This Wednesday, the 5th of Iyar, is Israel’s Independence Day, Yom Ha‘Atzmaut. That the State of Israel was born on this date in particular is no coincidence. On the surface, the reason it happened on this date is because that was when the British Mandate expired, and was the earliest opportunity for the Zionist leadership to declare independence. Behind this, however, there is a far deeper mystical reason. Continue reading
This week’s parasha, Metzora, is primarily concerned with the laws of various skin diseases. Jewish tradition holds that the main reason for a person to contract these skin afflictions is for the sin of evil speech. The term metzora, loosely translated as “leper”, is said to be a contraction of motzi ra or motzi shem ra, “one who brings out evil” or gives someone a “bad name”. The Sages described lashon hara, a general category referring to all kinds of negative speech (even if true), as the gravest of sins.
The Ba’al HaTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, 1269-1343) comments on the parasha (on Leviticus 13:59) that the word “Torah” is used in conjunction with words like tzaraat or metzora five times, alluding to the fact that one who speaks lashon hara is likened to one who has transgressed all five books of the Torah! The Talmud (Arakhin 15b) famously states that one who speaks lashon hara “kills” three people: the subject of the evil speech, the speaker, and the listener. The same page states that lashon hara is equal to the three cardinal sins: murder, idolatry, and adultery. Other opinions (all supported by Scriptural verses) include: one who speaks lashon hara is considered a heretic, deserves death by stoning, and God personally declares that He and the speaker of lashon hara cannot dwell in the same space.
Having said that, the Talmud’s definition of lashon hara is quite narrow. It doesn’t include general tale-bearing, but specifically refers to slandering another person. It also states that lashon hara is only applicable when two people are speaking in private, secretly. If one slanders before three or more people, then it is evident that he doesn’t care that the subject will know he said it. It is like saying it publicly, or to the person’s face directly, which does not constitute lashon hara. (It is still a horrible thing to do, of course.) This is why God says (Psalms 101:5) that “Whoever slanders his fellow in secret, him I will destroy.” It is specifically when done in secret that it is such a terrible, cowardly sin.
Since Talmudic times, the definition of lashon hara has broadened considerably. It has come to include rechilut, “gossiping”, saying negative things about another person that are true, saying them publicly, and even to suggest or imply something disparaging about another, without naming a person specifically. When it comes to gossiping, one can find an allusion to its severity from the Torah itself, which states “You shall not go as a talebearer among your people, neither shall you stand idly by the blood of your fellow” (Leviticus 19:16). In a single verse, the Torah juxtaposes gossiping with failing to prevent bloodshed. One can learn from this that one who listens to gossip (specifically where another person is spoken of unfavourably) without trying to stop it is like one standing idly while the “blood” of another is being shed.
One question frequently asked about this is whether lashon hara applies between a husband and wife. We saw that the Talmud states lashon hara is especially horrible when spoken in secret between two people. Does this include a married couple as well? On the one hand, we want to distance ourselves from negative speech as much as possible, at all times. On the other hand, we expect a married couple to be allowed to speak freely between one another as they wish. After all, they are two halves of one soul and considered a singular unit.
The Chafetz Chaim (Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, 1839-1933), generally considered the greatest authority on lashon hara, forbids such speech even between husband and wife. However, many other great authorities before and after him (including Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, 1910-1995, and the Chazon Ish, Rabbi Avraham Isaiah Karelitz, 1878-1953) ruled on the contrary, and permitted a husband and wife to speak about whatever is on their mind, particularly if something bothers them. Technically, even the Chafetz Chaim is lenient in a case where a spouse is in distress and needs to get something off their shoulders.
Still, all agree that we should limit negative words as much as possible, and certainly keep gossip to a minimum. Of course, when negative words have a constructive purpose, it is not considered lashon hara at all, whether between spouses or fellows. This is the case if a person undoubtedly knows, for example, that a particular contractor or salesman is dishonest, and tells a friend in order to protect them from harm.
