2391 Saying Kaddish for the Dead



I remember a wonderful Chassidic tale told by Reb Shlomo Carlebach. He usually begin with something like: "Holy brothers, holy sisters, listen closely, as I tell you the holiest of the holy....the deepest, deepest, mamash [really!] deepest of the deep." His eyes would roll back his head and his eyelids would flutter as he entered heavenly realms.

This was a Shabbat weekend during the late 1980's. Shoshana and I had visited Moshav Modi'in, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, where many students of Reb Shlomo lived. We knew that the rebbe would be here this weekend and wanted to experience an entire Shabbat with him.

At the end of the Friday night service, which consisted of close to ninety minutes of shouting, hand-clapping and floor-thumping, all participants moved into the dining area where a traditional Shabbat meal was served. Almost two hundred guests sat at long tables, and every so often someone in the room spontaneously began to chant a new niggun. Soon, people pounded on the tables so that silverware and dishes clattered in rhythm to the beat. The niggun would end. We would have a few minutes to eat a bit more chicken and kugel and then another niggun would start up. When the dessert was served, Reb Shlomo told this story about the kaddish prayer prayed by those who mourn the death of a beloved.

Kaddish is one of the most famous parts of Jewish liturgy. Its opening words are well known by Jews and non-Jews alike. They are intoned at funerals, remembrances of the holocaust, yartzeits (anniversaries of deaths), memorials for national losses and other somber occasions: "Yitkadahl v'yitkaddash sh'may rabbah..." (May Its great name be exalted and be sanctified...). 

When someone in an observant Jewish family, one or more people in the immediate family will pray the mourner's kaddish three times daily for eleven months. This is based on the belief that the soul takes twelve months to pass from one level to another. 

Kaddish is viewed as a means to help a loved one through the transition to higher realms. The twelfth month is omitted because of the assumption that the deceased person has enough merit by this time to make it on his or her own. Saying the kaddish the last month would imply that the person did not have sufficient virtue, and this would be inappropriate. 

Reb Shlomo told the following story: "Dearest friends, did you know that in the old days if someone owed rent, the landlord could take the law into his own hands? He could empty the house of its furniture and sell it, he could put the people in jail, he could even, God forbid, take the people off and sell them into slavery.

"It happened a hundred and fifty years ago in the house of one poor shlepper and his wife, Feigelah, that they were many months behind in the rent. One day, after Feigelah went off the to market, the landlord showed up with the local police and carried off the husband and the eight children. When she returned from the market, the neighbors told her what had happened.

"So this holy wife went to the landlord to find her husband and her children. The landlord told her that he intended to sell them into slavery for the back rent. She pleaded with him. She begged him. The landlord thought about it and realized that perhaps he could get twice as much as they would fetch on the slavery market. It would be an outrageous sum, but he had nothing to lose. So, finally, he agreed to ransom them back. He asked for one hundred rubles for the overdue rent and nine-thousand nine-hundred rubles for his trouble. He told the wife that the extra money would go to pay bribes to the police and other officials to release her husband and the eight children. 

"The woman stared at him with unbelieving eyes. Ten thousand rubles! It would have been hard enough to come up with one hundred. But ten thousand was a fortune beyond all possibility.

"She left the landlord's house and slowly walked along the dirt road that led back to her own home. What could she do? She reached into her pockets and counted three rubles. This was everything she had to her name. Three rubles. There was nothing to sell. Everything had been stripped from the house just to feed the children. It seemed to her that all was lost."

At this point in the story, Shlomo closed his eyes and rocked back and forth. "And now, sweetest, dearest friends, listen closely," he said in a sing-song voice. "I'm going to tell you what happened to this holy woman. Listen carefully but don't listen with your ears. Listen with your heart--deep, deep in the center of your heart. In the deepest depths, listen, listen...

"This woman was walking when suddenly a thought arose. This thought said to her, 'Feigelah, when your husband dies, who will say kaddish for him? Who will know when he dies?' 

