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Mourner’s Kaddish

I have felt, for a long time now, that I have mourning to do, without the rituals with which to do it. My grandfather died when I was eight years old and I was not required, or even allowed, to say the Mourner’s Kaddish for him. I have lost dogs, but there is no ritual of Jewish mourning for a dog. There is also no mourning ritual after a betrayal or divorce. There are rituals for birth, coming of age, marriage, and death, but there are more events in life than that.

Delilah at the beach.

Delilah at the beach.

IMG_0547

Dina loved peanut butter.

The Mourners Kaddish is not actually about death, it is about reiterating faith in God. The prayer is mostly in Aramaic, rather than Hebrew. I never studied ancient Aramaic, so I only really understand this prayer because of the English translation. But the sound of the words, sung or spoken, has power, maybe because it sounds different from the largely Hebrew prayers in the rest of the service. It’s almost like the words have magic because of their otherness, as if secrets are hidden within them.

My favorite line of the prayer is a long list of the types of praise we offer. From the Artscroll Siddur: “Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled, mighty, upraised, and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed is He beyond any blessing and song, praise and consolation that are uttered in the world.”

It sounds better in the Aramaic, but it’s this long list of the ways we express love. And yes, we say them about God, but I think of them as being about us, about each other. These are all of the ways we experience and express our love for each other – with glory or comfort, with praise or song, and yet we can never capture all of that love in words because it is beyond the words we have available to describe it. So, yes, we are being reminded to have faith in God at our lowest moment, when we might feel as if God has forsaken us, but for me, it is a moment to acknowledge the love we still feel for the person we have lost, and for the people we still have.

Cricket, giving thanks for a leaf.

Cricket, giving thanks for a leaf.

Butterfly, in silent prayer, for chicken.

Butterfly, in silent prayer, for chicken.

The Mourner’s Kaddish can only be said with a quorum (ten Jews, some congregations still count only men) as part of the service. People who would otherwise say a hasty version of their morning prayers at home before work, will, for the year of mourning, make a point of finding an early service at their own or another synagogue, and hope that at least ten people will show up in time.

The Mourner’s Kaddish is said at the end of the service, not at the beginning, and I can think of a couple of reasons for this: one, so that the mourners will stay for the whole service in order to maintain the quorum and allow for all of the communal prayers to be said; and two, because there is healing energy in being there for the regular daily prayers, with your community, and in deep mourning you may not be able to believe that and choose it for yourself if it were not required.

At my current congregation the custom is, basically, for mourners to stand and the rest of us to sit, for the Mourner’s Kaddish. But over the years the instructions have become more convoluted and the rabbi has had to come up with a paragraph-long list of instructions: if you are in a period of mourning, or have a yahrzeit (the anniversary of the death of a loved one), or are supporting a friend who is in mourning, or think this is a good time to stand and remember…

Earlier in the service, a shortened version of the same prayer is sung, rather than spoken (as it is for the Mourner’s Kaddish) and the feeling is more joyful and light, with the same exact words. It seems to me that using the same prayer for both purposes is a way to gently remind mourners that they used to sing this song, and some day they will again. Until then, they will speak the words with the community, be part of and apart from them, and know that they are seen and that they are not alone.

Most of Jewish ritual is meant to be practical. When it’s not practical, it is either out of date for its original purpose, or the practical purpose is a little more hidden and requires some time and repetition to discover. So I wonder what the ancient rabbis meant by leaving other losses unritualized and unmourned. Maybe some of the prayers just didn’t make it into the canon, or were lost along the way. Maybe one day there will be an excavation of a little town outside of Jerusalem, and inside of an ancient stone dog house they will find the lost book of prayers for how to mourn a beloved dog. I think a lot of people would appreciate that.

I found this stone dog house online. I especially like the potted plant in the window.

I found this stone dog house online. I especially like the potted plant in the window.

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About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

79 responses »

  1. You can create some amazing rituals to give yourself closure and inner peace. The mourners kaddish is a fabulous tool, but so is lighting candles, chanting verses you love over and over again until the verses bring healing.

    I would be willing to share some ideas with you offline if you want to reach out.

    Rituals help you become more grounded, but you can use verses, song, or specific traditions that you create or use. For the ending of a marriage, the mikvah may be an amazing possibility.

    Shavuah Tov with blessings and light,
    Chava

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    • My rabbi uses poetry and prose to supplement the service, and on Yom Kippur I got to read from a piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates’ from the bima. I read it every day for a week and a half to prepare, and it felt like I was filling up a void I didn’t know was there.