Repairing Evil Speech, Repairing the World
In the days of the Temple, the kohanim would bring about atonement for the nation through sacrifices and various offerings and rituals. The most important time for atonement was Yom Kippur, and the greatest atonement ritual of the day was when the Kohen Gadol, the high priest, would enter the Holy of Holies (just once a year) and fill it with incense smoke. What was the ultimate purpose of this? The Talmud (Arakhin 16a) states that it served to atone for lashon hara! This was especially necessary because, elsewhere, the Talmud (Bava Batra 165a) states: “Many transgress the law of stealing, few transgress the prohibition of adultery, and all transgress lashon hara.” Everyone is guilty of negative speech, at least to some degree. How do we repair this sin, especially when we don’t have a Temple today?
The Talmud (Arakhin 15b) states that if one is a Torah scholar, they should learn more Torah, and if one is not a Torah scholar, they should strive to be more humble. Like all the other statements, support is brought from verses in Tanakh. King Solomon said “A healing tongue is a tree of life” (Proverbs 15:4). The Sages see the use of the word tongue (lashon) as alluding to lashon hara, and therefore if one wants to heal their lashon hara, they should cleave to the Tree of Life. What is the Tree of Life? King Solomon himself said in another place (Proverbs 3:18) that the Torah is a Tree of Life! Therefore, to rectify the sin of lashon hara one should study Torah.
Upon closer examination, we see that Torah study is actually the perfect remedy for lashon hara. When a person speaks lashon hara they are using their tongue in a negative way and infusing bad energy into the world. When a person learns Torah (which is traditionally done vocally), they are using their tongue in a positive way and infusing good energy into the world. The balance is thereby restored, measure for measure. On top of this, the purpose of Torah study is ultimately to make a person better. The Torah is the best tool to counter the yetzer hara, the evil inclination, as God Himself declared: “I have created the evil inclination, and I have created the Torah as its remedy” (Sifre Devarim, 45). Thus, a person who learns Torah simultaneously neutralizes the evil speech they have spoken and refines their inner qualities so that they will not participate in evil speech in the future.
On that note, there are two kinds of people when it comes to lashon hara: those that like to speak it, and those that love listening to it. The latter often quell their conscience by telling themselves that they never speak lashon hara, God forbid, but only passively, faultlessly, hear it. As we’ve seen above, the listener is almost as culpable as the speaker. Thankfully, there is a remedy for this, too. While many don’t necessarily learn Torah directly from a sefer or on their own, today we have unlimited potential to learn Torah by listening to lectures. These are shared widely on social media, and through digital devices, on apps, and over the radio. Every person today is a click away from Torah learning.
This takes us back to the Talmud, which stated that a Torah scholar can repair lashon hara by learning, while one who is not a Torah scholar should become more humble. The big question here is how can a person just “become more humble”? Humility is one of the most difficult traits to attain! We might even say that the Talmud should have required the Torah scholar—who is constantly learning, growing, and working on themselves—to “become more humble”, not the other way around! How can we make sense of the Talmud?
To prove the point about the non-Torah scholar, the Talmud uses that same verse from Proverbs: “A healing tongue is a tree of life, while perverseness through it will break the spirit.” The plain reading of the verse is that a person who uses their tongue for positive, healing purposes is likened to a Tree of Life, while one who uses their tongue for perverseness is destroying their soul. The Sages take the latter half of the verse to mean, on a simple level, that one who uses their tongue for perverseness should “break their spirit”, ie. become more humble, in order to rectify the sin. There is also a deeper way to read that same verse.
To solve the puzzle, one needs to re-examine what “it” (bah, in Hebrew) refers to. The simple meaning is that “it” refers to the tongue, and one who speaks perverseness through it (the tongue) will break their spirit. However, the verse can just as easily be read so that “it” refers to the Tree of Life. If so, the verse is read this way: “A healing tongue is a tree of life while perverseness, through it [the Tree of Life] will break the spirit.” What is it that will “break” one’s spirit and cause them to become humble? The Tree of Life itself!
