innovation of the Mourner’s Kaddish did not develop in a vacuum:

“Over the course of the High Middle Ages, both Jewish and Christian theologians developed new ideas about the nature and purpose of postmortem suffering. In particular, these thinkers stressed the fundamentally temporary duration of divine punishment in the afterlife, and the concomitant notion that the living could help cleanse the sins, and thus expedite the suffering, of their deceased relatives. This developing theological consensus allowed for, even necessitated, new ritual means of intercession.”

It was for this reason that the Halachic authorities began to institute intercessory prayers, particularly during the late 12th-century, ”because it was precisely at that moment that the theological ground was shifting beneath their feet”.

Although there are some previous references to living relatives ‘adding merit’ to deceased relatives,[14] it was only around the 12th-century that such practices began to be institutionalized into the formal liturgy and made to be legally obligatory in ways that had never been seen before.

It is also significant that the story of R. Akiva’s encounter with the dead man in limbo, suddenly took on new meaning and became popularized and elevated to a level it had also never reached before.

Almost simultaneously, three different German Halachic works begin to discuss the new custom of the Mourner’s Kaddish.[15] And in all three cases, the custom is introduced by an elaborate retelling of the story of R. Akiva and the ‘dead man’.

In these Halachik works, after recounting the story by means of introduction, the conclusion is:

“Therefore, it is customary to appoint a person who does not have a father or mother to lead the services at the conclusion of the Sabbath, in order to say Barkhu or Kaddish.”[16]

It is interesting to note that the story of R. Akiva usually refers to both the Barechu and the Kaddish - yet the Kaddish recitation seemed to have emerged over time as dominant.


The very evocative imagery scattered throughout the story of R. Akiva and the ‘dead man’ becomes highly significant, especially in light of the fact that the details get more embellished in the 12th-century retelling than in the original version.


For a typical Jew living in Germany at that time, two figures would have been considered beyond the pale of redemption. If the Kaddish could be shown to allow for the living to redeem either of these two personalities, it would be demonstrated that it is indeed a most powerful redemptive and intercessory prayer:

These two personalities would have been the dreaded, cruel and often corrupt Parnes or tax collector of the community – and the founder of Christianity, Jesus (known as ‘oto ha’ish’ or ‘that man’) in whose name so many Jews had been murdered during the Crusades.

The expanded and more modern 12th-century version of the R. Akiva story included imagery of the cruel tax collector who the Talmud tells us has no share in the world to come but is eternally doomed, and whose face resembles the black of the bottom of a cooking pot.[17] Our 12th-century story tells us the dead man was a ‘black as coal’ and that he was a tax collector. A Jewish tax collector in the Rhineland at that time, known as the Judenmeester, was known to be notoriously oppressive, cruel and corrupt. The contemporaneous Sefer Chasidim refers to “the parnas who instils excessive fear.”[18]

If the dreaded tax collector can be redeemed through the powerful Mourner’s Kaddish then anyone can.

But to the Jews of that time, there was still one person considered out of all redemptive limits and that was Jesus. Hence the ‘dead man’ in the story is referred to in the third person as ‘oto ha’ish’ and, following along the same lines, he wore a ‘burden of thorns on his head.’ This would have left no doubts as to whom this was referring to. If ‘that man’ could be redeemed through the Kaddish prayer then nothing could be more powerful.

Shyovitz sums it up as follows:

“By suggesting that intercessory prayer can benefit even those sinners whom earlier Jewish sources had deemed irredeemable, the narrative that accompanied the Mourners Kaddish is thus seizing upon a particular conception of the afterlife, one in which all sinners in hell can eventually make it into heaven.”

This empowering idea that anyone could make it into heaven through the efforts of the living was novel and innovative and broke with the past. This idea was being strenuously debated and discussed in theological circles at that time and is showed just how effective the new institution of the Mourner’s Kaddish was.


Although Shyovitz does not deal with this in any great detail, but it seems that the influence from the Chasidei Ashkenaz should not be discounted. The Chasidei Ashkenaz were a mystical group of German Pietists who had adopted some German folk beliefs and were known to have influenced many of the Tosafists.  [See Mystical Forays of the Tosafists.]

The Chasidei Ashkenaz were clearly dealing with all matters mystical which would have included the afterlife, eschatology and intercession. [See Chasidei Ashkenaz - “These Are Not Superstitions’!]


Another innovation stipulating a time period for the recitation of Kaddish also had to do with the spiritual angst of time. How long did hell last? Was it eternal or temporary?
Earlier Jewish sources were divided over this question and there was no definitive answer.

