I encourage everyone who is in the position to say Kaddish to do so yourself. Why? Because the process is designed to help the mourner integrate the loss and it has been a great source of pain and trauma to women over those generations where this was disallowed. This question has arrived on my father's yartzeit, the anniversary of the ascent of his soul when I, a woman, will go to synagogue and say Kaddish for him.
Why will I not nominate a man to say Kaddish in my place? The time when women were unable to find congregations which would allow us to participate in the profoundly healing process known as saying Kaddish is long past. Kaddish is designed to help us heal--from loss of those we deeply love and those who did not love us enough, or even hurt us. It is a time of reflection when we are not meant to be alone. The container of a community around us as we rise really matters. When we take our turn and the process works in healthy and holy ways. While the words may begin as unfamiliar Aramaic sounds, they gradually become a soul-soothing mantra that allows us to stand up in the supportive container of community in order to honor and better integration the loss. When the first of my parents died, a friend helped me to rise for kaddish the first time, my knees were weak, my sadness overwhelming. We drew even closer in this way, the path of Jewish spiritual practice is such a great blessing when we take Kaddish upon ourselves.
There are occasions where it does make sense to nominate a person from anywhere in the range of gender to say kaddish -- for you. This is when we have had no children, or none who will survive us. When I ran a Holocaust Archive of depositions of survivors and Allied WWII Soldiers, 5 survivors whose children had all died in the camps asked me to be their Kaddishele, their Kaddish-sayer. So long as I live, I will honor their yartzeits, and my parents, with all of my being. There was a time when women were chattel, owned by men, and had no rights to stand up with our voices, visions, views and values. We had no rights to the healing process known as Kaddish, men couldn't imagine themselves staying home to watch the children while we went to minyan to honor our deceased.
Some ideas and resources for you:
b. A Woman's Book of Grieving by Nessa Rapoport, like Anne's book above, I typically gift this tiny, spiritually profound book to women friends and my private Jewish spiritual direction clients who are grieving.
b. "Honor" by Rabbi Phil Cohen is a reflection on a very painful father-son relationship and the impact upon him of saying Kaddish out of a sense of obligation. This can be found in the volume Mitzvah Stories: Seeds for Inspiration and Learning.
c. Here is a link to one of an inclusive interpretation of Kaddish.
d. There are those who feel unable to say Kaddish out of the outrages of history-induced anger at God. Here is a link to Paul Robeson chanting a specialized Kaddish, by Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev who lived during the time of the pogroms. While it is not the Mourner's Kaddish (there are quite a few types of Kaddish) this might be helpful if this condition is part of your feeling set.
d. These days there are even on-line congregations that one can enter for free to do so from home. (Though it is only honorable and the Jewish way to send a voluntary contribution from time to time, as one does so.) This is particularly meaningful for those who do not live near gender-inclusive congregations, or who are home-bound or in hospital, hospice or other institutional care settings. You will find a number of such options on-line.
with blessings upon your life and path, Rabbi Goldie Milgram
While Kaddish has become, for many Jews, almost totally identified with mourning, this was not always the case. The original Kaddish and its central statement calling upon God’s great name to be eternally blessed (“Yehei Sh’meih Rabba…”) was initially said after Torah study. Its evolution into a mourners’ prayer is based upon a story involving the great Talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva, who learned that if a son said Kaddish upon the death of his father, he could help alleviate the suffering and punishment of his deceased parent in the next world. Based upon this, the custom arose, in approximately the 13thcentury, for the sons of the deceased to recite Kaddish for their parents, first only on Shabbat or at the Evening Prayer after Shabbat, and eventually every day. Interestingly, in some communities, especially in Germany, only one mourner would recite Kaddish at a time, with the recitations divided in a rotation of mourners – this is still the practice in the Breuer’s Community in Washington Heights in New York, to the best of my knowledge.
My father, z”l, would say that is was the Maftir and the Niftar that has helped keep American Judaism alive – the Maftir that the bar mitzvah boy intones on Shabbat, and the fact that even the most alienated Jew will often come to the synagogue to say Kaddish for the prescribed 11 months for the Niftar – the deceased parent. (While the mourning period for a parent is 12 months, we only say Kaddish for 11 months, as we have a tradition that the evaluation and punishment period after death is 11 months for a righteous person and 12 months for not such a righteous one, and we assume that our parents fall into the former category). The custom to say Kaddish for a parent expanded to include siblings, children and wife, though only for 30 days in such cases. While it was not common until recent times for women to come to synagogue during the week and/or desire to say Kaddish, there are many contemporary women who want to feel the daily connection to their parents that the recitation of Kaddish can provide. Some Jewish legal authorities felt that, based upon the Rabbi Akiva story that talks only of a son but not daughter, as well as other reasons, only sons should say Kaddish. This, however, was not always followed by Jewish communities, and especially in contemporary times, a number of leading authorities permit and/or encourage women to say Kaddish, explaining among other reasons, that when any child goes to shule to say Kaddish, it is clear that the parent has done a good job in educating his or her children, which brings merit to the parents.
