Question: May a women say kaddish for her parents if she so desires?
- According to the sources, saying kaddish for one’s parents is of spiritual benefit for the soul of the deceased. Some are of the opinion that this is also true with regard to a woman who wishes to say kaddish for the benefit of the soul of her father or mother, where she has no brothers to say kaddish. A minyan of ten men is required for the purpose of saying kaddish, and the woman saying kaddish does so in the women’s section of the synagogue. A woman may recite kaddish even if she is the only person doing so, but it is preferable that one of the men accompany her in the recitation, even if he is not required to say kaddish.
- A woman may also say kaddish at a funeral or memorial service.
- A woman who chooses to say kaddish for her parents should do so as regularly as possible, just like a man who says kaddish for his parents. It would appear that a woman who has brothers is not prohibited from assuming the obligation to say kaddish, although the halakhic authorities who permit a woman to say kaddish all addressed the case of a woman who does not have brothers saying kaddish.
- Although the recitation of kaddish is the accepted method for elevating the soul of the departed, there are other acts that benefit the soul of the departed in addition to the recitation of kaddish, and many are of the opinion that it is preferable to emphasize these alternatives, particularly in the case of women, who generally do not say kaddish. The main thing is that the children of the departed sanctify God in public. Therefore, if they are able and know how to sanctify God’s name publicly by other means, such as through acts of kindness, charity, Torah study and bringing others closer to God and worship, this honors the soul of the departed no less than saying kaddish. Thus, Rabbi Solomon Ganzfried, author of the Kitzur Shulhan Arukh (sec. 26:22) wrote in regard to men:
Though kaddish and prayers are helpful to the departed, they are not of primary importance. What is most essential is that their children proceed in the path of righteousness and, in that manner, bring merit to their parents…A person should command his children to be scrupulous in the observance of a particular mitzvah. Their practice of it will be deemed more important than their recitation of kaddish. This is a valuable practice for someone who has only daughters and no sons.”
- It is important to state that when the reciting of kaddish, or a demand to lead services due to an “obligation”, may lead to dispute or argument, the benefit of reciting kaddish may be cancelled out by the harm it causes, as the dispute may lead to desecration rather than sanctification. Thus, relinquishing the “obligation” and acceding to the request to lead services sanctifies God’s name and brings greater benefit to the soul of the departed than would be achieved by leading services.
This is also true in the case of a woman who is saying kaddish in the synagogue. Indeed, her reciting kaddish is grounded in halakhic decisions, and therefore there is no reason to object. Therefore, objecting is a desecration of God’s name and is prohibited as an act of oppression against another. However, where it nevertheless leads to dispute and injures the feelings of other worshippers, one should not insist upon saying kaddish, and will thus bring greater benefit to the soul of the departed than would be achieved by saying kaddish. Avoiding disputes and baseless hatred sanctifies God’s name more than the recitation of a kaddish that might incite dispute. However, alongside the woman’s consideration for the sensitivities of the congregation, the congregation should also be considerate of the feelings of the woman and of her desire to say kaddish, and the congregation’s rabbi should be consulted as to the proper course of action. If there is no congregational rabbi, an appropriate and respectful discussion of the matter should be conducted by the members of the congregation, and “therefore love truth and peace” (Zechariah 8:19).
Sources and Expanded Discussion
The Significance of Kaddish
The recitation of kaddish benefits the soul of the departed. The rishonim (Or Zaruah 2:50; and see Mahzor Vitry 1:144, and elsewhere) cite a midrash that recounts how Rabbi Akiva saved a deceased person from the judgment of Gehinnom by teaching the deceased’s son to sanctify God’s name. The midrash concludes that if a person’s son “stands among the congregation and says ‘Barekhu et Adonai hamevorakh’, and the congregation responds ‘Barukh Adonai hamevorach le-olam va-ed”, or if he says “Yitgadal” and they respond “Yehei shmei rabbah mevorakh”, that person is immediately released from punishment”.
As stated, the primary benefit in saying kaddish for the deceased is in his son’s calling upon the congregation to praise God, and the congregation’s replying to his call by saying “Amen. Yehei shmei rabbah mevorakh le-alam u-le-alamei alemaya”. In addition, there is benefit in the son’s leading the congregation in prayer, calling upon the congregation to praise God, and the congregation’s answering “Barukh Adonai hamevorach le-olam va-ed”. The Or Zaruah observes that “our custom in the Land of Canaan [=Slavonia], and also that of the people of the Rhine, is that after the congregation recites Ein Keloheinu, the orphan stands and recites kaddish … following the act performed by Rabbi Akiva.”
Rabbi Chaim ben Bezalel, brother of the Maharal of Prague (Sefer HaChaim 8; and see Responsa Tzitz Eliezer, vol. 14, 13:4), notes an additional benefit to reciting kaddish. He explains that saying kaddish by a son constitutes a kind of justification of the Divine judgment (“tziduk hadin”) by the son.
