by Pamela Jay Gottfried (Atlanta, GA)
Growing up, all I knew about the Kaddish was that it was recited by children whose parents were dead, thus I was absolutely forbidden from saying it. An important tenet of folk religion –otherwise known as superstition– is that a child who recites Kaddish tempts the Angel of Death to take his or her parents from this earth. Traveling the country and teaching, I have found this tradition to be universally known and observed by Jews.
During my second year in rabbinical school I studied the history of the Kaddish and its role in Jewish liturgy. I was already aware that the words of the prayer had nothing to do with death, and that the person leading the recitation was in fact heaping praise upon God. But I was surprised to learn that the origin of the Kaddish was not as a mourner’s prayer at all. In its ancient formulation, as the Rabbi’s Kaddish or Kaddish d’Rabbanan, it was recited upon the conclusion of Torah study. The custom of mourners saying Kaddish arose centuries later.
It was in Rabbi Joel Roth’s classroom that I abandoned my attachment to superstitions about not saying the Kaddish and allowed the prayer to assert its primacy in my daily life. Like his colleagues in the Talmud & Rabbinics department, Rabbi Roth followed a pedagogic approach to the text that included calling upon the students to read, translate and explain passages without warning. This somewhat intimidating practice ensured that no student would attend class unprepared. Every class period was effectively a pop quiz, at least for the students called upon to read that day. It was also an opportunity for individual students to demonstrate their progress, which Rabbi Roth both encouraged and rewarded.
Toward the end of every 90-minute class, before we closed our volumes of Talmud, Rabbi Roth would take a laminated sheet from his desk and hand it to the student who “stood out” that day from among the group. Then we all stood together to recite the Rabbi’s Kaddish. When this privilege, an invitation to lead the prayer, was bestowed upon me for the first time that semester, my heart rejoiced. I felt my praises of God’s name rise up to join the chorus of angels in heaven. I still remember how I felt that morning, nearly half a lifetime ago.
These days, I attend a weekly Torah study at my doctor’s office. It is comprised of adult learners who are professionals in other fields. As a rabbi and the assigned facilitator, I am often the only one present who has prepared the text prior to class. Usually other members of the group volunteer to read aloud from the text, ask questions about the translations and commentaries, and readily offer their own interpretations of the material. At a well-attended session, six to eight friends sit around a conference table, enjoying coffee and snacks with Torah study and conversation. This past Wednesday, however, our host spent half the class moving chairs from every exam room into the break room. At the end of the hour I realized that we had a minyan – the quorum needed to say the Rabbi’s Kaddish. We quickly ascertained which direction was east, and I scrolled through the prayer book on my iPhone to find the words, fondly recalling Rabbi Roth’s laminated sheet. My heart sang as the chorus of students stood with me to praise God’s name.
Pamela Jay Gottfried is a rabbi, parent, teacher, artist, and the author of Found in Translation: Common Words of Uncommon Wisdom. A New York City native and graduate of The Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Gottfried teaches students of all ages in churches, colleges, community centers, schools, and synagogues. She strives for balance in her life by spending as much time writing at the computer as she does working at the pottery wheel.
You can read more of her work on her blog, Pamela’s Pekele (http://rabbipjg.blogspot.com/), where this piece first appeared. It’s reprinted here with the author’s kind permission.
And for more information about Gottfried, visit her website: http://www.pamelagottfried.com/