Mourner's Kaddish: Honoring the Dead and Comforting Mourners - Lesson Plan for Youth
This lesson plan is part of a larger Go & Learn guide entitled “Henrietta Szold on Saying Kaddish.”
Note to Teacher/Facilitatior
From time to time, educators have the difficult responsibility of helping our students cope with the sad but real news of the death of a community member. Whether it is another child, a parent, a teacher or rabbi, or a beloved grandparent who has passed away, students can find comfort in learning the life-affirming rituals of the Jewish response to death. We can help them in their own mourning process by giving them the tools to take part in two of the most highly regarded Jewish values: kevod hamet (honoring the dead) and nichum avelim (comforting the mourners). This lesson is designed to be used either in helping students understand and take appropriate action at the time of a death in the community or as a lesson among others on the Jewish life cycle or Jewish values. There are three parts to this lesson, and if you have the teaching resources, you might break up into smaller groups of students and conduct this session by having groups rotate through three learning stations.
Saying Kaddish/history of Kaddish
Ask: What is the name of the prayer that Jews say daily when they are in recent mourning, or annually as they remember the anniversary of the death of a loved one? (Answer: Mourner’s Kaddish/Kaddish Yatom).
Ask: What would you expect a “mourner’s prayer” to include? What do you think would be helpful for someone who is mourning the loss of a loved one to hear and say daily?
Explain that the Mourner’s Kaddish does not actually dwell on the theme of death, or use the expected words of comfort; that it was not originally even intended to be a mourner’s prayer.
Ask the students to imagine a long, long time ago. In the Rabbinic period (approx. 500 B.C.E. to 500 C.E.), people would come to a house or a beit midrash, a place of learning, to study with a great teacher or rabbi. When the rabbi had finished his teaching, the students would stand and say a “Kaddish,” a sanctification, an acknowledgement that God is the greatest teacher and a prayer of gratitude for being able to learn that day. It was really a learner’s Kaddish. Now, if a rabbi passed away, the students would still gather and study together as a way to honor the memory of their teacher. Then the son of the rabbi would stand and recite this “Learner’s Kaddish.” Eventually (in the 6th century c.e.), this ritual changed: the students would come specifically to say the Kaddish, rather than to learn together. People felt that the Kaddish was such a meaningful way to honor the person who had died that the ritual evolved, so that not just the sons of rabbis were saying it, but any son, and eventually, any close relative, of any Jewish person who passed away would say the kaddish in honor and memory of their loved one. Some parents felt so comforted and honored by the idea of having someone to say Kaddish for them when they died, that they would call their son “my Kaddish,” as in “this is the one who will say Kaddish for me.”
So what does the Mourner’s Kaddish say? The essence is, “God exists. You are not alone. Life is sacred. May God bring peace to you and all of Israel.” Because mourners traditionally stand when saying Kaddish, the congregation can see them and offer them comfort. As the mourners recite the prayer “Yitgadal v’yitkadash, sh’mei rabah,” (“May God’s great Name be exalted and sanctified,”) the congregation responds, “Amen,” and “Y’hei sh’mei rabah m’vorach le’olam va’ed” (“May God’s great Name be blessed for ever and ever.”) The prayer is in Aramaic, and the words don’t speak of death or comfort. Rather, the mourner’s Kaddish is like a comforting mantra for the mourner, and a way for the rest of the community to give the mourner a reassuring hand. Mourners say that reciting Kaddish is like saying “We are remembering our loved ones and we are here in this community, seeking comfort and reminding ourselves of God’s presence and greatness. We join all the other Jewish people before us for all of the generations who stood to say this prayer in times of grief.” And the community says, “We’re here with you. God is here with you. We wish you peace and comfort, as all of the generations before us have been comforted.”
