How Many Should be Saying Kaddish?

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Since, in Parshas Vayechi, we read of Yaakov Avinu’s last instructions to his children, this is an appropriate week to discuss some of the laws of kaddish.

How Many Should be Saying Kaddish?

Question: Is it better that each mourner recite only one kaddish, or that all the mourners recite all the kaddeishim?

Answer: Most people are under the impression that whether the “mourner’s kaddish” (kaddish yasom) is recited by only one person or whether many recite it simultaneously is a dispute between the practices of Germany and those of Eastern Europe. However, we will soon see that this simplification is inaccurate. There were many communities in Eastern Europe where kaddish was said by only one person at a time, and this was the universal Ashkenazic practice until about 250 years ago.

The custom that many people recite the mourner’s kaddish simultaneously was accepted and standard Sefardic practice (meaning the Jews of North Africa and the Middle East), going back at least to the early 18th century (see Siddur Yaavetz, comments after Aleinu), although when this custom was instituted is uncertain. But before we explore the issue of whether more than one person may say kaddish simultaneously, let us first examine the origins of reciting the mourner’s kaddish altogether.

Origins of kaddish

Although the Gemara refers to kaddish in numerous places (Brachos 3a, 57a; Shabbos 119b; Sukkah 39a; Sotah 49a), it never mentions what we call kaddish yasom, the kaddish recited by mourners, nor does it recommend or even suggest, anywhere, that a mourner lead the services. The Gemara, also, makes no mention of when kaddish is recited, with the exception of a very cryptic reference to kaddish recited after studying aggadah (see Sotah 49a). A different early source, Masechta Sofrim, mentions recital of kaddish before borchu (10:7) and after musaf (19:12). The fact that the Gemara says nothing about a mourner reciting kaddish or leading services is especially unusual, since the most common source for these practices is an event that predates the Gemara. The Or Zarua, a rishon, records the following story:

Rabbi Akiva once saw a man covered head to toe with soot, carrying on his head the load that one would expect ten men to carry, and running like a horse. Rabbi Akiva stopped the man, and asked him: “Why are you working so hard? If you are a slave and your master works you this hard, I’ll redeem you. If you are so poor that you need to work this hard to support your family, I’ll find you better employment.”

The man replied, “Please do not detain me, lest those appointed over me get angry at me.”

Rabbi Akiva asked him: “Who are you, and what is your story?”

The man answered: “I died, and everyday they send me like this to chop and carry these amounts of wood. When I am finished, they burn me with the wood that I have gathered.”

Rabbi Akiva asked him what his profession was when he was alive, to which he answered that he had been a tax collector (which, in their day, meant someone who purchased from the government the contract to collect taxes) who favored the rich by overtaxing the poor, which the Or Zarua calls “killing the poor.”

Rabbi Akiva: “Have you heard from your overseers whether there is any way to release you from your judgment?”

The man responded: “Please do not detain me, lest my overseers become angry with me. I have heard that there is no solution for me, except for one thing that I cannot do. I was told that if I have a son who would lead the tzibur in the recital of borchu or would recite kaddish so that the tzibur would answer yehei shemei rabba mevorach…, they would release me immediately from this suffering. However, I did not leave any sons, but a pregnant wife, and I have no idea if she gave birth to a male child, and if she did, whether anyone is concerned about teaching him, since I have not a friend left in the world.”

At that moment, Rabbi Akiva accepted upon himself to find whether a son existed and, if indeed he did, to teach him Torah until he could fulfill what was required to save his father. Rabbi Akiva asked the man for his name, his wife’s name, and the name of the town where he had lived. “My name is Akiva, my wife’s name is Shoshniva and I come from Ludkia.”

Rabbi Akiva traveled to Ludkia and asked people if they knew of a former resident, Akiva, the husband of Shoshniva, to which he received the following answer: “Let the bones of that scoundrel be ground to pulp.” When Rabbi Akiva asked about Shoshniva, he was answered: “May any memory of her be erased from the world.” He then inquired about their child, and was answered: “He is uncircumcised — for we were not interested in involving ourselves even to provide him with a bris milah!” Rabbi Akiva immediately began his search for the son, whom he located — it turned out that he was already a young adult. Rabbi Akiva performed a bris milah on him and attempted to teach him Torah, but was unable to do so. For forty days, Rabbi Akiva fasted, praying that the child be able to study Torah, at which time a heavenly voice announced: “Rabbi Akiva, now go and teach him Torah!”

Rabbi Akiva taught him Torah, shma, shmoneh esrei, birchas hamazon, and then brought him to shul in order for him to lead the tzibur by reciting kaddish and borchu, to which the tzibur responded, yehei shemei rabba mevorach le’olam ule’olmei olemaya and “Baruch Hashem hamevorach le’olam va’ed.

At that moment, Akiva, the husband of Shoshniva, was released from his punishment. This Akiva immediately came to Rabbi Akiva in a dream and told him: “May it be Hashem’s will that you eventually reach your eternal rest in Gan Eden — for you have saved me from Gehennom.” (This story is also found, with some variation, in the second chapter of Masechta Kallah Rabasi.)