The Custom of Recitation of Kaddish in the Past and the Present
It should be noted that according to the original custom, as opposed to our current practice, only one person recited kaddish, while all the others would remain silent, and then respond to the call of the person saying kaddish to praise God. The proper custom was that only one mourner said kaddish so that the congregation would hear it clearly, inasmuch as “two” and certainly “three or four voices are not heard” (i.e., more than one voice is not heard clearly), and the congregation would then respond “Amen. Yehei shmei rabbah mevorakh le-alam u-le-alamei alemaya”. In accordance with this custom, the Or Zaruah ruled that it is preferable that minors who cannot serve as prayer leaders say the kaddishes recited at the end of the service, as the person reciting them need not be obligated to the performance of mitzvoth or be a member of the congregation (see Sefer Ha-agur 334). However, over the years, the custom developed by which all the mourners recite kaddish in unison.
Kol Be-isha – Women’s Voices
Before proceeding to consider the primary issues involved in the recitation of kaddish by women, we should mention that there is no reason to forbid it by reason of the prohibition upon hearing women’s voices, inasmuch as reciting kaddish or blessings does not involve singing. That is the current practice in regard to saying birkat ha-gomel in public, and in other matters. The Gemara in tractate Megillah (23a) states that, from a purely legal perspective, a woman can be called to the Torah as one of the seven aliyot, and Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef wrote in that regard (Responsa Yecheveh Da’at 4:15) that one need not be concerned with the problem of kol be-isha in regard to reading the Torah. If that is the case in regard to the cantillation of the Torah, then it is all the more so in regard to reciting kaddish, which has no melody.
Precedents for Women Reciting Kaddish
The question of the recitation of kaddish by women was first raised in the 17th century. Rabbi Yair Bacharach (1638-1701), in Responsa Havot Yair (222), told of a man who asked that, following his death, ten men would study in his home, and that his daughter would say kaddish following the study session. Rabbi Bacharach notes that the Amsterdam congregation’s scholars and leaders did not object. Rabbi Bacharach writes that although there is no legal prohibition to do so, as women are obliged to sanctify God’s name, and thus if she says kaddish in the presence of ten men, she sanctifies God’s name in the midst of the People of Israel, nevertheless, even though there is an opinion that the recitation of kaddish by a daughter brings benefit and comfort to the soul of the departed because she is one of his progeny, it should be opposed because it is contrary to Jewish custom.
As opposed to this, Rabbi Jacob Reischer (1661-1733), in Responsa Shevut Ya’akov (2:93), addressed a similar question and permitted a minor daughter to say kaddish for her father at a minyan in the home, but not in the synagogue. Rabbi Ephraim Zalman Margulies (1762-1828), in his book Mateh Ephraim (Laws of the Mourner’s Kaddish; and see his comments, Elef LaMagen ss. 9), and Rabbi Chaim Hezekiah Medini (1833-1905), in his book Sedei Chemed (Ma’arekhet Aveilut 170), opposed the view of Rabbi Reischer even where kaddish was recited in the home.
Another attestation to the recitation of kaddish by daughters can be found in the responsa of Rabbi Eliezer Fleckeles (1754-1826), the outstanding disciple of the “Noda Bi-Yehudah” (Rabbi Yechezkel Landau), who noted (Responsa Teshuvah MeAhava 2 OH 229:10) that the custom of the congregations of Prague was to gather in the morning in the vestibule of the synagogue to recite Psalms, and after the recitation of Psalms, the small girls – five or six year old orphans – would say kaddish. (He emphasized that this should not be done in the synagogue itself, as he was of the opinion that women should not enter the synagogue at all when men were praying there).
Opinions of Rabbinic Authorities in Regard to Modern Practice
The question of women reciting kaddish arose more frequently at the end of the 19th century and in the 20th century. Some halakhic authorities prohibited women from reciting kaddish (see: Responsa Torah Temimah 27; Minhat Yitzhak 4:30; Tzitz Eliezer 14:7; Yalkut Yosef vol. 7, 23:11(9); Mishpatei Uziel, 2nd ed., OH 1:13). In Pnei Barukh (34:20) we read: “There are those who say that a daughter can say kaddish in a minyan in her home, but all the authorities dispute that, and wrote that she may not say kaddish, even in her home, and even if her father commanded her to do so. And if she wishes to fulfill her father’s desire or to benefit him, she should make sure to attend all of the services in the synagogue, and make sure to answer amen in response to those who say kaddish, and that will serve her no less than saying the kaddish.”