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  2. Thank you and those who replied for this thoughtful and informative post!
    🙂

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  3. This is a beautiful post. I think life is a prayer.

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  4. in s.c. we had 400 members at our synagogue. when i was little my father took me to minyan .. he had the key & he would always have to go call people to come so there would be 10 men for someone’s yarhzeit & sometimes we went to pick them up.

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  5. I light a Yizkor candle for an Uncle who had no children, and always say Yizkor in shul for him too. Creating my own ritual I suppose. There is symbolic ritual in the process of giving a Get, things are done “in reverse” the way the document is handed over etc. Saying Tehillim has often been my ritual when seeking comfort at a loss

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  6. Great post. And your prayers for a dog truly would be a wonderful find.

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  7. Rachel,

    Thank you for the wonderful article and for reaching out to my site after losing my dog. I love this post and the thoughts of a formal prayer for those who are in mourning. It is amazing how a little four legged fur ball can change a life for the better. I will do some more research about this. Thank you again for finding my little place.

    rob

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  8. Great post, as always! I was waiting for the moment that you would bring the four-paw theme to your writing. “Is Rachel changing her approach this time?”, I had questioned myself. No way! I was so glad to read, at the very end of your piece: ” Maybe one day there will be an excavation of a little town outside of Jerusalem …” And you brought me a big smile! Thank you!

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  9. I have been thinking this week about the power of lists, and your description of some of the prayer in the Kaddish service underscores that! I agree–we have no rituals for some very important losses, and I’ve come to think the ritual is an important step in our healing! The loss of a beloved pet, for sure.

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  10. Years ago when an Episcopalian friend of mine was in seminary, she devised a mourning ritual for miscarriages. In my research into it as I was trying to compose some hymns, largely based on Lamentations and Jeremiah, I discovered that thirty years later a woman will instantly burst into tears at the mere mention of the m word. These things are needed. You might check out the Humane Association. They are doing more things for putting religious people in touch with animals and the environment.

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  11. Your post popped up in my email last night but I was not able to read it until this morning and I am so glad I waited. Rachel, this is so beautiful. Both of my dogs have been gone quite a few years now and I still choke up when I think of them. Mourning is ongoing for me. We Catholics have a blessing of animals but….that’s it. No mourning for them, either. Oh, a lost prayer book for mourning puppies would be the most wonderful thing.

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  12. What a beautiful post! I learn so much about the Jewish faith from reading your blog, but this one was also very insightful into the nature of grief, and the role that both faith and community play in helping us cope with grief. And while it is not my place to say so, I admit I see nothing wrong with saying the Kaddish for a beloved pet.

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  13. Pawsome stone doghouse! And for the record, I think saying kaddish for a pet is appropriate and comforting. It could make the grief journey a little easier on the heart.

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  14. A very thoughtful post. Thank you. Your post and reference to the Mourner’s Kaddish reminds me a bit of the Litany of Saints in the catholic church. Growing up catholic I always found this prayer to be very cleansing, meditative, and mindful of not only the the holy trinity and Mary, and other founding saints but also all those loved ones who have passed away.

    The church I attended for many years as an adult and where my kids were raised was quite liberal. We would always find beautiful ways to combine thousand year old rituals with contemporary practices. Each Sunday during the season where the Litany was recited and sung at the end of the formal recitation of saints the lector would read from a book listing parishioners’ family members who had passed away. It was always so comforting to hear my dad’s name read aloud.

    No longer a practicing catholic yet very spiritual (yes, I’ve always been a typical “cafeteria catholic”) there are many things I don’t agree with about formal religion. The rules and antiquated mind-set of the Holy See (although the current Pope is certainly shaking things up!) to name a couple. But one thing I do miss is some of the beautiful traditions and rituals such as the Litany of Saints.

    Thanks Rachel for a beautiful post. And, if I was still a regular attendee at my church I;m pretty sure everyone would be ok with Bailey’s name (Bailey was my previous golden retriever who passed away six years ago) being in the book and being read each Sunday during the Litany.

    p.s. St. Francis Assisi, patron saint of animals, would probably be ok with the Kaddish being said for Animals. Do Catholic saints have any pull in the Jewish religion? 🙂

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    • You’d be surprised! There’s a lot of crossover among clergy in the different religions; they read a lot of the same books and struggle with a lot of the same questions. When the current pope gave his encyclical on climate change, my rabbi praised it during services.

