Henrietta Szold on Saying Kaddish
Jewish tradition is filled with rituals that help us mark moments of joy and pain, and through which we can honor family members and the values they have passed on to us. Among these are powerful practices around death—such as saying Kaddish (the Jewish prayer for mourners) and sitting shiva. Traditionally, women did not recite the Kaddish or participate in the minyan (prayer quorum) at shiva. In 1916, in an early example of what would be many challenges by women to the restrictions on their participation in Jewish ritual, Henrietta Szold (the founder of Hadassah) defied Jewish tradition and asserted her right to say Kaddish. In the letter featured in this edition of "Go & Learn," Szold politely declines the offer of a male family friend to say Kaddish for her mother and sets out her reasons for reciting it herself.
- Henrietta Szold challenged the traditional restrictions placed on women in Jewish communal and spiritual life.
- Henrietta Szold's life and career proved both a model and a catalyst for transforming and redefining possibilities for women in Jewish communal life.
- What are the reasons that Henrietta Szold cites in her letter to explain why she can’t allow a male family friend to say Kaddish for her mother?
- Through her letter, what statement(s) does Henrietta Szold make about the role of women in Jewish religious life?
Biography: Henrietta Szold (1860–1945)
Best known as the founder of Hadassah, Henrietta Szold was a dedicated and influential community leader, as well as an essayist, translator, and editor. Raised by her immigrant parents to be deeply committed to the Jewish people and the world of Jewish tradition and scholarship, she became one of the few women of her generation to play a foundational role in creating a meaningful American Jewish culture.
Szold began her community influence as an educator, teaching at her congregation's religious school as a teenager, and after high school graduation, at a local private school. In addition to her home and school responsibilities, Szold began contributing a regular column to the Jewish Messenger. Szold's observations and critique of American Jewish culture garnered attention among American Judaism's intellectual leaders; she became the only woman elected to the publication committee of the newly formed Jewish Publication Society in 1888 and was one of only two women invited to speak at the Jewish Congress held at Chicago's 1893 Columbian Exposition.
Beginning in the late 1870s, Szold worked with Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia—an experience that transformed her into a Zionist. From the Russian intellectuals she met, she absorbed the nationalist dream of creating a Jewish community in Palestine. In 1893, Szold joined Baltimore's new Zionist Association, and in 1896, a month before Theodore Herzl's first Zionist writing appeared, she published a lecture outlining her Zionist views. In 1898, she joined the executive committee of the new Federation of American Zionists.
In 1902, Szold moved to New York to study at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), where she was allowed the status of special student based on her assurance that she would not seek rabbinic ordination. At JTS, Szold joined a community of individuals focused, like her, upon creating meaningful spiritual and intellectual resources for American Jews. In New York, Szold also participated in one of several women's Zionist study circles.
In 1909, Szold and her mother traveled to Palestine, where they were appalled by widespread poverty and disease. Back in New York, Szold immersed herself more deeply in Zionist activities. Convinced of American Jewish women's potential to help create a Jewish homeland, she turned to the Zionist study groups. In 1912, 38 women created a women's Zionist organization devoted to promoting Jewish institutions in Palestine and fostering Jewish ideals. Szold was elected president.
Szold was instrumental in shaping the new women's organization, formally named Hadassah in 1914. Under her leadership, Hadassah became the largest American Zionist organization and created the infrastructure for a modern medical system in Palestine that would serve both Jews and Arabs. Szold spent much of her last 25 years in Palestine, overseeing educational, health, and social service institutions that became an integral part of the State of Israel. Although she often felt slighted by the male Zionist leadership, she was elected to influential roles within Palestine's Jewish community and international Zionism.
Szold applied her determined sense of purpose to her personal life as well as to her work in the public sphere. Upon her mother's death in 1916, Szold insisted on saying Kaddish, despite the traditional view that only sons can fulfill this duty. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg cites Szold's letter to Haym Peretz on saying Kaddish for her mother as source of personal inspiration: "Szold's plea for celebration of our common heritage while tolerating, indeed appreciating, the differences among us concerning religious practice is captivating. I recall her words even to this day when a colleague's position betrays a certain lack of understanding."
In her 70s, Szold directed Youth Aliyah, an organization that resettled 11,000 children from nations under the Nazi shadow came in Palestine. Her intense commitment to the children of Youth Aliyah gained the childless Szold recognition, throughout Palestine and the Jewish world, as a true mother in Israel. When she died in 1945, thousands attended her funeral, and a boy from one of the last Youth Aliyah transports said Kaddish.
In an interview conducted when she was 75 years old, Szold noted that her greatest assets were "a strong constitution, a devotion to duty and a big conscience," together with "a flair for organization" and "a pretty big capacity for righteous indignation." In her life and career, Henrietta Szold posed questions and faced challenges that Jewish women in North America and around the world continue to explore. Szold spent little time fighting for women's rights or pleading women's grievances. Yet in following what seemed, to her, her duty—from rescuing German Jewish youth to saying Kaddish for her mother—she proved the power of women's activism. Henrietta Szold's life and career proved both a model and a catalyst for transforming and redefining possibilities for women in Jewish communal life.
- For youth:
Mourner's Kaddish: Honoring the Dead and Comforting Mourners
- For family/congregational education:
From Generation to Generation: Honoring Family Memory
- For adults:
Confronting Tradition & Honoring Memories: Three Jewish Women in Mourning
Letter from Henrietta Szold
Letter from Henrietta Szold
Henrietta Szold’s letter to Haym Peretz on saying Kaddish for her mother
September 16, 1916
It is impossible for me to find words in which to tell you how deeply I was touched by your offer to act as “Kaddish” for my dear mother. I cannot even thank you — it is something that goes beyond thanks. It is beautiful, what you have offered to do — I shall never forget it.
You will wonder, then, that I cannot accept your offer. Perhaps it would be best for me not to try to explain to you in writing, but to wait until I see you to tell you why it is so. I know well, and appreciate what you say about, the Jewish custom; and Jewish custom is very dear and sacred to me. And yet I cannot ask you to say Kaddish after my mother. The Kaddish means to me that the survivor publicly and markedly manifests his wish and intention to assume the relation to the Jewish community which his parent had, and that so the chain of tradition remains unbroken from generation to generation, each adding its own link. You can do that for the generations of your family, I must do that for the generations of my family.
I believe that the elimination of women from such duties was never intended by our law and custom — women were freed from positive duties when they could not perform them, but not when they could. It was never intended that, if they could perform them, their performance of them should not be considered as valuable and valid as when one of the male sex performed them. And of the Kaddish I feel sure this is particularly true.
My mother had eight daughters and no son; and yet never did I hear a word of regret pass the lips of either my mother or my father that one of us was not a son. When my father died, my mother would not permit others to take her daughters’ place in saying the Kaddish, and so I am sure I am acting in her spirit when I am moved to decline your offer. But beautiful your offer remains nevertheless, and, I repeat, I know full well that it is much more in consonance with the generally accepted Jewish tradition than is my or my family’s conception. You understand me, don’t you?
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Henrietta Szold on Saying Kaddish." (Viewed on April 26, 2017) <https://jwa.org/teach/golearn/feb06>.