Other versions

When a different rishon, the Rivash, was asked about this story, he reported that it is not found in the Gemara, but perhaps its origin is in Midrash Rabbah or Midrash Tanchuma. He then quotes a story from the Orchos Chayim similar to that quoted by Or Zarua. In conclusion, the Orchos Chayim emphasizes that, for the twelve months of mourning, a mourner should recite the last kaddish of the davening and maftir on Shabbos and Yom Tov, and lead the services for ma’ariv every motza’ei Shabbos (Shu’t Harivash #115).

A similar story is recorded in an earlier midrashic source, the Tanna Devei Eliyahu, where the protagonist is not Rabbi Akiva, but his rebbe’s rebbe, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai (see Rambam, Peirush Hamishnayos, end of the fifth chapter of Sotah). In this version, the man was punished until his son turned five and the son was educated to the point that he could answer borchu in shul (Eliyahu Zuta, Chapter 17). No mention is made of the son reciting kaddish. However, the halachic sources all quote the version of the Or Zarua, in which the protagonist of the story is Rabbi Akiva.

Merits for the deceased

This story serves as the basis for the practice that a mourner lead the services and recite kaddish. Relatively little of this topic is discussed until the time of the Maharil, who was asked the following question:

“Should someone who is uncertain whether his father or mother is still alive recite kaddish?”

To this question, frequent in earlier times when cell phones were not so commonplace, the Maharil replied that he is not required to recite kaddish and he should assume that the person is still alive (Mishnah, Gittin 3:3). Once the parent reaches the age of eighty, one should view it as uncertain whether the parent is still alive. Upon this basis, I am aware of a gadol be’yisrael who had escaped Hitler’s Europe before the war, who began to recite kaddish for his parents once the Nazis invaded the part of Russia where his parents were living.

The Maharil continues that if there are two people in shul, one who is reciting kaddish for a deceased parent, whereas the other is uncertain whether his parents are still alive, that the second person should not recite kaddish. This is because of the halachic principle of ein safek motzi midei vadai, someone who has a questionable claim does not preempt someone who has a definite claim or right – in this instance, the person whose parents might still be alive should not recite kaddish, rather than someone whose parents are known to be deceased. We see from this ruling that the Maharil assumes that kaddish is recited by only one person at a time.

The Maharil explains that, for this reason, he himself did not say kaddish when he was uncertain whether his parents were still alive. He then explains that someone who is not sure whether his parents are still alive and is capable to lead the services properly should lead the services in honor of his parents (Teshuvos Maharil #36).

Conclusions based on the Maharil

We see from the Maharil’s discussion that:

Only one person recites kaddish at a time.

The reason that someone whose parents are alive should not recite mourner’s kaddish is because he is taking the kaddish away from people who are mourners.

If there is no mourner present to lead the services, then the person uncertain if he is a mourner should lead services, if he can do the job properly.

Obligatory versus voluntary kaddish

The Maharil (Shu’t Maharil Hachadoshos #28) was also asked how a minor can recite kaddish if it is a requirement, as only one obligated to fulfill a mitzvah may fulfill a mitzvah on behalf of others. The Maharil answered that the kaddeishim that are recited by the shaliach tzibur as part of davening cannot be recited by minors. These kaddeishim are obligatory and therefore must be recited by an adult, who thereby fulfills the mitzvah on behalf of the entire community. However, non-obligatory kaddeishim, such as kaddish derabbanan and the kaddeishim recited at the end of davening, may be recited by minors. As a curious aside, the Mesechta Sofrim (10:7) explains that these kaddeishim were established primarily as make-up for people who arrived late and missed the kaddeishim that are required.

It is interesting to note that, already in the time of the Maharil, people assumed that the mourner’s kaddeishim are more important than the kaddeishim recited by the chazzan. The Maharil points out that this is incorrect, since the kaddeishim recited by the chazzan are required, and it is greater to perform a mitzvah that one is required to observe than one that is not required (gadol ha’metzuveh ve’oseh mimi she’eino metzuveh ve’oseh). The main merit that one performs for his deceased parent is to recite the kaddeishim that are said by the chazzan as part of davening.

Since minors cannot serve as chazzan, the Maharil considers it a great merit that they receive maftir, which a minor may receive, since they thereby recite borchu in front of the tzibur.

Mourner’s kaddish on weekdays

It appears from the Maharil’s responsum that, prior to his era, kaddish yasom was recited only on Shabbos and Yom Tov. In his day, a new custom had just begun in some communities to recite mourner’s kaddish on weekdays. The reason for the new custom was to enable minors to recite kaddish on a daily basis and to accommodate adults whom the tzibur did not want to lead the services.

Which kaddeishim should be said?

The Maharil writes that although these kaddeishim are not required, but only customary, they should still be recited after a shiur is completed, after bameh madlikin is recited Friday evening, and after pesukim are recited, such as when we recite kaddish after aleinu and the shir shel yom. He rules that someone whose parents are still alive may recite these kaddeishim. However, if his parents do not want him to recite these kaddeishim, he should not.

