Kaddish for a Parent – 11 Months or 12? by Rabbi Alan J. Yuter and Rabbi Noah Gradofsky

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of Kavod v’Nichum or the Gamliel Institute.

[Ed. Note: This article is reprinted at Expired And Inspired with permission of the Authors. It originally appeared on the website of The Union for Traditional Judaism under UTJ Viewpoints; at https://utj.org/viewpoints/responsa/kaddish-for-a-parent-11-months-or-twelve/. I considered it to be of general interest to the readers of Expired And Inspired. — JB]

Kaddish card
kaddish card

I have generally assumed that I would say Kaddish for my beloved father, of blessed memory, for 12 months.  I understood this to be fairly clearly the original practice (though Rabbi Abraham Golinkin indicates here that both the 11 month and 12 month customs arose in the 13th century).  In addition, it strikes me that HaZa”L instituted a 12 month period of mourning, not an 11 month period, so having a part of the observances related to the loss of a parent last only 11 months seems at least to be at tension with the system instituted by HaZa”L.  While technically the Kaddish is not an expression of mourning, it seems to me to be at least in part an expression of kibud av va’em (honoring of parents), which is part of the reason behind the 12 month mourning period.  Therefore, it seems to me to make sense to honor one’s parents by reciting Kaddish for 12 months.

On the other hand, while I generally try to follow the Jewish practice that makes the best sense to me, my interest in doing so is usually predicated on the desire to fulfill halakhic requirements, while here we are clearly dealing with minhag (custom).  Even though I don’t see minhagim as binding in the same way as halakhah, I do try to follow minhagim where they don’t violate halakhah.

I should note that my reason for saying Kaddish in the first place is largely social.  I do not see Kaddish as a halakhic obligation.  In addition, I do not put much stock in the theurgic idea that my saying Kaddish will do a tremendous amount to determine the fate of my father’s eternal soul.  I DO believe that my father deserves a great deal of the credit (and blame) for who I am, but I doubt whether or not I show up to minyan more often and mumble a few words for a year (or 11 months) will say much toward any judgment he receives due to the person I became.  But even this attitude cuts both ways.  The fact that I am saying Kaddish in large part as a public expression of love for my father draws me toward the 12 month Kaddish.  On the other hand, since many perceive saying Kaddish for 12 months as an indication that one believes one’s parent may be judged negatively[1] (though as my teacher, Rabbi David Novak notes in Law and Theology in Judaism p. 112 Zohar Bereshit p. 68a indicates it takes 12 months for the soul to reach the highest levels of heaven),[2] my reciting Kaddish for 12 months might actually reflect negatively on perceptions of my father.

– Rabbi Noah Gradofsky

[1] Rabbi Golinkin writes that “the belief that the judgment of the wicked in Gehinom is 12 months is found in many sources (see Mishnah Eduyot 2:10; Tosefta Sanhedrin 13:4, ed. Zuckermandel, p. 434; Shabbat 33b; Rosh Hashanah 17a and cf. Rabbi Novak note 6).”

[2] Rabbi Novak notes that based on this Zohar R. Isaac Luria urged recitation of Kaddish for 12 months (less 1 week in deference to the common 11 month custom).

Ironically, R. Gradofsky’s refined halakhic instincts are far more “orthodox,” or faithful to the Torah’s explicit norms, than the expected, accepted popular practice of the Orthodox street. The Orthodox street’s benchmarks are usually but not always more and rarely less burdensome than what is required by the Oral Torah’s “official” requirements.  Jewish law memorializes shiv’a, the first seven days which commence after burial, a thirty-day period of less intense mourning, and a final twelve months stage, the last and least intensive morning phase.  There is neither mention nor hint of an eleven month mourning period in the canonical Oral Law library.

m’Eduyyot 2:10 reports that the wicked must endure a punitive protocol of twelve months of suffering in Gehinom.  Without a shred of explicit Oral Torah evidence, some post-Talmudic authorities assume that the recitation of Qaddish by sons will redeem their parents from their Gehinom sufferingAt Shulhan Aruch Yoreh De’ah 376:4, a very long gloss by R. Moses Isserles makes, among others, the following observations:

  1. The customs of our ancestors are [considered by us] to be Torah.
  2. The son’s saying Qaddish serves to redeem the father from Gehinom.
  3. We observe the custom that a mourner may not lead the prayers on Shabbat and Festival day.
  4. One ought to say Qaddish for eleven months, so the person for whom the Qaddish is recited not be seen as a wicked person who needs the mantic power of Qaddish recitation to reduce her/his sojourn time in Gehinom.

Each of these claims are problematic according to the Orthodoxy espoused by the Oral Torah canon.

  1. The “word of the Lord” is Torah [Isaiah 2:3], not the human conventions and inventions of zealous pietists. Consequently, we ought not to recite a commandment blessing for an act that is not, when it is performed, a mitsva.  Ashkenazi Judaism’s elevation of custom to the status of law has contributed to the Ashkenazi practice of making blessings over customs, contrary to the clear indication of BT Sukkah 44b, for instance reciting a blessing on reciting Hallel on Rosh Chodesh, which is clearly merely a custom (BT Ta’anit 28b).  As Prof. Israel M. Ta Shma argues [Minhag Ashkenaz Qadmon, pp. 30-34], medieval folk religion Ashkenazi “orthodoxy” is so convinced of its own righteousness that its rulings are sometimes allowed to override higher grade Oral Torah norms, with apparent impunity.
  2. By advancing the belief that a son’s reciting Qaddish activates a cosmic power thathelps” his father to mitigate Gehinom’s purgative pain, medieval mystics treat prayer as a magical instrument, which is incompatible with the canonical Orthodox doctrine that God is not manipulated or coerced by magical rites or incantations. According to ancient paganisms, the gods, or cosmic forces are called El in Hebrew and Il in Ugaritic.  In ancient Hebrew thought, God created and controls nature, and cannot be coerced, contained, or controlled by anyone.  Ancient Near Eastern as well as classical Greek paganisms imagined their gods to be bound by a primal natural order.  This is not the God that Jews find in their Torah.
  3. Since public expressions of mourning are forbidden on Jewish Holy Days, the source-less “practice” of not permitting mourners to lead the public prayers on Jewish holy days is Halakhically dubious.
  4. If twelve months of mourning means exactly that, and were it true Orthodox doctrine that one person’s reciting Qaddish augments the eternal reward for the deceased, I would be more concerned with getting my parent out of Gehinom than being concerned with social/religious appearances in social settings.

