[NOTE: A few people requested that I write about Kaddish. May the z’chus of this learning make the recitation of Kaddish unnecessary until 120.]
Question: What is the origin of Kaddish Yasom – the Mourner’s Kaddish?
Short Answer: While the Gemara does not mention Kaddish Yasom, there are various early sources that refer to the custom of a child saying Kaddish for a parent in order to save the parent from Gehinom.
I. Kaddish References In Gemara
The Gemara (B’rachos 3a) refers to Kaddish by the phrase – recited in Kaddish – of “Y’hei sh’mei rabba.” The Gemara recounts that Hashem appreciates the B’nei Yisrael, who cry out “Y’hei sh’mei rabba...” in shul. Likewise, the Gemara (Shabbos 119b) states that Hashem will tear up the evil decree of someone who fully calls out “Y’hei sh’mei rabba...” during davening.
The Gemara (Sotah 49a) also sets forth that the world is only upheld because of the power of those who recite K’dushah D’Sidra and “Y’hei sh’mei rabba...” See also HaKaddish (Rav David Assaf zt”l, p. 28). However, Kaddish Yasom is not specifically referenced in the Gemara.
The Aruch HaShulchan (Orach Chayim 55:1) explains that Kaddish and “Y’hei sh’mei rabba...” were instituted by the Anshei K’neses HaG’dolah after the destruction of the first Beis HaMikdash as an antidote to the rampant desecration of Hashem’s name that resulted from the destruction and exile.
II. Kaddish Yasom?
The Ratz KaTzvi (Aveilus 1) notes that one early reference for Kaddish Yasom is found in Maseches Sofrim (19:12), which references a minhag that was instituted after the destruction of the first Beis HaMikdash – that aveilim (presumably, during the week of Shiv’ah) would come to shul on Shabbos and recite Kaddish after Musaf as everyone was leaving the sanctuary.
Additionally, numerous sources, including the Nit’ei Gavriel (Aveilus 2, p. 286), cite a story (brought in Kallah Rabbasi 2) about the great Rabbi Akiva, who once encountered, near a graveyard, someone who had already died but who was working hard and running around carrying wood. The dead man explained to Rabbi Akiva that he was being punished for bad acts he had done in his lifetime, and could not be forgiven. The dead man recounted that he could only be forgiven if his son says Barchu in shul, and the congregation responds “Y’hei sh’mei rabba...” However, the dead man told Rabbi Akiva that although his wife was pregnant when he died, he is not sure of the whereabouts of his son, and he doubts that this son even knows anything about Torah and mitzvos. Rabbi Akiva, after asking the dead man for additional information about the son, sets out to find the son. Rabbi Akiva eventually tracks down the son, who is not even circumcised, let alone learned, and teaches him Torah. After Rabbi Akiva teaches the boy to proclaim Barchu in shul, and the congregation responds “Y’hei sh’mei rabba...,” the dead man appears to Rabbi Akiva in a dream to thank him for saving him from the depths of Gehinom.
III. Practical Halachah
The Rama (Yoreh Dei’ah 376:4) cites the minhag for an aveil during the year of mourning for his parent to recite “Kaddish basra” – the final Kaddish – during davening.
The Nit’ei Gavriel (ibid) cites the Arizal and Rav Chaim Vital who expound that not only does the recitation of Kaddish Yasom save the parent from Gehinom, but it also elevates the parent into Gan Eden and onto higher “levels” in shamayim.
Indeed, the sefer Nishmas Yisrael (31) notes that according to some, reciting Kaddish Yasom for a parent fulfills the Biblical commandment of kibud av va’eim, as well as V’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha and lo saamod al dam rei’echa. However, he notes that others understand this recitation as merely a minhag. See also Ratz KaTzvi.
However, the Rama (ibid.) also notes that ideally an aveil should honor his parent by serving as the chazan, and indeed the institution of Kaddish Yasom was initially only set up for those individuals, such as youngsters, who were unable to serve as chazan.
Next Week’s Topic: May a person whose parents are both still alive recite the Kaddish Yasom after Aleinu?