By the end of the 14th century the persecutions of previous centuries created among the Jews the need for a special prayer. It would be said for those parents, children, and the masses of co-religionists who had been killed while sanctifying God’s name. Speculation is that the need was caused by the fact that their gentile neighbours, who had also been affected by the plague, had special prayers for mourning and suffering, and the Jews needed their own versions of such prayers.
The Kaddish prayer suited their need in reacting to the attacks of the mobs against them. A number of prayers and kinot were composed at the time to commemorate this terrible era. For example, the Av Harachamim prayer, said on Sabbath mornings, calls upon God to revenge the blood of the innocent.
The tradition of reciting the Yizkor prayer in memory of the departed also traces back to that time. It would appear, though, that the biggest change was the use of the Kaddish prayer by those who survived the religious fanaticism of the Christian world during the Crusades. The bottom line was that almost all the Jews of Germany (and of the Holy Land as well) had been murdered by the Christians.
Let us turn to the text itself. The Kaddish seems at the beginning to be huge, abstract and threatening. It increases the greatness of God, but only later does it become positive in its approach to God. In medieval times, the contradiction appears. How can one say God is excellent and sing a song of glory to him, while Jews die by the thousands? This question has survived to our own time, the time of the Holocaust, when Jews died by the millions.
The big question of holy justice remains: where was God in Auschwitz?
It remains unanswered and has shaken the faith of many, converting thousands of Jews into non-believing atheists.
There is a story of two concentration camp survivors who were travelling on the same train. In the morning, one of them took out his tefillin and offered them to his friend. The latter refused them. Then he suggested breakfast to his friend and again the latter refused. At noon time suddenly the friend took out his own tefillin and put them on, and then he took out his breakfast and began eating.
“Why did you refuse my offer?” said the first man.
Said his friend, “As a survivor of the Holocaust, I have a soul searching for God; I searched for him till the last moment of the command to put on tefillin. Even He must be suffering a little.”
To return to the Middle Ages. The suffering of the Jews gave rise to strong nationalist feelings, fanning hopes for redemption and resulted in the formation of a messianic movement and the development of the Kabbalah.
Kaddish filled the needs of mourners because it was the most visible of all Jewish mystical texts. It was also appropriate to say this prayer at any time because it refers to God in the third person. This means there is no question of using God’s name in vain.
The Kaddish doesn’t call on the sacred name of God but instead uses appellations such as “The Holy One, Blessed Be He”. Thus, the first line speaks about “His great Name” without any further elaboration. Just as a person at times of crisis and calamity needs a support mechanism, the Kaddish, by the very act of addressing God, offers the prayer-sayer support in his time of need. Just as at the end of any public Torah reading, the Kaddish is appropriate, with its reference to messianic times and its message of comfort. The same applies when it is said by a single person in distress, or even by the nation as a whole.
This natural way of addressing God, with the acceptance of what has happened, and the implicit messianic vision therein, includes special hope for the revival of the dead. That, of course, was particularly appropriate for those communities affected by the Crusades and the “Black Death”.
A story told by the great sage, Rabbi Akiva, tells of a man sentenced to Gehinnom, who was saved from it by the fact that he had taught his son to say Kaddish. Such a tale offered hope to the unfortunate Jews of Europe, and this story remained part of the communal memory for generations. Thus, even the Jews of Germany, under the heel of their Nazi persecutors, found in Kaddish a text that comforted and calmed them. Always too was hope that the bad times would pass and be replaced by a better future.