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Resources  •  Reflections on Kaddish

To Sanctify
by Arlene Goldbard

"The antidote to despair," said the great eighteenth-century teacher Rebbe Nachman of Bratslov, "is to remember olam ha-ba," ("the world to come"). Like most potent spiritual teachings, this one embodies a paradox. How can we remember what has not yet occurred? We do so by opening ourselves to the signs and reminders embedded everywhere in the world we inhabit. Our ally is ordinary reality's generous willingness to allow us glimpses of a perfected world through those experiences that remind us what it is to feel entirely alive and entirely connected: the soft, sweet skin of a newborn, a lover's gaze, the layered labyrinth of a rose in full bloom.

And so it is with art, which reveals layers of meaning hidden beneath whatever is apparent to ordinary eyes and ears. In art, what cannot be explained may still be fully experienced. In his 1951 philosophical masterwork, Man Is Not Alone, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, "When we begin to sing, we sing for all things. Essentially music does not describe that which is, rather it tries to convey that which reality stands for. The universe is a score of eternal music, and we are the cry, we are the voice." In a perfected world, as in Lawrence Siegel's song cycle, even the cry of the voiceless will be heard.

Kaddish is one of the oldest prayers in the Jewish liturgy. Its core text is written in the formal Aramaic of the study-houses of Palestine and Babylon, traceable through ancient writings to at least the year 600, with later additions in Hebrew. Linguists have found no definitive clues to its precise origins, nor even satisfactorily settled the question of whether its Aramaic sections were translated from an original Hebrew. (There is a Talmudic teaching that angels do not understand Aramaic, so one proffered explanation is that the prayer was written in that language to insure direct transmission to the highest realms, unimpeded by angelic intermediaries.)

According to tradition, the prayer's very name is a version of l'kadesh, meaning "to sanctify, to make holy." It is a song of hope and praise, a call-and-response traditionally recited only in the presence of a minyan, a quorum of ten. Kaddish asks the congregation not only to say Amayn ("So be it") to its many blessings, but, at a key point, to bless aloud Sh'meh Rabba, "the Great Name," for ever and ever. By blessing the holy name, the Kaddish doesn't presume to describe or quantify the Source of Life, but "tries to convey that which reality stands for," the perfected world that can rise from the brokenness of ordinary reality. Etz Yosef, a nineteenth-century commentary on the Hebrew prayer book by Rabbi Chanoch Zundel ben Yosef, suggests that the Holy One is in mourning over our mutual exile, God's from humanity and humanity's from God, so that the purpose of Kaddish is to comfort both humans and our Creator, unifying both realms.

Within this framework, the literal meaning of the prayer is like a wrapper or container enclosing formidable but hidden healing power. Specific words hint at biblical passages, adding layers of story, or suggesting forms of interpretation that yield deeper, mystical meanings. Thus, the first line of the Kaddish-Yitgaddal v'yitkaddash sh'meh rabba ("Exalted and sanctified is God's great name")-echoes Ezekiel 38:23, in which God, contemplating the terrible war of Gog and Magog, pronounces V'hitgadilti v'hitkadishti ("Thus will I magnify Myself, and sanctify Myself"), promising the renewal of holiness and wholeness that may follow great suffering. The initial letters of the first four words also make an anagram; yud, vov, shin and reish spell the Hebrew word yosher, which connotes integrity, straightness and honesty. Thus even the first few words send a triple message: their literal meaning, their assurance of an end to suffering through praising and turning our intentions toward what is most worthy, and the promise that the prayer is built to travel straight to its intended Destination.

Within the liturgy, Kaddish is a prayer of tremendous importance. Several variations are recited. For instance, the Kaddish d'Rabbanan (Rabbis' Kaddish) is repeated after studying the oral Torah or Talmud. Traditionally, the Hatzi Kaddish (half-Kaddish) is chanted with an upbeat melody at important way stations in the service: for example, to create a space between the recitation of Psalms in the Pesukei de'Zimrah and of the Shema, the peak declaration of Divine unity. In mystical Judaism, the comparison is drawn to Jacob's ladder in Genesis 28:12, which stood on the ground with its top reaching the heavens, with four rungs in between. The esoteric purpose of Kaddish, which is recited at four ascending points in the morning prayer service and four points in each of the other daily prayer services, is seen as facilitating ascent and descent through the multiple interconnected worlds of matter (Assiyah), feeling (Yetzirah), mind (Beriah) and ineffable Spirit (Atzilut), so that each recitation of Kaddish serves as a gate between worlds.

Rabbi Heschel coined the idea of "radical amazement" to describe the uncanny wonder of the human condition, the astounding truth that although our scientific explorations have taught us nearly everything about how the world works, they can never answer the fundamental question of why we are here, clinging to a rock hurtling through space-why we have been born. "We may doubt anything," he wrote in Man Is Not Alone, "except that we are struck with amazement. When in doubt, we raise questions; when in wonder, we do not even know how to ask a question. Doubts may be resolved, radical amazement can never be erased. There is no answer in the world to man's radical wonder. Under the running sea of our theories and scientific explanations lies the aboriginal abyss of radical amazement." In repeating the Kaddish at a time of bereavement or remembrance, we catch sight of that abyss.

Today, when someone declares the intention to "say Kaddish," the meaning is clear: That person is marking the time of mourning after a loved one's passing or honoring the anniversary of a death by repeating the Kaddish Yatom, the prayer that appears in Siegel's Kaddish and is chanted solemnly near the end of every service. Usually it is called the "Mourner's Kaddish," but, in literal translation, the Hebrew name means "alone" or "forsaken," so it is often called the "Orphan's Kaddish," an even sadder turn of phrase. In the traditional liturgy, it is the only Kaddish spoken, not sung.

The use of this prayer to honor the dead is mysterious, for it makes no mention of death or mourning. The written record of Kaddish being said for the dead dates from the thirteenth century; until the fifteenth century there is no record of the custom of reciting the prayer on a Yahrtzeit, the anniversary of a death. To me, the paradox of praise even in a time of pain expresses a perfected world, in which no single occurrence, even the loss of a dear one, erases the radical amazement that is our condition and consolation in this world.

That Jews survive—and more than survive, flourish—in defiance of the Holocaust is the wonder, the radical amazement underlying Siegel's song cycle. This work of words and music faces the weight of despair that oppresses us when we consider the lives and heritage lost in the Shoah and restores our awareness of a world to come-a tikkun olam, a world-repair-in which a survivor can return to Auschwitz to declare, "Here I am!"

Like the Kaddish, the lyrics of the final song in this cycle conceal hidden meanings, invoking ancient texts. Beneath the triumphant proclamation of a survivor, this line evokes a hidden history of presence in the face of terrifying power, an existential courage that begins with Abraham. This declaration, "Here I am"-in Hebrew, "Hineni!"-appears only eight times in primary biblical texts, seven in Genesis and once, with great significance for Jewish history, in Exodus. "Hineni!" responds Abraham three times, when God seeks him to prepare his son Isaac for sacrifice; "Hineni!" says Esau when his father Isaac calls him to his sickbed; and Esau's brother Jacob says it too, first when agreeing to go out to his brothers in the fields, then when impersonating Esau at Isaac's deathbed to steal his brother's blessing. Finally, when God calls Moses from within the burning bush to rise to respond to his people's sufferings in Egypt, despite the tremendous reluctance Moses expresses, he presents himself: "Hineni!"

Again, countless generations later, the chorus sings "I am here!" Once again, the ancient words of the Kaddish call out for peace in all worlds. V'imru Amayn. And let us say, "May it be so!"

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