One at a time

At this point, let us address our opening question: Is it better that each mourner recite only one kaddish, or that all the mourners recite all the kaddeishim?

It appears that, initially, whoever wanted to recite what we call today the mourner’s kaddeishim would do so. Knowing the story of Rabbi Akiva, it became an element of competition, different people trying to chap the mitzvah, which sometimes engendered machlokes and chillul Hashem. To resolve this problem, two approaches developed for dealing with the issue. Among Sefardim, the accepted approach was that anyone who wanted to say kaddish did so, and everyone recited kaddish in unison. This practice is noted and praised by Rav Yaakov Emden in his commentary on the siddur (at the end of Aleinu). Among the Ashkenazim, the approach used was to establish rules of prioritization, whereby one person at a time recited kaddish.

These lists of prioritization are discussed and amplified by many later Ashkenazi authorities, thus implying that, in the Ashkenazi world, the early custom was that only one person recited kaddish at a time. We do not know exactly when the custom began to change, but by the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century, several major Ashkenazi authorities, among them the Chayei Odom (30:7) and the Chasam Sofer (Shu’t Orach Chayim #159; Yoreh Deah #345), discuss a practice whereby kaddish was recited by more than one person simultaneously. About this time, we find another custom in some communities, in which the mourner’s kaddish was said by only one person, but where everyone who chose could join in the recital of a kaddish derabbanan that was recited at the end of the daily morning prayer (see Shu’t Binyan Tziyon #1:122), presumably after the rav taught a shiur in halachah.

Merged community

With this background, we can understand the following mid-nineteenth century responsum. A community had two shullen and several shteiblach. The main shul was in serious disrepair, so they made an agreement to close all the smaller shullen in order to pool resources and invest in one large, beautiful new shul and have no other minyanim. Included in this decision was a new takkanah that all mourners would now recite all the kaddeishim in unison. Subsequently, some individuals claimed that the community should follow the practice of the Rema and the Magen Avraham of prioritizing the recital of kaddish and have one person say it at a time. The community leaders retorted that this would create machlokes, since there was only one shul and many people would like to say more kaddeishim than they can under the proposed system. Apparently, the dispute even involved some fisticuffs. The community sent the shaylah to Rav Ber Oppenheim, the rav and av beis din of Eibenschutz. He felt that the community practice of having all the mourners recite kaddish together should be maintained, but first wrote an extensive letter clarifying his position, which he sent to Rav Yaakov Ettlinger, the premier halachic authority of central Europe at the time. I will refer to Rav Ettlinger by the name he is usually called in yeshiva circles, the Aruch Laneir, the name of his most famous work, the multi-volumed Aruch Laneir commentary on much of Shas. The Aruch Laneir’s reply was subsequently published in his work of responsa called Shu’t Binyan Tziyon.

The Aruch Laneir contended that one should not change the established minhag of Germany and Poland, in practice for more than three hundred years, in which only one person recites kaddish at a time. He further notes that although the Yaavetz had praised the practice that several people recite kaddish in unison, the Yaavetz himself had lived in Altoona, Germany, where the accepted practice was that only one person said kaddish at a time. (The Aruch Laneir notes that he himself was the current rav of Altoona and had been so already for several decades.)

Furthermore, the Aruch Laneir contends that one cannot compare Ashkenazic to Sefardic observance for a practical reason. The Sefardim are accustomed to praying in unison, and therefore, when they say kaddish, everyone exhibits great care to synchronize its recital. When Ashkenazim attempt to recite kaddish in unison, no one hears the kaddeishim. The Aruch Laneir notes that when the kaddish derabbanan is recited by all mourners, the result is a cacophony. He writes that he wishes he could abolish this custom, since, as a result, no one hears or responds appropriately to kaddish.

In conclusion, the Aruch Laneir is adamant that where the custom is that one person at a time recite kaddish, one may not change the practice. On the other hand, we have seen that other authorities cite a custom whereby all the mourners recite kaddish in unison.

Conclusion: How does kaddish work?

The Gemara (Yoma 86a) records that any sin that a person commits in this world, no matter how grievous, will be atoned if the person does teshuvah. This does not mean that the teshuvah accomplishes atonement without any suffering. Some sins are so serious that a person must undergo suffering in this world in addition to performing teshuvah, before he is forgiven.

The greatest sin a person can be guilty of is chillul Hashem. Only teshuvah, suffering, and the individual’s eventual demise will be sufficient to atone for this transgression. Thus, a person’s death may result from his having caused a chillul Hashem.

The Maharal of Prague had a brother, Rav Chayim, who authored a work entitled Sefer Hachayim, in which he writes that most people die because at some point in their life they made a chillul Hashem. The reason a mourner recites kaddish is to use the parent’s death as a reason to create kiddush Hashem – by reciting kaddish – thus, atoning for the original chillul Hashem (Sefer Hachayim, end of chapter 8). May we all merit to create kiddush Hashem in our lives.