Among the “sources” that R. Isserles cites for advising an eleven month Qaddish is the famous forgery called the Zohar.  Contemporary Orthodox rabbis sometime refer to the Zoharic library as the “’holy’ Zohar.” Since the Zohar contains Spanish words, and Spanish evolved out of local, Iberian koine Latin, it may hardly be [mis]taken to be the work product of the Tannaitic teacher, R. Shim’on ben Yochai’s hand. Furthermore, for a document to be considered to be part of the Oral Torah canon, it requires the approval of the Bet Din ha-Gadol, which is now not in session because the third Temple has not yet been restored. Furthermore, Jewish law’s legal hermeneutic does not invest post-Talmudic holy men with the power to legislate apodictic intuitive norms without being subject to review.  This juridic power lapsed after the Amoraic sages Ravina I and R. Ashi. The Torah’s Author does not issue secret, mystical rules [Deut. 30:12], Hassidic claims to the contrary notwithstanding. Torah law does not regard the intuitions of people who are mistaken to be holy men to be a valid source of normative law.  R. Isserles is also ignored by contemporary Ashkenazi rabbis when his views conflict with popular practice or communal expectations. For example, R. Isserles reads and quotes Aristotle, he does not require a man to always wear a head covering, he permits ball playing on Shabbat, he does not require a glatt kosher standard, but he does require wearing of tefillin on Hol ha-Mo’ed.  The contemporary Great Rabbis rarely cite these rulings, which are no longer normative Orthodox standards.

The claim that Qaddish possesses the mantic power to relieve a soul from the anguish of Gehinom is unattested in the vetted tractates of the Oral Torah library. The popular, folk religion apologetic regarding the Qaddish’s salvific, magical power reflects a particular dialect of culture, but it is not, if we use the Oral Torah canon as our official religion template, a legitimate expression of official religion Jewish Orthodoxy.

While the “reasons” for an eleven month  Qaddish are Halakhically dubious, there is no formal law requiring the recital of Qaddish for either eleven or twelve months or, for that matter, at all. Qaddish for mourners seems to be a custom that, by dint of universal acceptance, is now considered to be obligatory. Furthermore, doubts in mourning law are by convention resolved with a bias of leniency.

In conclusion, if there are no negative social consequences for a twelve month Qaddish recitation, that would be the proper, logical, and appropriate course of action, from a pure law perspective.  But if a twelve month Qaddish might be mistaken as religious exhibitionism, an implicit statement of spiritual superiority, or unnecessarily provocative, good manners would require following the popular, accepted and expected practice.  After all, no law is violated by either practice.  If the practice violates a Torah or Rabbinic law, one must of course decline to act improperly.  But if the practice violates no legal rule, one should avoid separating oneself from the community. [Deut. 13:1, bMegillah 13b, and elsewhere, Derech Erets Zuta 5, and Maimonides, supra., 262].

For a related discussion of the broader issue of balancing personal perspectives with community practice, see “Personal Conscience and Community Practice in Orthodoxy” by Rabbi Alan J. Yuter.

RESPONSE BY RABBI GRADOFSKY:

Thank you, Rabbi Yuter, for your learned discussion.  Interestingly, in informal discussions with rabbis from UTJ, there seems to be near unanimity in the opinion that 12 months of Kaddish is the “right” thing to do, but that since there is no halakhic requirement of Kaddish in the first place, one should not say Kaddish for 12 months if it would be socially problematic.  In a manner similar to Rabbi Yuter, Rabbi Novak concludes his article on the subject in Law and Theology in Judaism by writing that:

Therefore, the only basis for restricting the recitation of Kaddish is a popular custom loosely based on one interpretation of an aggadic statement in the Talmud.  Although popular custom is important and one ought not offend popular beliefs, it is clear that the mitzvah of saying Kaddish for twelve months, especially where it will aid a minyan, takes precedence.

My sense of the community in which I daven was that saying Kaddish for 12 months might have been off-putting and/or suggestive of a lack of respect for the community and its practice.  I also found that there was a very palpable sense in the community that saying Kaddish for 12 months reflected poorly on the relationship between the mourner and the deceased parent.  In addition, since the custom of the community is that a person saying Kaddish is appointed to lead the service, my saying Kaddish for the 12th month would either have resulted in me getting more than my fair share in terms of leading services or have led to uncomfortable questions as to why I was still saying Kaddish but no longer leading services.  Therefore, my decision was to stop saying Kaddish after 11 months.

However, I also decided to keep up my Kaddish-style attendance record for minyanim for the 12th month.  In truth, very little is lost with this approach.  I continue to honor my father in this way for the entire 12 months and am present for the recitation of Kaddish with equal frequency.  It is also worthy to note that the true essence of Kaddish is in the response “yehei Shmeh Rabbah mevorakh – May His Great Name be Praised,” which is recited by all who are present in a minyan.

I hope that my decision in this regard, as well as our discussion of the relative merits of each position, does honor to my father’s memory.

About Rabbi Alan J. Yuter

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