However, some authorities permit the reciting of kaddish by daughters and women. Rabbi Eliezer Zalman Grayevsky (1843-1899), in his book Kaddish LeAlam, goes to great length to establish and prove the view that a daughter may say kaddish and that it is of benefit for her father and mother, stating: “It makes no difference if the orphan is a son or a daughter … a woman may also say kaddish to save the soul of the deceased and elevate it … and therefore women, too, can say kaddish for their father”. Rabbi Grayevsky assumes it as a given that where a man is survived only by a daughter, it is preferable that she say the kaddish herself rather than pay a stranger to say kaddish. In his book Gesher HaChaim (chap. 30, 8:5), Rabbi Yechiel Michel Tukachinsky (1872-1955) attests that “there are many places that permit her to say kaddish in the synagogue”. However, he concludes that “in any case, an adult daughter is not permitted to say kaddish in the synagogue”. It would thus appear that, in principle, both permit the recitation of kaddish by women, and attest to the custom, but raise objections regarding the issue of the modesty of women who say kaddish, particularly in the synagogue.
Rabbi Yosef Eliahu Henkin (1881-1973), the outstanding disciple of Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer and one of the greatest Torah scholars of the last century, concluded “that if she also wishes to say kaddish before women while kaddish is being recited by the men in the synagogue, we are not particular”. His grandson, Rabbi Yehudah Herzl Henkin, in Responsa Bnai Banim (2:7), also permitted women to say kaddish, arguing that now that we are accustomed to saying kaddish in unison, there is no problem if a woman joins in and recites the kaddish from the women’s section. In his opinion, this is preferable to her saying kaddish by herself in a private minyan in her home. He adds that under the current circumstances, it is possible that even those who prohibited saying kaddish would permit it (even, perhaps, Gesher HaChaim, who restricted saying kaddish to minors, would accept that where all the mourners say kaddish in unison, there is no reason to prevent an adult woman from joining in from the women’s section). In Rabbi Henkin’s view, if there are no others saying kaddish in the synagogue, it would be appropriate for one of the men to say kaddish so that the woman not recite it alone.
In a note there, Rabbi Henkin further brought the testimony of his grandfather Rabbi Yosef Eliahu Henkin: “I recall that in my childhood, a young woman said kaddish in the presence of the men in a pious, God-fearing congregation…”. Similar testimony is found in the writings of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Responsa Iggerot Moshe OH 5:12), who simply wrote that “throughout the generations it was customary that, from time to time, a female mourner would enter the synagogue to say kaddish.”
Rabbi Chanoch Grossberg, one of the leading halakhic authorities in Jerusalem, notes the custom of young girls saying kaddish, in his book Hazon LaMoed: “There were some whose custom was that his young daughter would say kaddish where there was no son, and that was the custom of my teacher and father-in-law (Rabbi Neta Weiss, the Jerusalem Maggid) z”l.” Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (see the article of Dr. Joel Wolowelsky in Tzohar 8 (5762)) and his brother Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik (Od Yisrael Yosef Beni Chai 32) ruled that a woman is permitted to recite the mourner’s kaddish alone from the women’s section. Similarly, Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli (1909-1995) wrote in Responsa BeMar’eh HaBazak (1:4): “If a women says kaddish in a normal voice in the women’s section, it can be permitted, and it does not constitute a weakening of custom”.
However, Rabbi Neriah Gutel, in a response to Dr. Wolowelsky’s article in Tzohar (ibid., pp. 21-37), wrote that from all of the sources one can conclude only that women were permitted to say kaddish in specific cases, but that there was never a decision to permit it unequivocally. Nonetheless, he too admits that there is no reason not to permit the saying of kaddish by women for whom it is important. We also admit that there is no directive, nor was it ever said that this is the preferred manner for women to act. In his response, Rabbi Gutel argued that Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s position, as quoted above, was misrepresented, because Rabbi Feinstein concluded by saying that “in practice, further study of this matter is required”. However, it is clear from the context that Rabbi Feinstein was addressing the question of a woman entering the beit midrash and saying kaddish without a mechitza, and did not mean that the very custom of a woman saying kaddish required further study.
Inasmuch as there is considerable evidence of the custom of women saying kaddish, and important halakhic authorities do not see it as posing a problem, therefore, in practice, there is room to permit women who wish to say kaddish for their parents to do so.
In conclusion, we should note what Rabbi Yechiel Weinberg wrote in Responsa Seridei Eish concerning the celebrating of a bat mitzvah for girls, and regarding the participation of women in singing zemirot at an oneg Shabbat, which are very much apt to the issue before us:
Common sense and sound pedagogical principle almost require that we celebrate a girl’s reaching the age of obligation to fulfill the mitzvoth, and this discrimination practiced between boys and girls in regard to celebrating reaching maturity severely harms the self-respect of maturing girls who, in other areas, have already been granted emancipation, so to speak” (Responsa Seridei Eish 2:39).