"This thought terrified Feigelah. So she found a poor Jew on the road and she gave him one ruble and said to him, 'Please say the mourner's kaddish for my husband.' She told this beggar her husband's name and walked away.

"As she was walking...," Shlomo began his sing-song once again. Whenever he did this, something extraordinary, something profoundly mystical was about to happen in his story. So we leaned forward to listen a little more closely. "As she was walking," he repeated, "another thought arose in her mind, and it said, 'Feigelah, what about all the people who die and nobody says kaddish for them?'

Now, Shlomo began to sing a little niggun, repeating this question until all of the souls in this crowded room were humming it together: "What about people who die and nobody says kaddish?"

Soon we were completely hypnotized by the power of this mantra. As Shlomo sang, I could sense a meltdown; all of us were thinking about our own parents and grandparents or other relatives who had passed over to the other realms without having kaddish said for them. Moreover, how many strangers had died without any family to send them prayers? I thought about people lost in the holocaust, whole families with nobody left behind to say kaddish. Reb Shlomo could have stopped his story at this point, for the tears had already begun to flow. But he continued.

"So this holy Feigelah ran back to the beggar who she had asked to say kaddish for her husband, and she gave him yet another ruble and said to him, 'Dear sir, please say kaddish for all the souls for whom nothing has ever been said. Please say kaddish to help them in their passage through the heavenly realms.'

"Feigelah turned from the beggar, deeply touched. But as she began to walk away, yet another thought arose in her mind. She turned back to the poor yiddin sitting there with two rubles in his hand and she gave him a third, the last ruble she owned, the end of everything she had, and she said to him, 'Dear sir, when you say kaddish for all these lost souls, really, really, really put your heart into your prayers; don't hold back in any way.'

"For the next few hours, Feigelah sat in the fields not far from this beggar. As the sun went down that evening, she heard him pray. Oy, did he pray. He prayed with a broken heart, calling out with all his might and all his pain. She felt her face drenched in tears as she was carried to the heavenly realms in a chariot of flames. His prayers shattered the celestial gates and released a flood of souls who had waited so long to be rescued. Then he was finished.

"Friends, what a vision she had! She began to walk home and somehow her step was lighter. As she was walking, a shining carriage with four horses appeared on the road. It was unusual; she had never seen a carriage like this before. It stopped next to her and the well-dressed man inside asked directions. Then, the stranger did something most unusual; he offered her a ride. She did not know what to do. She had never been in a carriage like this. At first she declined, but he insisted. When she was certain that he was sincere, she accepted. After all, it had been a long day. Soon they were deeply engaged in a conversation. 

"The stranger asked her many questions. Slowly, he was able to get the entire story about her husband, her children, the landlord and the ten thousand rubles. As he was letting Feigelah out of the carriage, he did an amazing thing. He reached into his pocket and wrote out a check for the full ten thousand rubles.

"She was astonished. Ten thousand rubles. The next day she ran to the bank. When she handed the check to the clerk, he looked at her strangely and told her to wait a few moments. She began to panic. Was it real? Perhaps the man in the carriage had played a cruel joke and there was no money in the bank. She waited, getting more nervous as the moments passed.

"The clerk brought his supervisor who looked her up and down. Then the supervisor took her by the arm and directed her to the office of the president of the bank. This was a big office and the man behind the desk looked at her with a scowl on his face.

"'Where did you get this check?' he asked her. She told him the story of meeting a stranger in a carriage; and she told the story of her husband and children. The man behind the desk then pointed to the dozens of pictures hanging on the walls of the room and asked, 'Do you recognize anyone in any of these pictures?'

"Feigelah looked and instantly identified the large portrait behind the desk as the man who had been in the carriage. When she said this, the bank president turned pale. You see, the check he held in his hands was signed by his father. And the portrait behind him was the picture of his father. His father had died five years earlier and the bank president, an only child, had never said kaddish for his father."

Signalling the end of the story, Shlomo began to sing a series of niggunim. I glanced around the room and saw a deluge of tears. How many unspoken kaddishes were represented in that room?