Kaddish is a Mystery
The essence of Kaddish may be less in the meaning of the words than in the experience of reciting it with other Jews.
Reprinted with permission from Saying Kaddish: How to Comfort the Dying, Bury the Dead, & Mourn as a Jew (Schocken Books).
It sounds like comfort and feels like a transcendent embrace, and yet, the prayer that is synonymous with Jewish mourning does not mention death or consolation. It does not speak of loss, sadness, or bereavement. Nor is there anything about life after death in these brief lines, which seem to echo with loss and longing.
For most Jews, the literal meaning of Kaddish is either opaque or troubling. "Kaddish" means "holy" and the prayer is a doxology--a listing of God's holy attributes. "Blessed, praised and honored, extolled and glorified, adored and exalted."
These are hard words for most mourners. After all, this is the same God who ordained or permitted the death of a loved one. And yet, for centuries Jewish tradition has placed this prayer in the mouths of people who have no taste for praise.
Jewish mourners begin saying Kaddish at the funerals of their loved ones, and continue reciting it for the rest of their lives. Jews who never pray say Kaddish. Atheists say Kaddish.
As inconsistent as it may seem, this does not offend Jewish religious sensibilities. Judaism has always been far less concerned with belief than with action or mitzvah, which means "commandment" or "sacred obligation." The tradition mandates saying Kaddish, with clear directions about how, where, and when it should be said. But halakhah, or Jewish law, does not require belief in the words--or even understanding. It is enough that the mourner just "do the mitzvah" of saying the prayer with nine other Jews. Which is why Kaddish is always transliterated, so that everyone can participate, regardless of whether they can read the Hebrew letters or know what they are saying.
This is not as mechanical as it sounds, because it is simply impossible to understand the impact or value of saying Kaddish without first doing it. The mystery of Kaddish is revealed every time it is spoken aloud with others. The truth is that the sounds of the words are more important than their definitions. The text is secondary to the emotional experience of its recitation. The meaning only comes clear when given communal voice.
Even so, the words are not insignificant. Kaddish addresses the meaning of life and death, immortality and redemption, the purpose and efficacy of prayer, community, and the ultimate goal of peace. It even speaks--in its silence--about the predominant Jewish view of the afterlife.
But the language of the prayer is not transparent. Kaddish requires that the mourner wrestle with the text. Through study and thought, reading and discussion, Kaddish demands that the mourner engage, connect, and forge a personal connection to it. Although these words have been studied and analyzed for centuries, every mourner finds new meaning in them, year by year, and line by line.
But the bottom line is startlingly clear. In words and through practice, Kaddish insists that the mourner turn away from death and choose life.
In this way, Kaddish expresses the essence of Judaism. The rest is commentary.