Therefore, it is specifically the learning of Torah, the Tree of Life, that brings one to more humility. With this in mind, if we go back to the Talmudic statement of our Sages, what they are saying is: The Torah scholar should rectify their sin by learning more Torah, as they have yet to attain the proper level of holiness, while a non-Torah scholar should learn by listening to more Torah, for this will have the same effect of bringing a person to humility, and rectifying lashon hara.
At the end, this rectification is what will bring Mashiach. In Kabbalistic texts, the generation before Mashiach is in the sefirah of Yesod, which is concerned primarily with sexuality. It is not a coincidence that this is one of the major global issues today. The time following Mashiach’s coming is that of the final sefirah, Malkhut, “Kingdom”. One of the most famous passages from the Tikkunei Zohar is “Patach Eliyahu”, customarily recited before the prayers. There we are told that “Malkhut is the mouth, the Oral Torah.” While Yesod is the sexual organ, Malkhut is the mouth; it is Torah sh’be’al Peh, the Oral Torah, literally “Torah on the mouth”. The key path to realizing Mashiach, Malkhut, is by rectifying the mouth, which is done through the study of Torah.*
As we prepare for Pesach, we should remember the Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah, ch. 32) which states that the Israelites were redeemed from Egypt in the merit of four things: for not changing their names, not forgetting their language, not engaging in sexual sins, and not speaking lashon hara. The same is true if we wish to bring about the Final Redemption. Not engaging in sexual immorality is a direct reference to Yesod, while the other three all deal with the holy tongue, with proper speech and Malkut: using holy names, speaking the Holy Language, and making sure to speak only positive words.
*More specifically, the first rectification is that of the “lower mouth”, Yesod, a tikkun that will be fulfilled by Mashiach ben Yosef. This is followed by the tikkun of the upper mouth, Malkhut, fulfilled by Mashiach ben David (of whom the Prophet says he will slay evil with his mouth, Isaiah 11:4) bringing about God’s perfect Kingdom on Earth.
This week’s parasha begins with the passing of Sarah, the first Matriarch. We read how Abraham “eulogized Sarah and bewailed her” (Genesis 23:2). Today, the ritual most associated with Jewish death and mourning is undoubtedly the recitation of Kaddish. This has become one of those quintessentially Jewish things that all Jews—regardless of background, denomination, or religious level—tend to be very careful about. It is quite common to see people who otherwise never come to the synagogue to show up regularly when a parent or spouse dies, only to never be seen again as soon as the mourning period is over. Kaddish has become so prevalent that it has gone mainstream, featured in film and on TV (as in Rocky III and in the popular Rugrats cartoon), on stage (in Angels in America and Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony no. 3), and in literature (with bestselling novels like Kaddish in Dublin, and Kaddish For an Unborn Child).
Sylvester Stallone, as Rocky Balboa, recites Kaddish for his beloved coach and mentor.
And yet, the origins of Kaddish are entirely clouded in mystery. It isn’t mentioned in the Tanakh, nor is there any discussion of reciting Kaddish for the dead in the Mishnah or Talmud. Even in the Rambam’s monumental Jewish legal code, the Mishneh Torah—just over 800 years old—there is no discussion of a Mourner’s Kaddish. Where did it come from?
Praying for Redemption
The Talmud refers to Kaddish in a number of places (such as Berakhot 3a, for example), though not in association with mourning the dead. Around the same time, we see a prayer very similar to Kaddish in the New Testament (Matthew 6:9-13), which has since become known as the “Lord’s Prayer” among Christians. This suggests that Kaddish existed before the schism between Judaism and Christianity, and this is one reason scholars date the composition of Kaddish to the late Second Temple era.
