More Jewish Traditions

KADDISH

The prayer we call Kaddish appears in every worship service.  There are five variations of the basic Kaddish, one of which is the Mourner’s Kaddish. This prayer is one of the most beautiful in Judaism, and many find its words a comfort when they are sorrowful. The cadences are important for the bereaved even when the meaning of specific words may not be known.  The Kaddish is an ancient prose-poem that developed over a period of centuries. Among its earlier purposes was to divide parts of the service. With the exception of the last verse, which is in Hebrew, the Kaddish is written in Aramaic, the language spoken by our people in the time of Ezra in the fifth century B.C.E. and for many centuries thereafter.“Kaddish” is an Aramaic word meaning “sanctification.” It is related to the Hebrew word kadosh  (“holy”). Though most versions of the Kaddish contain no mention of death, the Kaddish came to be recited by mourners during the 13th century. It praises God, affirms God’s holiness, and anticipates the establishment of peace on earth. At the very moment when our faith may be most tested, we praise God, our Creator, and we pray for the unification and completion of a world we feel is fragmented.

The words of the Kaddish create a fellowship with others who have suffered loss. It is said in the presence of a public quorum of ten adults (minyan). When a parent dies, one recited Kaddish for eleven months. Many Jews say it for a full year, retaining the Talmudic custom of mourning. Kaddish is usually recited for a 30-day period for other close relatives – son, daughter, brother, sister, and spouse – although sometimes individuals choose to extend the Kaddish period beyond thirty days. Kaddish is also said each year on the anniversary of the death of a loved one (yahrzeit) and at Yizkor services.

Reciting the Kaddish in memory of our beloved dead brings us all closer as our voices rhythmically echo all those who have mourned before us. In that moment we form a community which transcends death.

UNVEILING

“Unveiling” refers to the dedication of a tombstone and is often used to mark the end of the mourning period. Jewish law requires that a monument be placed on the grave of every Jew to mark the gravesite clearly and permanently. The memorial or tombstone may be erected at the end of shiva or up to twelve months after death.

The monument is usually selected soon after the funeral. It is simple and can be made of stone or metal. It may lie horizontally or be erected vertically. The inscription usually contains a short Hebrew phrase or a Jewish symbol, the Hebrew and English name of the deceased, and the Jewish and secular dates of birth and death.

Jewish law and tradition require no special ritual for the unveiling. However, it has become an American Jewish tradition to dedicate the tombstone in a graveside ceremony – the “unveiling.” This is the formal removal of a veil or other covering over the tombstone. It symbolizes the official erection of the monument. Immediate family and close friends usually attend the ceremony, which is accompanied by a brief service in memory of the person who has died. The rabbi will usually officiate at this ceremony, although it is not required in Jewish tradition. Several Psalms are recited and a few words are spoken about the deceased. The cloth is removed, the El Malei Rachamim is chanted, and the Kaddish is recited.

YAHRZEIT

Traditionally, the anniversary, yahrzeit, of the deceased’s death is observed annually.  The word is derived from Yiddish and means “year’s time.” It is traditionally observed according to the Hebrew date of death, although some Jews follow the secular calendar.

Many Jews light a yahrzeit candle to commemorate the day. The candle is lit at sunset on the evening before the anniversary and is allowed to burn itself out. There are no standard prayers or prescribed blessings to accompany the lighting of the candle.

Kaddish is recited on the day of yahrzeit or on the Shabbat before yahrzeit. Many people visit the cemetery on or close to the yahrzeit, and perform the mitzvah of giving tzedakah or engage in other acts of special kindness at this time.

VISITING THE GRAVE

Judaism discourages frequent grave visitation for it may hinder the mourner’s return to normal life. However, there are days when it is traditional to visit the cemetery, such as the days before the High Holy Days and special personal days such as birthdays and anniversaries.

Visitors to the grave often leave a small stone on the tombstone as a symbol of the enduring bond between the visitor and the deceased. It is an act of love; a gesture to show that you were there.

YISKOR

A memorial service, Yizkor (Hebrew for “may God remember”) is held in synagogues on four occasions during the year - Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, and the last days of Pesach and Shavuot. Yizkor usually takes place in the morning after a Torah service. Many Jews light a memorial candle on the eve of days on which Yizkor is said.

Yizkor is recited beginning on the first holiday after the death. It is an opportunity for making contributions in the name of the deceased to perpetuate their memories and to promote the values they held.

REMEMBERING A LOVED ONE

Even though our loved ones have died, it is still important to remember and honor them, not just for ourselves, but for our children and grandchildren. We do so through ritual, (the recitation of Kaddish), emulation, (the cultivation of a value of traditions which was important to the deceased), and tzedakah.

In the Jewish tradition, one of the greatest honors one can bestow on someone is to perform a mitzvah on their behalf. Those who want to express their condolences to the family in a tangible way may perform the mitzvah of tzedakah. The most common form of tzedakah is to make a donation to a charity that was most meaningful to the departed.