Women’s role in saying Kaddish
Explain: Just as the tradition of saying Kaddish evolved from a learner’s prayer to a mourner’s prayer, and from a way of honoring rabbis to a way of honoring any Jewish person who had died, the Kaddish has evolved more recently, from something only men were allowed to say within a traditional minyan (prayer quorum), to something that women have petitioned to be allowed to say for their relatives as well. (Background: The traditional rule about women’s involvement in Jewish rituals is that they were exempt from the obligation to participate in positive, time-bound commandments. These are the obligations that take place at a certain time every day or week, such as a morning minyan. Women were still obligated to pray daily, but not at a certain time, and not with a community. Not being obligated, at some point, was interpreted as not being allowed, in many communities, to participate in or lead these prayers and rituals.)
Henrietta Szold and Kaddish
Explain: Henrietta Szold lived from 1860-1945 and is best known as the founder of Hadassah. When her mother died in 1916, a close friend of her family name Haym Peretz, who knew that there were daughters but no sons, offered to say Kaddish for Szold’s mother. This is the letter she wrote to Peretz, gently refusing his offer. Ask a student to read this letter in a clear voice. Discuss:
- Why do you think Peretz offered to say Kaddish for Szold’s mother?
- What were Szold’s reasons for wanting to say the Mourner’s Kaddish herself? Do you think she was justified?
- In what ways is this letter honoring the memory of her mother? (Some examples include: speaks of her mother with respect, remembers the values and strengths of her mother, affirms her wish to carry on these values, and became a testament to this wish that we still read, 90 years later.)
Women are now allowed and encouraged to say Kaddish in all non-Orthodox Jewish communities. Different Orthodox communities have varying rules. Women still don’t count for a minyan (there must be ten men), but some Orthodox rabbis allow women to say Kaddish along with the minyan, or quietly to themselves. Some authorities say women should only say Kaddish if there is not a brother or son to say it for the family, and others believe women should not say Kaddish at all.
Kaddish fulfills two important Jewish obligations
Explain: You can see from the story above that the Kaddish works in two important ways. It is a comfort to the mourner, and it honors those who have died. Saying Kaddish as a mourner fulfills the mitzvah, the obligation, of “kevod hamet,” honoring someone who has died. Just as the mourner has obligations to his/her family member who has passed away, the community has obligations to take care of and comfort the mourner. This is called “nichum avelim.” Since a minyan (a quorum of ten Jewish men traditionally, or ten Jewish adults in non-Orthodox communities) is needed for the mourner to say the Kaddish, gathering at a shiva house or at synagogue to make up the minyan for the mourner is one of the obligations of nichum avelim.
Define these terms:
- Kevod hamet: sitting with a person after they have passed away, washing them and wrapping them in clean white clothing, burying them quickly, saying Kaddish for them, remembering them through acts of tzedakah (righteousness/justice/charity) in their name.
- Nichum avelim: helping mourners with preparations for the burial, coming to the house during the shiva period, bringing food, offering comforting words and helping them remember their loved one, sending cards of condolence.
- Then ask: Do you know of other ways in which Jewish communities participate in these sacred actions of kevod hamet and nichum avelim?
At this point, depending on the context of this lesson, you may want to conclude with one of the following:
- Write letters of condolence to a friend or community member who is in mourning. (You might want to use Ron Wolfson’s “How to write a condolence letter” in A Time to Mourn, A Time to Comfort.)
- Organize a tzedakah project that would honor someone in the community who has passed away recently.
- Ask a member of your hevra kadisha (society for taking care of the dead) to come and discuss the hevra and its roles.
- Show the section of Schindler’s List when the Kaddish is recited for all the Jews who perished in the Holocaust, and discuss the recent tradition among some liberal Jewish congregations of having the entire congregation stand to say Kaddish, since there are so many people who died in the Holocaust who have no one left to say Kaddish for them.
- Ask students to write a letter remembering a grandparent or other family member who is no longer living, and consider with your students what they already do or might do from now on to honor the memory of that relative, by acting out their values, saying Kaddish, etc.
- Teach the words of the Mourner’s Kaddish.