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  15. I am sure if we say a mourning prayer for our beloved pets Our Lord would not mind, after all He did create everything in heaven and earth. I like the idea of a mourning prayer, it keeps our focus on God the giver and taker of life. We actually have a church in our Presbytery that does a blessing on our pets every year and are encouraged to bring their pets or if they are hooligans like mine to bring a picture. I am sure our God smiles when He sees a church or a synagogue full of pets and that we are caring for them the way He ordained. After all He did create us to worship Him and to care of His creation. 🙂

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  16. At our congregation, everyone stands for the mourner kaddish. After all, someone needs to say for those that have no one else. As for dogs, I lit a candle when each of them passed. For memory, for honor, for love. It is all part of healing. Do what feels right.

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  17. This is a lovely, thoughtful post, Rachel. We make up our own mourning rituals for the animals in our household, using elements of the liturgy and prayers we love, too. Pip

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  18. No disrespect intended at all, but can you write your own? Maybe that’s blasphemy…but I feel that you would write a lovely prayer of mourning for dogs. You think and feel deeply about the subject. And to me? That’s the primary ingredient for proper mourning: love and respect for the passed on one. I’ve lost four important souls in the past three years…one human and three canine. I made up my own ‘prayer’ for them all. I don’t think God judges us on our human traditions, it’s the heart that He’s looking in at.

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  19. Sometimes, nothing works.

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  20. Thank you for this post Rachel. I have lost two dogs – The Man and Chienne – within months of each other, I miss them both. I miss all of the dogs I have ever had, here and in Scotland. Our Presbytery is much too conservative for prayers and services for Dogs, which is quite sad, but I believe we had a minister once who would say a prayer and hold a small service for children who lost pets – but nothing for adults. I would join you in prayers for the passing of our animals because , like us, they too are God’s creatures.

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  21. Rachel, you ask a very good question about why our faith does not have prayers for other types of losses. The short answer, depending on whom you ask, is either: 1. That the loss of a human loved one is the greatest loss one can endure and therefore is worthy of prayers and rituals to the exclusion of any type of lesser loss; or 2. That other types of losses are considered insignificant in traditional Judaism. I think the truth is likely a little of each. Divorce is considered to be within the control of the partners, unlike death, over which we have no control. Also, divorce is considered the culmination of such pain that finally experiencing it is actually a form of joy. As for pets, well, animals are not considered fit companions for humans in the Torah. This is seen starting with Adam, who had the companionship of all the animals, but it wasn’t good enough and he had to have a woman made for him. As my mother is fond is of reminding me, in traditional Judaism, animals are considered dirty and not fit to share habitations with humans, certainly not to be mourned over. As I mentioned in one of my posts a couple of years ago, there IS mention of pets in the Bible, although not in the Torah. The first Biblical mention of the kind is of a pet lamb in 2 Samuel 12:3. Personally, I wish we did have a mourner’s prayer for animals. I wish our faith required us to say it each time we murder a bull, chicken or turkey because we want to eat it. In Judaism, as in every faith, there is a lot of “pick and choose,” much of which seems rather arbitrary.

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    • What an interesting idea! My nephew took a class in the rules of ritual slaughter last year and he never mentioned prayers said for the life of the animal. But I’ll have to ask him about that. It would make sense to acknowledge exactly what you are doing, to make sure this is something you truly believe is acceptable.

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      • I should mention that the few times dogs are mentioned in the Torah, they are portrayed in a very negative light. Biblically, dogs are considered to be filthy, useful only for devouring carcasses left to rot. In fact, the word “dog” in the Bible is used as a pejorative for male prostitutes, considered the lowest of the low. Arguably, cats have it even worse, as (famously) they are never once mentioned in the Bible (unless you count lions). In light of the above, it is easy to see why there is no Jewish mourning ritual for our fellow creatures.

  22. I think acceptable mourning rituals often cover for unrecognised grief.

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  23. I think it’s so important to have support during mourning.
    Love your photos, as usual 🙂

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  24. Thoughtful, interesting piece, but my favorite part was the photos of Cricket (giving thanks for a leaf) and Butterfly (in silent prayer for chicken). Love your puppies! They’re so expressive!

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  25. Pingback: Yizkor | A Map of California

  26. Rachel, I always learn things from your blog and have nominated your for the Infinity Dreams Award. To accept, visit this link: https://spencesgirl.wordpress.com/2015/10/07/infinity-dreams-award/. And congrats!

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  27. Beautiful post. In our sjul we same the names of the beloved ones out loud (but only if you want to). It’s such a lovely ritual, I think.