The northern French and German Tosafists of this time took note of the earlier rabbinic discrepancies as to the duration of hell and tried to bring finality to the matter.[19]

This was indeed a time when the preoccupation with matters of hell were dominating the Halachic narrative:

“As the recitation of the Mourners Kaddish spread, so too did the theology of divine recompense that undergirded itnamely a hell that was fundamentally temporary, from which anyone could be redeemed, and intended to ultimately purge the sinner of his deeds and elevate him, cleansed, to heaven.”

However, interestingly, it wasn’t only within Jewish circles that eschatology assumed a centre-stage position because the same was simultaneously taking place within the general Christian population. This, again, underscores the notion that nothing emerges from a vacuum.


Shyovitz cites Jacques Le Goff who shows that in an almost exact parallel, Christian society was also experiencing a shift from an earlier belief that hell was eternal, to a belief in the temporary notion which prepared the way for eternity in heaven. The older definition of ‘Hell’ was defined as eternal whereas the new ‘Purgatory’ was an intermediate state for souls undergoing purification and destined for Heaven.

In a startling parallel Shytovitz paraphrases Le Goff understanding of what was taking place in Christian theology:

“Attempts at intercession on behalf of the dead were illogical so long as hell was viewed as eternal, but the newfound emphasis on temporary purgation invited prayers, masses, charitable donations, and other efforts at shortening the duration of ones relativessuffering...

Such exempla focused on encounters between the living and the dead, and used narrative to reinforce the notion that the intercessory efforts of the living could indeed bear fruit in shortening the duration of the purgation of the dead”

In other words, the Christians moved from the notion of Eternal Hell to Temporary Purgatory and made use of the power of narrative to enforce and cement the change in eschatology “and the doctrine itself was adopted as binding at the Second Council of Lyons in 1274.”


Describing the reciprocity of ideas between Jews and Christians at that time, Shyovitz writes:

“That Jews were attuned to developing Christian views of the afterlife should come as no surprise. After all, descriptions of hell and its torments were a mainstay of both Jewish and Christian polemical writings, and adversarial encounters between religious rivals served as a means of transmission of doctrinal content...”

He goes on to explain that the 1240 disputation between Nicholas Donin and R. Yechiel of Paris [see here] which resulted in the burning of the Talmud, revolved around the teaching about hell which is found in the Talmud[20] which was “the same passage underlying the exemplum of R. Akiva and the dead man in its twelfth century iteration [repetition][21].”


Not everyone agrees with this assessment of Shytovitz as can be seen by Leon Wieseltier in his book, ‘Kaddish’:

“The birth of Purgatory may have occurred at the same time as the birth of the Kaddish. But this is...a coincidence. I do not believe for a minute that the one was the cause of the other. Judaism was diversified by influence, but it was developed by its own force.”[22]

Stephen Greenblatt[23] has disputed Wieseltier’s view and writes:

“...if it were a coincidence, it would be an almost miraculous one, since many of the texts that Wieseltier cites bear a startling resemblance to the exempla and scholastic arguments of the medieval and early-modern Christians among whom the Jews were dwelling.”

[For a similar theme also from the same era, see Tosefot - Dialectics of the Nations?]  


This is the version as recorded in Machzor Vitry [ed. Goldschmidt, 223.]:

It once happened that Rabbi Akiva was passing through a cemetery, and he came upon a man who was naked, and black as coal, and carrying a great burden of thorns on his head. Rabbi Akiva thought that the man, who was running like a horse, was alive. Rabbi Akiva commanded and stopped him,
and said to him: Why does that man (oto ha-ish’) do this difficult work?

If you are a servant and your master treats you this way, I will redeem you from his hands; if you are poor and people are treating you unfairly, I will enrich you.[The man] said to him: Please do not delay me, lest those appointed over me become angry.

[Rabbi Akiva] said to him: What is this, and what are your deeds?
[The man] said to him: That man is dead, and every day I am sent out to chop trees.
[Rabbi Akiva] said to him: My son, what was your profession in the world from which you came?
[The man] said to him: I was a tax collector (gabbai ha-mekhes), and I would favor the rich and kill the poor.

[Rabbi Akiva] said to him: Havent you heard anything from those appointed to punish you about how you might be relieved?
[The man] said: Please do not delay me, lest those in charge of my punishments become angry, for there is no relief for that man. But I did hear from [those appointed over me] one impossible thing: If only this poor man had a son who would stand in front of the congregation and say Let us bless
God, Who is blessed(barkhu et adonai ha-mevorakh), and have them answer May His great name be blessed,(yehe shmeh rabbah mevorakh) he would be immediately released from his punishments.

But that man never had a sonhe left his wife pregnant, and I do not know if she had a boy. And even if she did have a boy, who would teach him Torah? That man does not have a friend in the world.

