Boundless Life - A Study in Kaddish

Dedicated with love to the memory of my dear friend, Rafi Guber, z"l

Though often recited in somber tones, with feelings of heaviness and loss, the Mourner's Kaddish (Kaddish Yatom, lit. "Orphan's Kaddish") does not in fact refer to loss or death, but rather to God - or more specifically, to sanctifying and glorifying God's name in public. Some may look at this declaration as a way to accrue heavenly merit for a deceased loved one. Others may derive comfort from the humbling thought that the ultimate reason behind our immense pain and suffering, the plan which it is all somehow supposed to fit into, is well beyond us, outside the domain of human comprehension. For most of course, there is comfort in simply being acknowledged as a mourner - in being noticed, not being alone.

I'd like introduce a new layer of meaning, an alternative line of interpretation - and translation - of Kaddish. We will focus here on one particular line, arguably the central statement of Kaddish: "Yehei shemei raba mevarakh le'alam ul-almei almaya," typically translated, "May [God's] great name be blessed forever and for all eternity."

"Yehei" - The wish

The word yehei is the Aramaic version of the Hebrew yehi, "may it be" or "let there be" (as in yehi or, "let there be light"). It is a term that conveys the wish to put something into effect, make it manifest, actualized, a reality in the world. (In Hebrew grammar, this conjugation is called the "jussive" mood). As strange as it may sound, there are no praises of God in Kaddish. The words yitgadal, yitgadash, yitbarach, and so on, are all "may it be so" words. The question is, what are we wishing for? What do we want to see happen?

"Shemei raba" - The great legacy

The word shem, "name," means more than just a moniker. A name is also a legacy. In the Torah's narrative of the Tower of Babel, the people say, "Let us make a name (shem) for ourselves." (Gen. 11:4)  They weren't looking for something to call themselves - they wanted to establish a legacy. Indeed, English carries this dual-meaning of the word "name." Regarding the commandment of yibum (levirate marriage), the Torah states, "The firstborn whom she bears will stand in the name (shem) of his brother who is dead, so that his name (shem) will not be erased from Israel." (Deut. 25:6) As some of the classical commentators note, "shem" here does not necessarily mean the person's actual name but more his legacy - progeny, inheritance, etc. (See Rashi, Ramban, Ibn Ezra) On the above verse, the Talmud adds, "[The phrase] 'that his name not be erased' excludes a eunuch, whose name is erased." (B. T. Yevamot 24a) The eunuch has no progeny, no genetic legacy - hence, no "shem" in one sense of the word.

In the case of Kaddish, when we say "[God's] great name," this is a reference to a specific name, "the" great name - i.e., YHVH. If we say a shem is a legacy, what is the "great legacy" we are referring to with the name YHVH?

The Sages understand the name E-lohim to convey justice (din) and the name YHVH to convey compassion (rachamim). The Midrash (Sifrei Deuteronomy, Parshat Va’etchanan 26) provides a Scriptural basis for this. E-lohim is used to refer to "judges" (Ex. 22:8 - human, or possibly divine). YHVH is described (formulaically in the 13 Attributes) as "compassionate and gracious" (Ex. 34:6).

E-lohim carries the package of meanings: justice, judgment, differentiation, morality, good and bad. YHVH carries the meaning package: compassion, grace, kindness, unity, and life (chaim). E-lohim is the generic "God," the Creator. YHVH is the God of Israel, giver of the Torah. This Torah is called the torat chaim (Torah of life) and etz chaim (Tree of Life). YHVH is the chei ha'olamim (life of the worlds). The "great name," YHVH, can thus be understood as bearing the legacy of Life.

"Mevarakh" - Dissemination

The word "mevarakh" is typically translated "blessed." But as much as we think of blessing as a generic wish for success, the root b-r-kh connotes something more specific: increase and propagation. The very first blessing in the Torah (along with many other instances of blessing in the book of Genesis alone) is "bear fruit and multiply." (Gen. 1:22) Thematically, blessing is linked to increase: "He will bless you and increase you" (Deut. 7:13); "He will bless the house of Israel... YHVH will add upon you." (Ps. 115:12–15) Rashi and others refer to berakha (blessing) as a term of ribui, "multiplicity." (Rashi, Sota 10a; Rashba, Teshuvot 5:5; Ramban on Bereshit 27:28; Rabbeinu Bachye on Bamidbar 6:24, et. al.)

Add this understanding of mevarakh, and the meaning of Kaddish begins to coalesce. We are speaking about the great legacy of life being propagated, increased.

"Le'alam" - Time and space

The phrase le'alam ul-almei almaya connotes "forever." The word olam however is understood to convey not only time but also space (as in "melekh ha'olam"). By integrating both the temporal and spatial connotations of le'alam, we get a sense of something which is all-pervasive, which leaves no corner of the world bereft, and no generation lacking.

Toward a new translation - Boundless life

With our new set of meanings, we arrive at the following translation:
shemei rabathe great legacy of Life
mevarakhbe propagated
le-alam ul-almei almayain all places, for all time

That is to say, it is a call for life to utterly triumph in the world.

In this understanding, Kaddish becomes a universal message - that the will for life, the desire for the well-being and happiness of every human being, is an ideal that must spread throughout the world and make paramount in our minds. It must become our legacy. And it's a matter of rather pressing urgency, since when one looks at the current state of affairs on the planet, all the death and suffering at the hands of fellow humans, it is painfully apparent how very far we are from that ideal.

Kaddish then is a statement worth making often, in public, and with all of one's heart. And it is very much fitting for a mourner to say. One way that we can react to and recover from the death of a loved one is by attaching ourselves to life, firming our resolve as members of a community to reduce future death and suffering in any way we can. Kaddish is precisely that - a pronouncement of intent and vision for the future, a time when human beings cease to be instruments of death. It looks ahead to a period when the legacy of life, the desire to enrich and extend life, so totally suffuses human consciousness that we would not even think of harming one another, causing pain, whether physical or emotional. Instead, we choose to cling tenaciously to the legacy of life: "And you who cling to YHVH your God, you all have Life today." (Deut. 4:4)


This article is based on ideas in the book Ohr HaShachar: Torah, Kabbalah and Consciousness in the Daily Morning Blessings.




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