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Kaddish; & what to do when you can’t recite it


Kaddish is probably the prayer most associated with death and burial, and the recitation of such a familiar formula can be soothing. It can be very hard to be unable to say kaddish on losing a pregnancy, and so it is worthwhile to reflect on the meaning of the prayer, and on alternatives to fill the ritual gap.


What is Kaddish?

The essence of the kaddish prayer is a proclamation of God’s unchanging Glory; in contrast to the suffering and pain which shadows our lives, God’s grandeur is forever unsullied. It is not, as it is sometimes called, a Jewish prayer for the dead; in fact death is not mentioned in it. There are a number of versions of kaddish, recited at different times, but the shared component to them all is the listeners’ response of ‘May His great Name be blessed forever and for eternity’. By eliciting this response, the mourner causes all of his/her listeners to publicly acknowledge and beautify God’s Name (a kiddush Hashem-sanctification of the Name). The Sages explain that a soul in heaven can no longer follow God’s commands to acquire more merit before Him, but that we who remain in this world can do so on behalf of our loved ones. The merit of having created a kiddush Hashem is then ‘credited’ to the ‘account’ of the deceased, and considered as though he/she had performed that mitzvah.

For a translation and transliteration of the Mourners’ Kaddish, click here.

We see then that the primary reason for a mourner to recite kaddish is to create a public, articulated recognition of God in the merit of his/her loved one. With this understanding, we can turn to alternative ways of achieving the same effect, at times when saying kaddish is not open to us…


Alternatives to saying kaddish:

1: Bring others closer to God.

Bringing others close to God and Torah is another form of sanctifying His Name; an even better one, perhaps, as you can initiate a deeper realisation of God within another Jew. This could be in the form of inviting less-religious friends round for a Shabbat or Festival meal, or to join you in creating the special atmosphere of a Shabbat meal if you don’t regularly do so; joining Partners in Torah or Seed to share your knowledge with someone who wants to learn more; or helping in some form or other at any one of the many organisations that bring Jews closer to God.


2: Become a living advertisement for the beauty of Judaism.

Unfortunately, we all know the embarrassment of seeing Jews in the newspapers for fraud or other crimes. By conducting our daily inter-personal activities with honesty, integrity, sensitivity and consideration, we have the opposite effect, especially when those watching us know we are Jews. When we behave in an exemplary manner, however small the issue, it creates a sanctification of God’s Name. This elevation of all our actions, from the most trivial upwards, can be in merit of your baby.


3. Take on new mitzvot.

Even the smallest extra effort in our relationship with God is valuable, and can be done in memory of your baby. Giving to charity (perhaps one for babies and/or children; it does not need to be a Jewish charity); making an extra step in keeping Shabbat or keeping kosher; taking more care to pray or recite brachos (blessings) clearly; visiting the lonely or sick; providing meals for the hungry – the list is endless, and encompasses wherever your talents lie.


4. Learn Torah, and then say Kaddish at a Siyum.

Kaddish was first written by the Rabbis of the Talmud to be recited at the end of a session of Torah learning. While we no longer recite it each time we finish learning, we preserve this in the existence of a special version of kaddish to be recited at a Siyum.


What is a Siyum?

A siyum-סיום is a celebration of the completion of a significant amount of Torah learning. The word itself means conclusion or finale. Tradition outlines how much one should learn in order to mark it with a siyum, an amount which varies from person to person, depending on how familiar he/she is with Torah texts. Thus for one person, having completed learning a Sedra in Hebrew is a notable acheivement, which the next person could only match by completing an entire tractate of Talmud. For help in setting a goal in learning, ask your local rabbi, or one of the many Jewish organisations which will help you to create a learning program and match you up with a learning partner to help you to achieve it.

It is traditional to undertake to learn a set amount of Torah in memory of the departed, to be completed by the sheloshim (the thirtieth day after burial), and/or by the yahrzeit (the yearly anniversary of the Hebrew date of burial). Traditionally, Mishnayot are learned, as the word Mishna משנה is an anagram of neshama נשמה, meaning ‘soul’, but you can choose any Jewish text. Often more than one person will join in the learning task; for example, friends and family might each learn a tractate of Mishna (or a certain number of chapters, depending on experience), so that between them an ‘order’, or even the entirety, of Mishna is finished by the end of the sheloshim/yahrzeit. The learning can be done by both men and women, in the baby’s memory, so that his/her soul, which had so little time in this world, can enjoy this special commandment.

A siyum requires a minyan of ten adult males, and as with all Jewish events requires a special meal. This is termed a ‘seudat mitzva’; a meal of great spiritual merit. It is best for the meal to include bread, or at least cake (in Jewish law, a meal, as opposed to a snack, is defined by the inclusion of bread), but it does not need to be lavish. Nice cake and fruit, or bread with simple dips and salads, are fine. The person (or main person) who has completed the learning will read out the last part of the text he/she has learned, in order to include all those present in the learning experience. He/she will also read the beginning of the next text, to indicate that one is never finished learning Torah; to complete one text is to then begin another. He/she will then recite kaddish, and can have in mind that he/she is reciting kaddish for their baby.

The Siyum as Memorial Service:

The siyum can then be used as an opportunity to remember your baby, and to allow friends and family in to comfort you. You could share some memories of your baby or ideas on the nature of loss; prayers or psalms could be recited; a Torah text dealing with loss could be shared; or all of the above.

For suggestions of prayers, texts and psalms, please see Prayers and Texts

A transliteration of Kaddish and some interesting ideas about saying kaddish can be found within the Bereavement booklet at Please note that JPL does not endorse and is not responsible for the suggestions in this booklet.

A contemporary memorial prayer for miscarried or still-born babies and babies who died in infancy, by reconstructionist rabbi Ira Stone, can be found here.

Note: JPL is not responsible for and does not endorse material in external sites.

Posted in Burial and Mourning, Kaddish.

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