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  28. I am VERY late reading this Rach, as I am overloaded with work atm. But finally got around t reading the ‘Sunday paper’ on Thursday!
    Lovely thought that the prayer is to express love for the lost one – and like you I have lost pets and have mourned for them in my own way.
    I hope Butterfly’s prayers for chicken were answered.
    Lindy x

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  29. Priscilla prays for love which she receives in abundance every day.

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  30. I am an Orthodox Jew and the Kabbalah teaches that all living things have souls. I am also a dog lover and I know what the experience is like to have such a loss. This was a beautiful post. Create your own prayer!!!! No rules against that. The prayers are rabbinic, and there is nothing to prevent you from doing so, or I would be happy to write one for you.

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  31. I had a very good Jewish friend many years ago who was much older than me. I loved her dearly – she was like another grandmother to me, and I adored my grandmothers most of all so it was a joy to find a third one so late in my life. She was an Orthodox Jew whose family had immigrated to South Carolina from Poland in the 1930s. She had wonderful stories for me because I was one of the few people who hadn’t heard them countless times already. For me, they were fresh and new.
    Anyhow, as Libby was fond of saying, one of her biggest aggravations in life was trying to find a quorum for mourning. I have sat in her living room many times while she dialed the phone to call various nephews, grand-nephews, son and grandson to try to berate them into meeting for the quorum of ten men. The younger members of her family weren’t quite so committed to their traditions and rituals of their faith as Libby so she had to persuade them to form the quorum.
    This post reminded me of Libby and how much I miss her. Thank you, Rachel.

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    • Libby sounds like one of the women I’ve become close to at my synagogue. It’s such a relief for women to be counted for the quorum, not just because women should always be counted, but because women are so much more likely to answer that call and come to help someone like Libby.

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      • You are so right, and I am so glad to know the change has been made. I knew most of her family – was particularly fond of her son Arnold – but even he made himself scarce when his mother was trying to get a quorum. So a great change.

  32. Such a beautiful post Rachel-I wish we could do something along the lines of honoring pets who have died with a ritual similar to the “blessing of the animals.” Rituals are so important to honor, but also to just remember. I have shrine to my shepherd Abby-I see it everyday and it reminds me to pause and be grateful for her being in my life.The spiritual bond between people and animals can be so powerful-and I loved the picture!

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  33. No insult meant, only an observation from the point of a spiritual. The paganism enshrined in all religions fascinate me. Thanks for your contribution regarding judaism.

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  34. Thank you so much for taking me on this journey, Rachel. It was very moving and heart-felt. I really appreciated the Mourner’s Kaddish. So beautiful and I could appreciate what you mean about it being better in Aramaic. I think God would want us to honour and respect all living things, as in the Garden of Eden. I know a few humans would find it disrespectful to honour dogs in this way but I think that’s their problem, stuffiness whatever. There is a nobility and purity in dogs that can be lacking in humans. Then again, I can mistake my dog’s undying devotion for me for wanting my lunch. Those puppy dog eyes work overtime. Hope you are having a good weekend xx Rowena

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  35. Hi and thanks for looking at my blog. I totally empathise with your comments in the first paragraph of this post. We all find our own ways of mourning in the many ways that grief strikes us. Sometimes it’s difficult when there are no formal rituals but in many ways that frees us to create something meaningful to us personally.

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  36. Oh my!! I am so incredibly moved by your entry for a plethora of reasons. One of my beloved dogs was dx just last Friday with lymphoma ~ she’s having a full oncological workup tomorrow after which I’ll have a better understanding of the decision(s) that are ahead, most importantly, making the one that is best for HER. The other part of your entry that resonated strongly is Judiasm and what meaning you have taken from your faith. Although we differ in that I am a practicing Catholic, I believe we are similar in that we don’t interpret our faith in cookie cutter terms. I went to evening mass on Saturday, the day after my dogs diagnosis. Throughout most of the service I felt empty and tried to stifle my tears. Then towards the end as the cantor sang a particular hymn I realized how blessed I was for having Callie Ann in my life for nearly a decade. How much joy, laughter and unconditional love she had given me as well as enriched my soul. i openly cried because yes, my heart ached. Yet at that moment I clearly realized that despite the tears and uncertain future, I was a better and richer person for being allowed to share part of my life with such an extraordinary dog and for that I am so very thankful.

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  37. As I noticed how Ranger is aging the other day, I thought back to this post. Thanks for writing such a moving piece. It really resonated with me when you wrote it and I think back to it as I remember our Mastiff Tank and his passing and how we will celebrate the lives of Ranger and Sheba

    Reply

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