Kaddish ("holiness") is an ancient Jewish prayer praising and glorifying God, recited at fixed points of the public prayer of the synagogue, at funeral services, and by mourners of a deceased parent or close relatives.
Kaddish was not composed at one specific time and in its formative stage did not have a fixed text. The earliest form of Kaddish may be traced to the period of the Tanaim, after the destruction of the second temple (70 C.E.), when the initial section, yehe shemeh rabbah mevarakh le'olam ule-almei almaya ("may His great name be blessed forever and for all eternity"), was recited after public discourses on Sabbaths and Festivals. This refrain is a paraphrase of the Temple formula barukh shem kevod malkhuto leolam va'ed ("Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever"), which was recited by the congregation upon hearing the High Priest utter God's name (Mishnah Yoma 3:8). The prayer during that time did not assume the name "kaddish" but was known by its opening words, Yehe shemeh rabbah ("may His great name").
The Kaddish text, Yitgadal Ve-yitkadash, ("Glorified and hallowed") was formulated and assumed the name "Kaddish" during the period of the post-Talmudic Rabbis—the Saboraim (c. 700 C.E.). The earliest literary reference connecting Kaddish with mourners is in the post-Talmudic tractate Sofrim (eighth century). This treatise includes a description of how on the Sabbath the cantor (a synagogue official) bestowed special honor and mercy to the mourners by approaching them outside the synagogue and reciting in their presence the final Kaddish of the Musaf ("additional") service (Sofrim 19:9).
During the First Crusade (especially in the aftermath of the Franco-German expulsions of the 1090s), Kaddish became a liturgical obligation to be recited by mourners and appended to the conclusion of daily prayer. At first it was recited only by minors (and was called Kaddish Yatom, ("the orphans' Kaddish") who, according to Jewish law, are not permitted to lead congregational prayers. Gradually Jewish communities adopted Kaddish as a prayer for all adult mourners during the first year of mourning. At a later stage, Kaddish was instituted as a mourner's prayer for the Yahrzeit —the anniversary of a parent's death (attributed to Rabbi Jacob Molin (1360–1427)).
The significance of Kaddish is honoring the soul of the deceased by the mourner, who sanctifies God's name in public through the opening lines, Yitgadal Ve-Yitkadash Shemeh Rabbah, Be'almah dievrah chire'usei ("Hallowed be the name of God in the world that he has created according to his will"). By reciting Kaddish, one justifies divine judgment following the Rabbinic maxim, "Bless God for the harsh as well as for the merciful" (Berakhot 9:5).
Late Midrashic legends emphasize the redeeming powers associated with Kaddish. A recurring motif in these tales refers to an orphan having saved a deceased parent from the torments of Hell by reciting Kaddish in his memory; this happens even though no word in Kaddish refers to the dead. As a mourner's prayer, Kaddish's praise of God in the hour of bereavment and mourning is a sublime expression of faith. Its prayer for the revelation of God's kingdom diverts the individual from personal grief to the hope of all humanity.
With the exception of the final Hebrew clause, oseh shalom bimromav ("He who makes peace in the heavens"), Kaddish is in Aramaic, the vernacular spoken particularly by the common people at the time of its crystallization into a formal prayer.
Elbogen, Ismar. Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1993.
Higger, Michael. Masechet Sofrim. New York, 1937.
Pool, David de Sola. The Old Jewish Aramaic Prayer, the Kaddish. Leipzig, Germany: Druglin, 1909.
Telsner, David. The Kaddish, Its History, and Significance. Jerusalem: Tal Orot Institute, 1995.