What do our words mean when we recite the Kaddish?

I am often asked about the meaning of the Kaddish prayer, and how it affects us on an emotional and intellectual level. The Kaddish, which is written in Aramaic, a sister language of Hebrew, is probably one of the most well known prayers in our siddur.

We have been reading the Kaddish for more than two thousand years, and yet most people think of it as the prayer for souls that have passed away. In fact the Kaddish was originally used a “marker” in the daily cycle of prayers, indicating that one section of the prayer service was completed, and a new one was about to begin. Thus we read the “reader’s Kaddish” in the beginning of our prayers, which tells us that we have completed the psalms and the introductory prayers of the Shabbat service.

In many synagogues, a Kaddish is recited after the completion of the Torah reading, known as the Kaddish deRabbanan, the “Rabbis’ Kaddish” which refers to the great teachers of centuries past. Most of us think of the mourner’s Kaddish, which is known as the Kaddish Yatom. We say this when we are in the midst of a mourning period, or when we have a yahrzeit (anniversary) for a loved one who is gone. But are we praying for the dead when we recite the mourner’s Kaddish? Not really. The words of the Kaddish, which have a mantra-like quality in the rhythm and cadence of the Hebrew, have nothing to do with death. The Kaddish words refer to the greatness and awesomeness of divine reality which is the source of life. We are in fact saying “thank you” when we recite the Kaddish prayer.

A meditation for the Kaddish expresses these thoughts in this fashion:

For we lose our hold on life when our time has come, as the leaf falls from the bough when its day is done. The deeds of the righteous enrich the world, as the fallen leaf enriches the soil beneath. The dust returns to the earth, the spirit lives on with God.