Immediately, Rabbi Akiva decided to go and see if he had a son, in order to teach him Torah and stand him in front of the congregation. He said to [the man]: What is your name?
[The man] said to him: Akiva.
And your wifes name?
[The man] said to him: Shoshniba.
And the name of your city?

Immediately Rabbi Akiva was extremely saddened, and went to ask after [the man]. When he arrived in that city, he asked after him. [The townspeople] said to him: May the bones of that man be ground up.
[Rabbi Akiva] asked after [the mans] wife. They said to him: May her memory be erased from the world.

He asked about her son. They said to him: He is uncircumcisedwe did not even engage in the commandment of circumcision for him.
Immediately, Rabbi Akiva circumcised him, and put a book in front of him. But he would not accept Torah study, until Rabbi Akiva fasted for forty days. A heavenly voice said to him: For this you are fasting?

[Rabbi Akiva] said: Master of the Universe! Is it not for You that I am preparing him?
Immediately the Holy One opened [the childs] heart, and [Rabbi Akiva] taught him Torah, and the Shema, and grace after meals. He then stood [the child] in front of the congregation, and [the child] recited Let us bless,and the congregation answered after him Blessed be the blessed God.In that hour, they freed [the man] from his punishment. Immediately, the man came to Rabbi Akiva in a dream, and said May it be the will of the Holy One, blessed be He, that you rest in the Garden of Eden, for you have saved me from the judgment of Gehenna.Rabbi Akiva exclaimed: God, your name endures forever; your renown, God, through all generations[Ps. 135:13].

Therefore, it is customary to appoint a person who does not have a father or mother to lead the services at the conclusion of the Sabbath, in order to say Barkhu or Kaddish.

[1] “You Have Saved Me From The Judgement Of Gehenna”: The Origins Of The Mourner’s Kaddish In Medieval Ashkenaz, by David I. Shyovitz.
[2] Maharil is an acronym for “Our Teacher the Rabbi Yaakov Levi”. His full name was Yaakov ben Moshe Levi Mo[e]lin.  He composed piyyutim and was a notable cantor. He ruled that traditional prayer melodies should not be changed. Some of these tunes were sung in synagogues right up to pre-war II in Mainz, Germany.
[3] Sheilot uTeshuvot Maharil haChadashot, 28.
[4] Leket Yosher, 56.
[5] Sheilot uTeshuvot Maharil haChadashot, 28.
[6] There is a legend that R. Yitzchak Isaac miTirnau had a beautiful daughter. A Hungarian prince fell in love with her, renounced the throne and converted to Judaism in order to marry her.
[7] Sefer haMinhagim, by R. Yitzchak miTirnau.
[8] See Shabbat 119b; Berakhot 3a.
[9] Berakhot 57a.
[10] Sometimes the story is recounted in the name of R. Yochanan ben Zakkai. See Seder Eliyahu Zutta, 22.
[11] Masechet Kallah Rabati, ch. 2. There are 15 mesechtot ketanot or minor tractates. The origins of some of these tractates are said to even predate the final versions of the redacted Talmud. There are additional tractates which are not extant, these include Chanukah and Eretz Yisrael.
[12] Rabbi Professor Ephraim Kanarfogel maintains that Av haRachamim was instituted after later persecutions. See Yeshurun 27 (2012) p. 871.
[13] Sheelot uTeshuvot Maharil , 99. The Maharil himself held that Kaddish, in such circumstances, must still be recited.
[14] Berachot 104a.
[15] These are: 1) R. Eleazar of Worms’s commentary on the siddur; 2) The Or Zarua of R. Yitzchak ben Moshe of Vienna; and 3) A manuscript of the Machzor Vitry with glosses by R. Yitzchak ben Dorbelo, who was a student of Rabbeinu Tam.
[16] Machzor Vitry, see Appendix.
[17] Rosh haShana 17a.
[18] The Talmud (ibid.) mentions that the tax collectors son will not be a scholar – in the reworked story, R. Akiva has difficulty in teaching the son Torah. Also, the Ashkenazi community of that time was beginning to pay more attention to the midrashic notion that an uncircumcised person would be subject to an afterlife of hell.  Halachic authorities then instituted the practice of circumcising infants who had died before reaching eight days. The story tells of the townspeople refusing to circumcise the boy – indicating the obsession as to who may and may not enter heaven.
[19] See Tosafot on Bava Metzia 58b, Eruvin 19a, and Rosh haShanah 17a.
[20] Rosh haShana 17a.
[21] Parenthesis mine.
[22] Wieseltier, Kaddish, p. 194.
[23] Hamlet in Purgatory [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001], 9.

1 comment:

  1. If I could, I would abolish the mourners or orphans kaddish altogether

    It has become a shouting match and a joke