Many believe that it was composed in response to Roman persecution. The text of the Kaddish makes it clear from the very beginning that it is a request for God to speedily bring about His great salvation. It certainly makes sense that such a prayer would be composed in those difficult Roman times. In fact, the first words of Kaddish are based on Ezekiel 38:23, in the midst of the Prophet’s description of the End of Days (the famous “Gog u’Magog”), where God says v’itgadalti v’itkadashti. The Sages hoped the travails they were struggling through were the last “birth pangs” of the End Times.
In Why We Pray What We Pray, Barry Freundel argues that Kaddish was originally recited at the end of a lecture or a Torah learning session—as continues to be done today. It likely came at a time when public Torah learning or preaching was forbidden, as we know was the case in the time of Rabbi Akiva. So, the Sages ended their secret learning sessions with a prayer hoping that the Redemption would soon come, and they would once more be able to safely preach in public.
If that’s the case, how did Kaddish become associated with mourning the dead?
The Mourner’s Kaddish
Freundel points out that the earliest connection between Kaddish and the souls of the dead is from the Heikhalot texts. These are the most ancient works of Jewish mystical literature, going as far back as the early post-Second Temple era. (Scholars date the earliest texts to the 3rd century CE). One of these texts reads:
In the future, the Holy One, blessed be He, will reveal the depths of Torah to Israel… and David will recite a song before God, and the righteous will respond after him: “Amen, yehe sheme rabba mevorach l’olam u’l’olmei olmaya itbarach” from the midst of the Garden of Eden. And the sinners of Israel will answer “Amen” from Gehinnom.
Immediately, God says to the angels: “Who are these that answer ‘Amen’ from Gehinnom?” [The angels] say before Him: “Master of the Universe, these are the sinners of Israel who, even though they are in great distress, they strengthen themselves and say ‘Amen’ before You.” Immediately, God says to the angels: “Open for them the gates of the Garden of Eden, so that they can come and sing before Me…”
The Heikhalot connect Kaddish (specifically its central verse, “May His great Name be blessed forever and for all eternity…”) to a Heavenly prayer that will be recited at the End of Days, when the souls in Gehinnom will finally have reprieve. We can already start to see how this might relate to mourning, or spiritually assisting, the recently deceased.
This is related to another well-known story that is by far the most-oft used as the origin of Kaddish. In this narrative, a certain great sage—usually Rabbi Akiva, but sometimes Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai—sees a person covered in ash and struggling with piles of lumber. The poor person explains that he is actually dead, and his eternal punishment (reminiscent of popular Greek mythology) is to forever gather wood, only to be burned in the flames of that wood, and to repeat it all over again. The Sage asks if there is anything he could do to help, to which the dead man replies that if only his son would say a particular prayer, he would be relieved of his eternal torment.
The nature of that prayer varies from one story to the next. In some, it is the Shema, in others it is Barchu, and in others it is a reading of the Haftarah (see, for example, Kallah Rabbati 2, Machzor Vitry 144, Zohar Hadash on Acharei Mot, and Tanna d’Vei Eliyahu Zuta 17). It is only in later versions of the story that the prayer the son must say is Kaddish. Whatever the case, between the Heikhalot texts, and these Midrashic accounts, we now have a firm connection linking Kaddish with the deceased.
I believe there is one more significant (yet overlooked) source to point out:
The most important part of the Kaddish is undoubtedly the verse yehe sheme rabba mevorach l’olam u’l’olmei olmaya. As we saw in the Heikhalot above, this is the part that especially arouses God’s mercy. The Talmud (Berakhot 3a) agrees when it says essentially the same thing about the entire congregation reciting aloud “yehe sheme hagadol mevorach”. These special words are based on several Scriptural verses, such as Psalm 113:2 and Daniel 2:20. It also appears in Job 1:21.
Here, Job suffers the death of all of his children. Upon hearing the tragic news, he famously says: “…naked I came out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; the Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” In Hebrew it reads: Adonai natan, v’Adonai lakach, yehi shem Adonai mevorach. The parallel is striking. The first person in history to recite the great “yehe sheme rabba” upon the death of a family member is none other than Job. In some way, Job may be the originator of the Mourner’s Kaddish.
