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  • A Private Prayer in Lieu of Kaddish
  • Avram Israel Reisner (bio)

I have been asked before, and again recently, whether one might say Kaddish at a graveside even though there is no minyan. I have been, as no doubt many of my colleagues have been, at graveside funerals at which a minyan was not present. If there is a chapel service, one can say Kaddish there if no minyan is anticipated at the cemetery, and the mourners are likely to gain comfort thereby. But at a graveside service that possibility is fore-closed, and some mourners will not act on the advice that they attend services to recite Kaddish. They want to recite it at the funeral. This most recent inquiry included the question: is there any substance to the notion that one can justify reciting Kaddish at graveside without a minyan of the living by counting for the minyan the many souls of the deceased? I doubt that notion has any halakhic currency.

Truthfully, I am a bit torn. I want to insist that d’varim she-bi-k’dushah (a select set of prayers that speak of God’s holiness, of which Kaddish and K’dushah are the primary examples) require a minyan. On the other hand, I ask the analytical question: these are words in praise of God; how can it ever be unacceptable to praise God? (Set aside for the moment scenarios in which a tyrant has vowed to execute your child unless you denounce your God and accept witchcraft, in which case praising God and angering the tyrant might be inappropriate.) And yet, knowing the draw of Kaddish and other d’varim she-bi-k’dushah, the sages saw fit to use that as a lever to force the community to gather and experience prayer in public—for otherwise they foresaw the religion atomizing, every person making Shabbat for him or herself. That, at least, is how I have always understood the requirement that those praises of God be reserved for a minyan, for the presence of a gathered public. And while an occasional breach of that etiquette in some [End Page 85] distant cemetery seems like a small thing (and I know that some people have come to allow Kaddish to be recited in the absence of a minyan at the cemetery), word gets around, and to succumb, useful in the moment, is to further the very breakdown of the community, a breakdown that we are all anxious to combat. And to be frank, I really do want to insist that the halakhah does not yield to our desires.

So long ago I developed a private prayer to be said in lieu of Kaddish, and it belatedly occurs to me (not always the sharpest pencil in the drawer) that it might prove valuable to others facing the same situation. That prayer is basically an abridgment of the beginning of the av ha-raḥamim prayer that is recited as part of the Torah service on Shabbat after Sh’ma and just before calling the first aliyah.1 Commonly in our siddurim, the opening paragraph (upon which this private meditation is built) does not appear, but it can be found easily (possibly in small type) in many fuller siddurim. It is typically said by the congregation in an undertone just after L’kha Adonai Ha-g’dullah, filling the space until the ḥazzan finishes the procession and puts the Torah down—a space which we generally try to fill with singing. Not only is it not considered a davar she-bi-k’dushah (although at the Torah service there would always be a minyan), but when said in an undertone, it was effectively relegated to individuals, rather than the whole congregation—and ultimately, for that reason, came to be dropped. Elbogen’s comment2 is that it is “hardly used anywhere.” Indeed, the whole of the Torah service was never seen as statutory, but was made up of various ornamental prayers and verses, of which this was one. Its origin is early; a form of this prayer appears in Tractate Sof’rim, chapter 14.3 But the longer version that is common in Ashkenazic...


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