May a woman recite the mourners’ kaddish?
This question has been dealt with by many authorities since the seventeenth century. Roughly speaking, they can be divided into three categories: Those who prohibit, those who permit under certain conditions, and those who permit women to say the kaddish. We shall see that there is no inherent halakhic reason to prohibit this practice. All of those who prohibit base themselves on external halakhic problems or general sociological fears. The halakhah must certainly reckon with sociological factors, but these should not overrule a clear permissive ruling (heter). Furthermore, these sociological fears from the seventeenth century are no longer relevant today.
1) There is one responsum from Germany in the fifteenth century, which seems to indicate that it was not customary at that time for women to recite the mourners’ kaddish.
2) The Prohibitors:
a) The most influential responsum on our subject was written by R. Yair Haim Bachrach (Germany, 1638-1702). He first gives three reasons why women should be permitted to recite the kaddish: 1) It sanctifies God’s name and women are required to observe this mitzvah; 2) As long as there is a minyan of men present, there is no fear of counting women in the minyan; 3) Even though in the legend about Rabbi Akiva and the orphan, which is the basis for children reciting the mourners’ kaddish, the orphan was a boy, many still feel that a daughter also gives pleasure to the soul of her parent because she too is his or her offspring.
Nevertheless, he prohibits the practice because it will lead to a weakening of ancient customs and everyone will think he has the right to create new customs according to his own reasoning and the words of the rabbis will appear as a farce and a sham. His rejection of this practice simply because it is a new custom is quite surprising, given that the mourners’ kaddish itself began as a custom in thirteenth-century Germany and given that all customs by definition spring from the people, not the rabbis. Nevertheless, this responsum was quoted by many with approval and reiterated by R.Chaim Chizkiah Medini and by R.
Other rabbis objected to this practice for other secondary reasons:
b) R. Shimon Frankfurter gives a long list: kevod tzibbur, sinful thoughts, « a woman’s voice is lewdness », and more. Furthermore, in his day one mourner used to recite the kaddish followed by barekhu and he was opposed to a woman coming into the men’s section and serving as a « cantor » for these prayers.
c) R. Yechezkel Katznelenbogen simply forbids the practice without giving any reason.
d) R. Ephraim Zalman Margaliot forbids the practice because it is licentious for a woman to recite something and men to respond. He suggests that the daughter come to the synagogue regularly and answer Amen with kavanah and God will consider it as if she had recited the kaddish.
e) Lastly R. Abraham Binyamin Zilberberg forbids this practice for four reasons: 1) Lest people think that women can be counted in the minyan for kaddish and barekhu; 2) He never heard of such a custom in Poland; 3) All of the later authorities quoted in Sedei Chemed agree that it is forbidden; 4) It is clear from the Rabbi Akiva legend and other Talmudic sources that only a son gives merit to his deceased father.
All of these auxiliary reasons are forced and none stand up to careful scrutiny. Kevod tzibbur for example applies to women reading the Torah (see the responsum on the subject in this booklet). Women saying kaddish will not lead to women being counted in the minyan, as already stated by R. Bachrach. The fact that the custom did not exist in Poland is not a good reason to reject it and most later authorities simply quote R. Bachrach’s responsum without examining the question independently. Thus we see that all of the prohibitors rely on auxiliary of sociological reasons to prohibit this practice while admitting that inherently it is halakhically permitted.
3) Other authorities permit women or daughters to say kaddish under certain circumstances:
a) R. Ya’akov Reisher allowed a daughter aged four to recite kaddish for her father in a minyan at home and preferred this arrangement to the father saying kaddish for the son. He prohibits her from saying kaddish in the synagogue but without any explanation. Perhaps he too thought that it wasn’t proper for a girl to say kaddish in the men’s section. But he stresses that a daughter can appease the soul of her father just like a son. R. Avram Yitzchak Glick and R. Hayyim David Halevi both concur with his opinion.
b) R. Elazar Flekeles cites with approval an ‘ancient’ custom in Prague that girls aged five and six come to the vestibule of the synagogue to recite kaddish after the Book of Psalms. But he never saw and strongly opposes women or girls saying kaddish in the men’s section of the synagogue because according to the Zohar « a woman in the house of God is like placing an idol there ». Thus he sees nothing inherently wrong with women saying kaddish; he only objects to their doing so in the men’s section of the synagogue.
c) R. Yechiel Michal Tukechinsky cites approvingly various customs regarding kaddish by young girls, but he strongly opposes the recitation of kaddish by girls aged twelve and above. However, he gives no reason for his opposition.
Thus these authorities also admit that there is nothing inherently wrong with daughters saying kaddish, but some prohibit them from doing so in the synagogue while others limit the recitation to young girls.
4) Three rabbis permit daughters or women to say kaddish: R. Eliezer Zalman Grayevsky, R. Joseph Eliyahu Henkin, and R. Isaac Klein. Rather than list their reasons individually, we shall summarize six reasons for allowing women to recite the mourners’ kaddish.
a) The main purpose of reciting the kaddish is to sanctify God’s name in public. Since women are obligated by the Torah to perform this mitzvah, how can one prevent them from reciting kaddish?
b) By reciting kaddish a child fulfills the mitzvah of honoring his or her parents by showing that he believes that all their sins will be forgiven.
c) Mourners’ kaddish does not stand alone. It symbolizes the child’s fulfillment of all the other mitzvot. Just as a son symbolizes his loyalty to the mitzvot by reciting the kaddish, so a daughter does the same.
d) The legend about Rabbi Akiva and the orphan should not be taken too literally. That legend dealt with the son of the dead man, but it did not mean to exclude the daughter. On the contrary, a daughter too is called the offspring of the deceased and she too gives pleasure to the soul of her parents by reciting the kaddish.
e) If it is permissible to hire a stranger who did not know the deceased to recite kaddish, how can we prevent a daughter from sanctifying God’s name in honor of her father or mother?
f) In a large percentage of the synagogues of the world, women and daughters recite the mourners’ kaddish. In such cases we follow the Talmudic principles of « action speaks louder than words » and « go out and see what the people do ». Thus the common custom coupled with all of the above reasons clearly allows women to recite the mourners’ kaddish.
5) We conclude with the words of Henrietta Szold, the founder of Hadassah and first director of Youth Aliyah. She was the oldest of eight daughters. In 1916 her mother died and a friend named Haym Peretz offered to say kaddish for her mother. She refused in a touching letter: « …I know well, and appreciate what you say about the Jewish custom; and Jewish custom is very dear and sacred to me. And yet I cannot ask you to say Kaddish after my mother. The Kaddish means to me that the survivor publicly and markedly manifests his wish and intention to assume the relation to the Jewish community, which his parent had, and that so the chain of tradition remains unbroken from generation to generation, each adding its own link. You can do that for the generations of your family, I must do that for the generations of my family ».
We agree. Henrietta Szold said kaddish for both her parents. We have now seen that she acted according to the halakhah and that this is the proper thing to do.
Rabbi David Golinkin
Approved Unanimously 5749