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< Q11.6.16 TOC Q11.6.18 >

Question 11.6.17:
Death and Burial: Is it appropriate to say Kaddish for non-Jews?


Traditionally, there is little problem having a memorial for non-Jews. Kaddish is not about death; it's a declaration of faith that the historical process will converge on a state in which G-d's name and reputation will be glorified and sanctified by all of mankind. It is said when mourning as merit for the deceased and their role in the grand scheme. According to R' JB Soloveitchik, we say Kaddish in particular to help reconcile personal tragedy with that big picture, to help the mourner work their way out of their personal dungeon of despair. However, the traditional text for Yizkor, the memorial prayer said on holidays, doesn't work that smoothly for non-Jews, as we ask G-d to bind the soul with those of their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. However, it would be a minor modification, and not in violation of halakhah (Jewish law) to coin a similar one for non-Jews (and depending on the religion of the departed, the traditional wording might still work).

That said, traditionally, there are aggadic (Jewish outlook and values) questions, albeit not strictly legal prohibitions. First, few rabbis will take the initiative to coin a synagogue prayer. The prayerbook is changed rarely, and such changes are taken seriously. It is difficult to be sure that every implication of the resultant prayer is positive. After all, these are words that hundreds of people may be meditating upon for years; what messages are we giving them.

There may also be questions related to the relationship of the deceased. For example, if one is talking about the "deceased non-Jewish spouse of a member", then the traditional communities would not institute measures that give a measure of normalcy to intermarriage. Someone who is widowed from a non-Jew might well be privately consulted as to how to deal with their loss. This is because although it is a little late to worry about that personal inter-marrying, traditional Judaism does not want to establish a societal norm for such relationships, as that would remove some of the marginalization that has kept intermarriage so low in the traditional communities.

As for progressive Judaism (Reform), the answer was given in a responsum in 1957 (American Reform Responsa 124. Kaddish for a Unitarian Sister (Vol. LXVII, 1957, pp. 82-85)). This responsum addressed the question: "May we say Kaddish-- first for an apostate, or, secondly, for a born Gentile who never was connected with Judaism?" The response was that as to the apostate, he is involved in special laws with regard to his burial. The laws are derived from the saying in the Talmud (B. Sanhedrin 46a) that relatives should not mourn for those that had been sentenced by the court. This was fixed and developed as a law in the tractate Semachot II that we should not concern ourselves with one who "goes aside from the path of the community" ("Ein mit-asekim imahem"). This is embodied as law in the Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De-a 345.5. Of course, the question still is: What does it mean when we say that we should not be concerned with them? Generally, the commentators take it to mean that we do not give them the full ritual, such as standing in the line of mourners, giving eulogies, etc.; but even the strict Moses Sofer of Pressburg says that, nevertheless, we must provide a burial. This question--whether we should say Kaddish for them--has its precedent during the time when Marranos escaped from Spain and there was often a difference in religious status between the generations in one family. The question as to apostates, which arises first in the 16th century with regard to Marranos, is itself based upon an older Talmudic precedent. Many legends were told about Rabbi Meir and the famous apostate Elisha ben Abuyah (Acher). In B. Chagiga 15b it is told that Rabbi Meir made great efforts to redeem the soul of this apostate from Gehinnom and to bring him into Paradise. Since the purpose of the Kaddish is the redemption of the father, and since the dictum is quoted in discussions of the kaddish that "The son brings merit to the father," therefore, the precedent of Rabbi Meir is used in the discussion of whether a Jewish son may do merit, i.e., redeem his apostate father by saying Kaddish for him. This question came as a practical enquiry before Rabbi David Cohen of the Island of Corfu in the 16th century (see his Responsa, section 30). He concludes that the son should say Kaddish for his father, even though some might argue that the Kaddish will not avail this apostate. Nevertheless, it is the duty of the son to honor his father and to benefit him as much as he can by saying Kaddish. So Moses Isserles, in his commentary, Darchei Mosheh to the Tur (Yoreh De-a #376) says that a son should say Kaddish for an apostate father, but not if that father died a natural death; only if the father was slain should the child say Kaddish for him, since the slaying was a means to atonement, for the father certainly would have repented before he was slain. Isserles repeats this opinion in his commentary to the Shulchan Aruch (same reference). The commentators Taz and Shach, to the Shulchan Aruch at this point, underline Isserles' limitation that the Kaddish be said only if the father is slain. However, Solomon Eiger, son of Akiva Eiger (Gilion Maharsha) says that if the deceased apostate has no other mourners, then the one mourner should say Kaddish for him even if he was not slain but died on his bed. Abraham Toomim, a Galician rabbi (end of the 19th century), in his Responsa Chesed Le-Avraham, Tinyana, Yoreh De-a #84, says that if the father is slain, the son is in duty bound to say Kaddish, but if the father dies on his bed, the son is not in duty bound, but he is not prohibited from saying it. And he adds, "There certainly can be no prohibition to utter this praise to the Almighty, i.e., the Kaddish."

This question can be combined with the clearer question, namely: Should we say Kaddish for a non-Jew who is not an apostate, since he had never been a Jew? This, too, can be, and is, a practical question. It can come up in the case of a man converted to Judaism whose father remains a non-Jew. May the Jewish son say Kaddish for that non-Jewish father? A more recent responsum (written in 1933) by Aaron Walkin, Rabbi of Pinsk-Karlin, bridges the gap between the matter of apostates discussed above and the second question which was asked about Christians (see his Zekan Aharon II, #87). He is asked specifically whether one may say Kaddish for a Christian. The question comes to him in the following way: A man is converted to Judaism. His father is not converted to Judaism. Then the father dies. The son, being a Jew, wants to say Kaddish for his Gentile father. May he do so? Aaron Walkin, upon the basis of most of the material cited above, decides that he certainly may. He argues a fortiori, if a son may say Kaddish for an apostate who wilfully deserted Judaism, certainly a son may say Kaddish for a man who is naturally following the religion in which he was brought up. Then he adds that if it would not seem too surprising to say so, he would even express the opinion that not only may this son say Kaddish, but actually he must say Kaddish. In the responsa of Abraham Zvi Klein, rabbi in Hungary during the past century (Be-erot Avraham, #11) the author is asked whether we may accept a gift for the synagogue from a Gentile woman. He answers that we may do so. Then he is asked whether we may pray for her, which she requested. To this his answer is that of course we may; and he gives the following reasons: In the Temple in Jerusalem they sacrificed seventy oxen in behalf of the seventy nations. Further, it is accepted by all Israel that the righteous of all nations have a portion in the world to come. In B. Gittin 60a we learn that for the sake of peace we should visit the sick of the Gentiles and bury their dead. When Maimonides records this law in chapter 10 of his Hilchot Melachim, he adds: "For the Lord is good to all and His tender mercies are over all His works." So there is no prohibition of the Chevra Kadisha to record her name and her good deed, and we should recite for her an "El Male Rachamim" on Yizkor Days. Thus, while there is not much discussion on this matter, yet whoever discussed it answers in the affirmative. There may be some opinions in the negative, but they appear to be few. Thus, the position of Reform Judaism was that one is completely justified (as Rabbi Toomim said) "to utter this praise of God" in honor of a deceased Christian or "apostate."

The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.

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