How to stop saying Kaddish


This week’s Torah portion is Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1-24:18

Today is the last Kaddish I will say for my sister, Naomi Friedman Rabkin, who died 11 months ago at age 43. Usually saying Kaddish for 11 months falls on the children of a lost family member. But I felt obligated to do so whenever I found myself at a minyan.

Many people do. After preparing for the funeral, then shivah, and the 30-day transitional period of shloshim, many spouses, siblings, even friends, continue saying Kaddish knowing that the obligation does not fall on them. Understandably, they have a difficult time going from the comforts of shivah and shloshim to no structured mourning at all. I imagine a similar process when, in this week’s parshah, the slave is told he can go free:

“If you acquire a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything . . . But if the servant declares, ‘I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,’ then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life” (Exodus 21:2-6).

In Kiddushin 22b, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai expounds on this verse in a symbolic way: Why was the ear singled out from other parts of the body? Because God said, “The ear heard My voice on Mount Sinai when I proclaimed, ‘For unto Me the children of Israel are servants; they are My servants’ [Leviticus 25:55] and not servants of servants. Yet, this man has gone and acquired a master for himself. Let his ear be bored through!”

This is a reminder of the common difficulty we have to leave a comfortable place despite how much we should. But it’s also an allowance the Torah gives us to stay behind.

When we lose someone, we each have a unique way to grieve. We don’t always fit in with Torah’s objective standards for the process. Our brain and even Jewish custom are telling us to move on, but our heart keeps us attached to our loved one.

Perhaps we can take this lesson from the parshah to help us ease back into the world, as hard as that may be. As we leave the shelter of the obligations of mourning, we hold on to the memories of that person that continue to whisper into our ear.

At whatever point we choose to stop saying Kaddish, we continue to keep that person with us with her memories and legacy.

Discussion question

  • When you have experienced loss, how and why did you choose to mourn for that person?

Rabbi Daniel Braune-Friedman is the director of pastoral care at Charles E. Smith Life Communities.

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