The words of the Mourner’s Kaddish are familiar to so many of us: Yitgadal v’yitkadash ... They are spread throughout the service, marking the transition from one part to the next. We chant them, we say them, and we learn them as children – first how to say “Amen,” and then the more difficult Aramaic, the ancient language of the Kaddish. As b’nei mitzvah, we are suddenly counted in the minyan (group of 10 people required for certain Jewish prayers) needed to say them. We gather at the house of those in mourning so that that relatives can say them. And yet, the words, the meaning, remains unclear.
Why doesn’t the Mourner’s Kaddish mention the dead? We say Kaddish at gravesides and on yahrzeits (anniversaries of death), and yet it does not speak words of comfort to those of us who are mourning. We say it at Yizkor and memorial services, but it does not speak of the people we miss, nor teach us how to remember them.
What are the words of the Mourner’s Kaddish about?
We might begin to understand the mystery of the Mourner’s Kaddish through the familiar midrash (ancient commentary associated with biblical texts) about the Holy One. The Holy One of Blessing is not those of flesh and blood. When a human king, one of flesh and blood, creates a coin, sealed with his image, each coin looks the same. The image upon each one bears the same reflection of that king.
Not so for God. When the Holy One creates humanity in God’s own image, each human bears God’s image – and yet, each person look different, unique. To gaze upon a person is to see the image of the Creator of heaven and earth, acting in the world in their own way, blessing creation by carrying God’s face, as it were, into all they do.
And so, when a person dies, God’s image in the world is, as it were, diminished. The image of God on that person’s face no longer lives in the world. And so, at the grave and in recognition of the loss and in memory of the person who died, we say to God, yitgadal, “May you be increased.”
Because that person brought unique blessings into the world, brought holiness in their own individual way – and is now gone – it is as though God’s sanctity in the world is lessened. And so we also say to God, yitkadash, “May you be made holy” after such a loss.
And then, in the mysterious circle that exists between heaven and earth, between the Holy One and each of us, we pray that as, we comfort God for the loss of our loved one, God, in turn, will comfort us.
Rabbi Sandra Cohen teaches rabbinic texts, offers pastoral care, and works in mental health outreach, offering national scholar-in-residence programs. She and her husband live in Denver, CO. Rabbi Cohen was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati in 1995.