Sunday 20 March 2022

376) Babylonian influences behind the Mourner’s Kaddish

The first mention of mourners reciting Kaddish is found in the 13th century Or Zarua


Most discussions on the origins of the Mourner’s Kaddish as we know it today, only begin from around the twelfth century in Germany. It was there that the Kaddish - which had existed from much earlier times although not necessarily relating to mourning - was finally institutionalised as mourning ritual.

This article, based on the research by Professor David Brodsky[1], traces the development of the now widespread custom of reciting Kaddish for beloved ones who have passed away, and explores where the idea originates that a child can ‘redeem’ a deceased parent.  

The origins of the custom of reciting Kaddish

Around the twelfth century, the custom began to ‘recite Kaddish.’ This custom originated in Germany and the Kaddish was only recited once a week, after Shabbat, on Saturday night.[2] According to Machzor Vitry (114):

ועל כן נהגו לעבור לפני התיבה במוצאי שבת אדם שאין לו אב או אם לומר ברכו או קדיש

Therefore, the custom was for a person who did not have a father or mother to go before the ark [i.e., to lead the service][3] on Saturday night to say the barkhu or Kaddish.

The Machzor Vitry, which was written by a student of Rashi, R. Simcha ben Shmuel of Vitry (d.1105), mentions this custom after prefacing it with the story of a rabbi who came across a dead man suffering in hell. The man asks the rabbi to locate his pregnant wife and to promise to circumcise his son and teach him Torah. In newer versions, the rabbi is said to get the son to recite Kaddish (or Barechu). Later when the rabbi again meets up with this man, he is told that because of these actions, he is no longer suffering in hell.

Babylonian sources

Besides the Machzor Vitry, there are other sources as well (seventy versions! according to Rella Kushelevsky 2004) and they all refer to an earlier event usually identifying the rabbi as R. Akiva. What is interesting and important to note, though, is that the earlier sources are exclusively of Babylonian origin and hail from the Amoraic or Gemara period (220-500 CE). In these earlier sources, though, there is no mention of Kaddish or for that matter any other particular prayers that needed to be recited.

However, as a general rule, the sources from Palestine do not concur with the belief that others can intercede on behalf of someone who has passed away:

Palestinian rabbinic Judaism tended toward the belief that, while people may repent up until the very last moment of life, once dead, nothing further can be done (Brodsky 2018:337).

This distinction between Babylonian and Palestinian sources is most significant because they may indicate some Persian, Sassanian and Zoroastrian cultural influence on the origins of this custom, something that did not exist in Palestine.

Brodsky (2018:337) explains:

Rather, that story is consistent with its larger Sassanian (Zoroastrian) cultural context in considering the son to act as an extension of his father (while the son is still a minor), and therefore his good and bad deeds still do contribute to his father’s ledger even though his father has already passed away…

Babylonian rabbinic texts…reflected a belief that the son is both able and obligated to help his father’s case in heaven through the former’s deeds.

In Sassanian and Zoroastrian culture the child graduates from the minor status at the age of fifteen, when he becomes an adult. Until then, his actions are under the jurisdiction of the father. This is why his deeds, particularly as a minor, can ‘redeem’ his deceased father who continues to hold the ‘rights’ to those deeds.

But this belief was generally not held by Palestinian or Yerushalmi sources. The question then becomes just when did Judaism accept that someone else’s repentance, or even someone else saying a prayer could alleviate the deceased’s condition in the afterlife?

Brodsky (2018:337) answers this question by showing that:

Babylonian rabbinic theology is consistent with its Zoroastrian Persian cultural context.

Yet, fascinatingly, a pattern begins to emerge whereby the Babylonian rabbis try to root their adoption of Babylonian cultural concepts, not in Babylonia but in sources from Eretz Yisrael!

Curiously, though their theology was Babylonian, these Babylonian rabbinic sources designated their position as of Palestinian origin. As with most of the cases…in which Babylonian rabbinic Judaism was faithful to its Babylonian cultural context, it conspicuously attributed its Babylonian theology to Palestinian sources, though actual Palestinian sources belie this attribution.

The idea that someone else can affect a change in the status quo of the afterlife of a deceased person is absent from late Second Temple, Tannaitic, and Amoraic rabbinic Palestine. It is found, however in Amoriac Babylonia. This means that before around 220 CE (which is when the Amoraic period begins) there is no real rabbinic concept of vicarious redemption of a deceased’s soul by some activity on the part of another. And from 220 CE, this idea is found only in Babylonia. 

Palestinian sources

Palestinian rabbinic sources strongly maintain that a person can atone for their sins up to their last breath. These sources are scattered in the Tosefta, Yerushalmi, Kohelet Rabba (known to frequently draw upon the Yerushalmi, and the sources from the Bavli were added at a later date), Ruth Rabba, and Avot de Rabbi Nathan.