Birth of a Custom
Officially, the earliest known mention of reciting Kaddish for the dead is Sefer HaRokeach, by Rabbi Elazar of Worms (c. 1176-1238). Shortly after, his student Rabbi Itzchak of Vienna (1200-1270) writes in his Ohr Zarua that Ashkenazim have a custom to recite Kaddish upon the dead. He explicitly states that Tzarfati Jews (and as an extension, Sephardic Jews) do not have such a custom.
That much is already clear from the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204), the greatest of Sephardic sages in his day, who makes no mention of a Mourner’s Kaddish anywhere in his comprehensive Mishneh Torah. (The Rambam does speak about the regular Kaddish, unrelated to the dead, which is recited throughout the daily prayers.) We see that in his time, Kaddish was still a strictly Ashkenazi practice. Why is it that Ashkenazi Jews in particular began to say Kaddish for the dead?
Most scholars believe the answer lies within the Crusades. The First Crusade (1095-1099) was a massive disaster for Europe’s Ashkenazi Jews. While the Crusades were meant to free the Holy Land from Muslim domination, many local Christians argued that there was no need to fight the heathen all the way in the Holy Land when there were so many local Jewish “heathens” among them. The result is what is referred to as “the Rhineland massacres”, described by some as “the First Holocaust”. Countless Jews were slaughtered.
Like in the times of Roman persecution a millennium earlier, the Ashkenazi Sages sought comfort in the words of Kaddish, beseeching the coming of God’s Final Redemption, and at the same time seeking to honour the poor souls of the murdered. It therefore isn’t surprising that Rabbi Elazar of Worms is the first to speak of Kaddish for the dead, as his hometown of Worms (along with the town of Speyer) was among the first to be attacked, in May of 1096.
It is important to remember that Rabbi Elazar was a member of the Hasidei Ashkenaz, the “German Pietist” movement known for its mysticism and asceticism (not to be confused with the much later Hasidic movement). The Hasidei Ashkenaz would have been particularly well-versed in Heikhalot and Midrashim. Everything points to this group as being the true originators of reciting Kaddish for the dead.
The practice spread from there. Indeed, there was a great deal of Jewish migration in those turbulent times. For example, one of the greatest Ashkenazi sages, Rabbeinu Asher (c. 1250-1327), was born in Cologne, Germany, but fled persecution and settled in Toledo, Spain. His renowned sons, Rabbi Yakov ben Asher (Ba’al HaTurim, c. 1269-1343), and Rabbi Yehudah ben Asher (c. 1270-1349) continued to lead the Sephardic Jewish community of Toledo. And it was there in Toledo that was born one of the greatest of Sephardi sages, Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575), author of the Shulchan Arukh, still the primary code of Jewish law.
In the Shulchan Arukh we read how reciting Kaddish at a funeral is a must (Yoreh De’ah 376:4). We are then told that there is a custom based on the Midrash to continue reciting Kaddish for twelve months, though only for a parent, and possibly only for a father. The reasoning for the latter is entirely different: since it is a father’s obligation to teach his son Torah, by reciting Kaddish the son demonstrates that the father had fulfilled the mitzvah, and left behind a proper Jewish legacy.
It is quite amazing to see that as late as 500 years ago, Mourner’s Kaddish was still defined in very narrow terms, and described as more of a custom based on Midrash than an absolute halachic necessity. How did it transform into a supreme Jewish prayer?
Enter the Arizal
As with many other Jewish practices we find so common today, it looks like it was the influence of the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572), history’s foremost Kabbalist, that made the Mourner’s Kaddish so universal, and so essential. Fittingly, he was the perfect candidate for the job, being the product of an Ashkenazi father and a Sephardi mother, and ending his life as the leader of the Sephardi sages of Tzfat.