Since Jewish law empathetically does not obligate women in communal prayer like men, generally when there are male and female siblings, the male will recite the daily Kaddish, though a woman may decide that she wants to obligate herself to come to synagogue daily. If there are no male siblings, it is thus very appropriate for a woman to say Kaddish herself, as opposed to having another relative or a hired stranger say it, though, again, she is not obligated to do so. As above, we can understand the story with Rabbi Akiva to illustrate that any child’s recitation of Kaddish is meritorious to the deceased, and this would be especially true today, when many Jews decide not to follow in their parents’ and ancestors’ Jewish footsteps – when a woman thus chooses to say Kaddish consistently, what greater merit can there be for a parent who clearly has done something right in inspiring their children to continue our beautiful Jewish legacy? If she is not able to do so, the next best option would be to have a close relative say Kaddish, a son-in-law, brother, grandson etc. If there are no close relatives, a meaningful alternative would be to give Tzedakah (charity) to a Jewish institution, which would appoint someone to say Kaddish daily in the deceased’s merit.
The mourner's kaddish is a custom that has come to play a very powerful role among Jews. It was once believed that saying the kaddish for a deceased person had the power to help raise their soul from gehenna - which is, in fact, why the rabbis mandated that one who says kaddish for their parents should only say so for 11 months, lest people believe that one's parents were sinners who needed extra help.
However, the actual text of the mourner's kaddish, when examined, reveals a prayer that is actually for the speaker, not the deceased. The mourner's kaddish, like all kaddishes, is a reminder of God's glory, and helps us turn our hearts to God despite the pain of loss. Saying kaddish is an act of piety and love for the speaker, and while it honors the deceased for their offspring to say it, it means little coming from a stranger whose heart is not ruptured or distracted by grief from its connection to God.
For this reason, I would suggest that under most circumstances, it makes little sense to hire someone to say kaddish for a woman. Indeed, even some Orthodox rabbis (including the recently late, quite brilliant halachic mind, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, ZTz"L) have stated that a woman may say kaddish for her deceased parents, merely noting that as in their communities, women do not form a minyan ( minimal unit of persons to say certain prayers) she must say kaddish with or in front of ten men.
Furthermore, the mourner's presence at the prayer services in the community is a wonderful way for her to receive support fromt the community, and for others in the community to know of her loss and help her in the time of her sorrow. Many, many people, have found that their regular presence at services during the period of mounring became an opportunity to become more knowedgeable and more deeply embedded in the community, and in the end, allowed them to be embraced by their friends and neighbors, and they sometimes even found that it enabled them to pass the blessing on for others who came after them, to help them mourn, and to return back to everyday life at the end of their mourning.
If the mourner is uncomfortable or unfamiliar with the Hebrew or the service, the best solution is to go to her rabbi or a knowedgeable layperson and have them help her - it is not a complicated prayer, and indeed, its rhythms are easy to learn.
What is the Kaddish?
The Kaddish “prayer” – actually an affirmation of God’s greatness -- is included in the regular service in several places, where its function is to divide one section of the service from another. It has several different forms, each recited at a particular juncture, e.g., at the conclusion of the Amidah. It is one of the elements of the service for which a minyan is required. Unlike the rest of the liturgy, it is not Hebrew but Aramaic, the vernacular of the rabbinic period, meaning that even the least educated Jews would have understood it.
What is the “Mourners’ Kaddish?”
The “Mourners’ Kaddish” is one of the variant forms of the Kaddish, recited specifically by mourners. According to the halakhah, a person, male or female, is obligated to mourn for any one of the seven immediate relatives: mother, father, daughter, son, sister, brother, spouse. Although the Mishnah and the Talmud are quite specific about the extensive laws of mourning, reciting Kaddish as an act of mourning is not mentioned in either place. That is because reciting Kaddish on behalf of the deceased is a custom that arose in the middle ages, and became more and more important since then, in part because of folklore that stressed the efficacy of the Kaddish in the face of demonic powers, but no doubt also because of its psychological and spiritual benefit as a mode of grieving and healing from grief.
What’s the issue for a woman?
In a traditional context women do not have the obligation to pray three times daily and therefore do not count in the minyan, and therefore cannot lead the service or recite any obligatory section of it on behalf of those who are obligated to recite it. In a traditional context, therefore, a woman may choose to recite the Kaddish from her seat in the women’s section, but that doesn’t “count” toward the requirement of having the Kaddish recited at that point in the service.
Why a substitute to recite the Kaddish?
The Shulḥan Arukh, the authoritative 16th century law code, references the belief that reciting Kaddish releases the soul of the deceased from Gehinnom. As long as Jews viewed the Kaddish in that way, having it recited was less important than who recited it. In the usual course of events the deceased would have living male relatives, so it didn’t matter that a woman could not say it. But for the occasional deceased without immediate male relatives, the solution was to hire a man to recite it in her place. Incidentally, this practice was also adopted by men who could not regularly attend synagogue.
Most Jews have come to see the Kaddish – particularly the customary extended period of reciting it for a parent – as an obligatory act of filial piety and a ritual of psychological and spiritual healing, not as a means of getting Mom or Dad’s soul out of hell. In that context the idea of hiring a substitute makes no sense. Furthermore, in an egalitarian setting, the obligation of reciting Kaddish rests equally on male and female immediate relatives. For both of those reasons, a woman should not have someone recite Kaddish in her place.