So, for example, Tosefta on Kiddushin 1:15 reads:

ר׳ שמעון אומ׳ היה אדם צדיק כל ימיו ובאחרונה מרד איבד את הכל שנ׳ צדקת הצדיק לא תצילנו ביום רשעו

R. Shimeon says: If a person was righteous all his days, but in the end he rebelled, he lost it all, as it is said, “The righteousness of the righteous will not save him on the day of his wickedness” (Ezek 33:12). If a person was wicked all his days but repented in the end, God receives him, as it is said, “And the wickedness of the wicked, he will not be weakened by it on the day that he returns from his wickedness” (ibid.).

According to this Palestinian source, everything depends solely on the individual him or herself and neither the best of the best nor the worst of the worst will be able to save or harm them once they have departed, and there is no option of vicarious assistance or redemption.

According to Kohelet Rabba 7:15:

כל זמן שאדם חי הקב״ה מצפה לו לתשובה, מת אבדה תקותו שנאמר (משלי יא:יז) במות אדם רשע תאבד תקוה

So long as a person is alive, the Holy One Blessed Be He awaits his repentance, but once he has died, his hope is lost, as it is said, ‘with the death of a wicked person, hope will be lost’ (Prov 11:7).

This Palestinian source also indicates that once a person passes away “all hope is lost” and it is futile for someone else to think they can still redeem them.

The Yerushalmi Berachot 9:1,13b similarly states:

.. All one’s life there is surety, for so long as a person is alive he has hope, but, once he has died, his hope is lost.

Avot de Rabbi Natan (B 27), yet another Palestinian source, writes:

Just as a person cannot share the reward with his fellow in this world, so a person cannot share the reward with his fellow in the World to Come…Just as Abraham could not save Ishmael nor Isaac save Esau, so no one can repent for and save anyone else.

It must be mentioned that Brodsky (2018:341-349) does deal, in quite a convincing manner, with some apparent exceptions[4] and questionable Palestinian sources that seem to negate this notion. It does, therefore, appear quite clear, from Palestinian sources, that a rule emerges that there is no vicarious redemption for one who has passed on, even by someone’s own children.

Babylonian sources

Some Babylonian sources do continue with this Palestinian notion that no one can save another in the afterlife but, for the main part:

Babylonian sources consistently adjust this Palestinian material to fit a Babylonian theodicy that allows the living to help the dead in certain circumstances, especially for children to give merit to their parents (Brodsky 2018:349).

So we see, for example, that the Palestinian source of Avot de Rabbi Natan, quoted above, where Avraham cannot redeem Yishmael and Yitzchak cannot redeem Eisav – the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 104a) uses these same examples to make a very different point:

ברא מזכי אבא, אבא לא מזכי ברא

The son makes the father meritorious; the father does not make the son meritorious.

Now we begin to see, in Babylonian sources, the idea of a son being able to make his deceased father meritorious. Brodsky (2008:350-1) points out:

The parallel is rather striking, and the Bavli would seem to be reinterpreting this earlier Palestinian tradition… In the hands of the Bavli, these two examples are taken for what they have in common: fathers cannot save their sons. By implication, then, sons could perhaps save their fathers!

While Palestinian sources, as we saw earlier, state explicitly that there is no hope after death, Babylonian sources generally reject that. The Babylonian Talmud (Kiddushin 31b) speaks about the honour a child must show to his or her father, and states as one example:

If a person repeats a saying he heard from his [father’s] mouth, he should not say, “Thus said father,” but rather, “Thus said father, my lord, may I be an atonement for his rest.” And this applies only within the twelve months [after his father died], from here on out, [he should say], “May his memory be for life in the World to Come.”

This Babylonian text espouses the view that a child can and should try to bring about an atonement for the father during the first twelve months of his passing. Twelve months is considered to be the maximum time one can spend in gehinom (hell).

One of the earliest of the seventy versions of this story of R. Akiva’s encounter with the tormented soul from hell is recorded in Kallah Rabbati 2:9 in Babylonian Aramaic, but by having R. Akiva (spelled with an “afef” in the Babylonian Talmud and a “heh” in the Jerusalem Talmud) as the subject, it seems:

to be attempting to give an aura of Tannaitic Palestinian authority to a notion that we find exclusively in Amoraic Babylonian sources (Brodsky 2018:353).

This version describes R. Akiva going to “that place” - hell - and encountering a tortured man who had committed every imaginable sin while he was still alive. This story has Babylonian overtones as the punishments with which the dead man is being subjected to corresponds to the Zoroastrian context of punishment in the Ardā Wīrāz-nāmag. The later versions of this story loose some of the overt resemblances to Babylonian and Zoroastrian culture. This Kallah Rabbati version tries to set the story in a Palestinian context but it clearly goes against the grain of Palestinian rabbinic theology. Later versions have the son even reciting the Kaddish.