The Arizal discussed the mysteries of Kaddish at great length. Like most of his teachings, they were put to paper by his primary disciple, Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620). The latter devotes a dozen dense pages to Kaddish in Sha’ar HaKavanot. He first explains the various forms of Kaddish recited during the regular prayer services. In brief, we find that Kaddish is recited between the major prayer sections because each part of the prayer is associated with a different mystical universe, and a different Heavenly Palace, and Kaddish facilitates the migration from one world to the next.
Recall that Kabbalah describes Creation in four universes or dimensions: Asiyah, Yetzirah, Beriah, and Atzilut. The four sections of prayer correspond to the four ascending universes: the morning blessings and the first prayers up until Hodu correspond to Asiyah; the Pesukei d’Zimrah corresponds to Yetzirah; the Shema and its blessings parallel Beriah; and the climax of the prayer, the Amidah, is Atzilut, the level of pure Divine Emanation. For this reason, the Amidah is recited in complete silence and stillness, for at the level of Atzilut, one is entirely unified with God.
The Arizal delves in depth into the individual letters and gematrias of Kaddish, its words and phrases, and how they correspond to various names of God and Heavenly Palaces. He relays the proper meditations to have in mind when reciting the different types of Kaddish, at different stages of prayer. To simplify, the Arizal teaches that Kaddish helps us move ever higher from one world to the next, and more cosmically, serves to elevate the entire universe into higher dimensions. We can already see how this would be related to assisting the dead, spiritually escorting the soul of the deceased higher and higher through the Heavenly realms.
More intriguingly, Rabbi Vital writes that Kaddish is meant to prepare the soul for the Resurrection of the Dead. He goes on to cite his master in saying that Kaddish should be recited every single day, including Shabbat and holidays, for an entire year following the passing of a parent. He says that Kaddish not only helps to free a soul from Gehinnom, but more importantly to help it attain Gan Eden. It elevates all souls, even righteous ones. This is why one should say Kaddish for a righteous person just as much as for a wicked person, and this is why it should be said even on Shabbat (when souls in Gehinnom are given rest). Rabbi Vital then says how the Arizal would also say Kaddish every year on the anniversary of his father’s death, which is now the norm as well.
Ironically, while Kaddish began as an Ashkenazi custom, Rabbi Vital writes that the Arizal made sure to recite Kaddish according to the Sephardi text!
Repairing the World
Another interesting point that Rabbi Vital explains is why Kaddish is in Aramaic, and not Hebrew like the rest of the prayers. He reminds us the words of the Zohar that both Hebrew and Aramaic are written with the exact same letters because these are the Divine Letters of Creation, but Hebrew comes from the side of purity and holiness, while Aramaic is from the “other side” of impurity and darkness. Hebrew is the language of the angels, while Aramaic is the language of the impure spirits. The angels speak Hebrew, but do not understand Aramaic, while their antagonists speak Aramaic, and do not understand Hebrew. When we learn Torah and Mishnah, in Hebrew, we please the angels who take our words up to Heaven. When we learn Talmud and Zohar, in Aramaic, we destroy those dark spirits who cannot stand the fact that a person is using their tongue for words of light and holiness.
The same applies to our prayers. The bulk of our prayers are in holy Hebrew, the language of angels. Kaddish is in Aramaic because it is meant to elevate us, and the universe around us, into higher dimensions. In this vital task, we cannot risk elevating the impure spirits along with us, contaminating the upper worlds. Thus, by saying it in Aramaic, we push away the impure spirits who are unable to withstand us using their language in purity. Those evil forces are driven away, and we can ascend and rectify in complete purity.
This, in brief, is the tremendous power of Kaddish. This is why we recite it so many times over the course of the day. And this is why every Jew is so mysteriously drawn to this prayer and ritual, possibly above all others. Deep inside the soul of every Jew—regardless of background, denomination, or religious level—is a yearning to repair the world, to destroy the impure, to uplift the universe, and to recite loudly: “May His great Name be blessed forever and for all eternity…”