Since previous scholars had not recognized the primacy of the version of the story in Kallah Rab. 2:9, they missed that the story was not originally focused on an expiatory prayer, and that it only later morphed into the barkhu and then the Kaddish (Brodsky 2018:358).

Zoroastrian and Babylonian cultural traditions

The prevailing Sassanian Babylonian culture, unlike the rabbinic theology of Palestine, believed that children could redeem their dead parents.

Zoroastrianism does allow certain posthumous acts to help the soul reach a better destination in the afterlife. Indeed, it is incumbent upon the heirs of the deceased to labor for the soul of the deceased (Brodsky 2018:363).

According to the Babylonian text Dādestān ī dēnīg:

If he who has passed away did not order that good deed, and did not also give instructions for it, but it (i.e. the good deed) was (done) by means of his property and (it was) in conformity with what may have been done (by him) in his lifetime, (then it) reaches (him) … to improve his position.

And according to Zoroastrian text Šāyist nē šāyist (10.22):

“Make a big effort to produce children only in order to accumulate more good deeds!” For…good deeds performed by a son will become just as if one had performed them with one’s own hands.

According to Rivāyat of Ādur Farnbāg 141.2:

And in every chapter which is regarding atoning for one’s father’s sins and the good deeds also for the father’s soul, when one expiates for one’s father’s sins, guilt, and debts, it is better to perform services for the father’s soul…

Thus, we see that Babylonian culture strongly maintained an ideology of a child - particularly a minor because the father still has rights of ‘ownership’ of the minors deeds - who is able redeem his father.

Or Zarua on a minor saying Kaddish

There is a recounting of the ‘R. Akiva story’ in the Or Zarua[5] (by R. Yitzchak ben Moshe of Vienna, one of Chassidei Ashkenaz) followed by a statement from Tanna de’ve’Eliyahu, that it is specifically a minor child, under the age of bar mitzva, who while leading the public prayer service, can atone for his deceased father’s sins. This has always been a rather perplexing idea because according to Halacha, a minor cannot lead the prayer services.

This has led Ta-Shma[6], for example, to suggest that the custom developed, shockingly, in the wake of the Crusades because so many minors were suddenly orphaned. But Brodsky (2018:366) suggests that:

The Sassanian context of this story may finally explain how and why this custom might have developed: because the child is a minor, the merit goes to the dead father… While the story did not itself originally advocate the practice of the Mourner’s Kaddish, the later could not have developed without the theological impetus of this Sassanian context.

And Brodsky (2018:369) sums up the development of the practice of reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish, as follows:

In this way, we must see the Mourner’s Kaddish as the product of several cultures—Jewish and Zoroastrian, Palestinian and Babylonian, late antique and High Middle Ages—all coming together to produce this unique custom.

Yet it seems that had the Palestinian sources not given way to the later dominance of the Babylonian sources (as we see with the Talmud Yerushalmi acceding to the Babylonian Talmud) we may never have been able to develop arguably the most practiced Jewish custom, where a child 'redeems' a deceased parent's soul by reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish.

Further reading







[1] Brodsky, D., 2018, “Μοurner’s Kaddish, The Prequel: The Sassanian-Period Backstory Τhat Gave Birth to the Medieval Prayer for the Dead”, in The Aggada of the Bavli and its Cultural Worlds. Edited by Geoffrey Herman and Jeffrey L. Rubenstein, Brown Judaic Studies, 335-369.

[2] This was a ritual for Saturday night after the Sabbath departed because there is a Jewish tradition that the dead are not punished in hell during the Sabbath.

[3] Parenthesis is mine.

[4] Two possible Palestinian source exceptions are Channah for the congregation of Korach and R. Meir for Elisha b. Abuya. Yet this still underscores the principle that unless we are Channah or R. Meir, “the rest of us can do little if anything to change the fate of the dead” (Brodsky 2018:349).

[5] Or Zarua, chelek bet, hilchot shabbat, siman 50:

[6] Ta-Shma, “Kezat ‘inyanei kaddish yatom,” 306–7.


  1. Hello, I've juste discovered this wonderful blog and all the highly interesting material you bring up there a few weeks ago and I've been reading all that I could from you
    Is there an e-mail we can write you on ?
    In particular you've said you were working on an article dealing with the documentary hypothesis that really interests me. Could you send it to me ?
    Thank you very much


  2. Hi Betsalel,
    My email is
    Thank you.

  3. Very interesting! Did you see the chapter on this in my book Rationalism vs. Mysticism?
    Hope all is well with you!

  4. Thank you Rabbi Dr. Slifkin. I have always maintained that without your groundbreaking research on Rationalism and Mysticism it is impossible to undertake any serious study of Jewish theology and hashkafa. Before you, not too many people were even aware that such ideological poles even existed. Each pole went on to inform much of future Judaism. Without the clear distinctions you have pointed out, everything merges into just a montage and blur (albeit a comforting one). Serious Jewish scholars will always be indebted to you in this regard, let alone your other contributions.