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Prayer in Place of Mourner's Kaddish When a Minyan is Not Present

Master of the world, God of the spirit of all flesh, it is revealed and known before You that it is my fervent desire to praise Your name, and to remember and honor my beloved:

Father/mother/husband/wife/partner/son/daughter/brother/sister... (Insert Name)

by reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish in the company of a minyan.  Although I am unable to join with my community now, may my commitment to the memory of my loved one find favor in Your eyes and be accepted and received before You as if I had recited the Mourner’s Kaddish.  May Your name, Adonai, be elevated and sanctified everywhere on earth and my peace reign throughout the world.

New Thoughts on an Old Prayer: Saying Mourner’s Kaddish Virtually

Dear Friends,
The Covid-19 virus has presented the Jewish community with numerous unprecedented challenges.  We are a people that experiences the greatest sanctity when we are together in the same space.  Whether it is the Torah portions we are reading now, describing the construction and design of a portable sacred space in the wilderness (the Mishkan, or Tabernacle), the Holy Temples that stood in the heart of Jerusalem, or today’s synagogues, it is clear that being able to congregate with other Jews is the optimal way to experience Jewish life.  Every Tuesday, the Psalm of the Day (Psalm 82) reminds us “Elohim nizav b’adat El,” God stands in the divine assembly, which has been interpreted to mean that God’s presence can be uniquely felt when there is an “assembly” of worshippers.  As much as I value personal prayer, and occasionally pray alone, I certainly prefer to pray, learn, celebrate, and even mourn in the company of my beloved Jewish community.

When the siddur was organized and compiled, our Sages identified certain prayers and rituals that require at least a minyan to perform.  These prayers are referred to as “devarim she’bikdusha,” i.e. words of unique holiness.  Other prayers, psalms, and religious poetry can be recited individually, without a minyan.  Today, as we face the unique and unfortunate situation of being physically separated from one another, and our synagogue officially closed and locked, we have had to rethink how to gather for prayer, study, and to maintain connections with one another.  The Har Shalom staff has been remarkably creative and flexible, offering a host of on-line, virtual experiences that are rich in spirituality, learning, activities, and meaningful contact with one another.  But the issue of how to pray, particularly how to say the Mourner’s Kaddish, when we are bereft of each other’s physical proximity has been a challenge.

The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS), the Conservative movement’s halakhic authority, recently ruled that people can indeed recite Mourner’s Kaddish remotely, provided that the service they are dialing into has 10 adult Jews together in the same place. Aside from the halakhic requirement of reciting Kaddish in a minyan, those who have said Kaddish as mourners often testify to the power of being part of a minyan as they go through the journey of mourning. Now that Covid-19 has interfered with our ability to gather, some members of the committee have suggested that we adopt a more lenient stance, specifically with regards to Mourner’s Kaddish.  In a paper authored by Rabbis Elliot Dorff and Pamela Barmash, which you are welcome to read in-full here, https://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/story/cjls-guidance-remote-minyanim-time-covid-19, these esteemed colleagues point to a source in the Shulchan Aruch (the 16th Century classical code of Jewish Law authored by Rabbi Joseph Karo) that provides an opening for us to consider convening a minyan for Mourner’s Kaddish that is completely virtual—with the provision that at least 10 people can see each other’s faces, which is possible on Zoom and other virtual platforms.  They also mention the category of “Sha’at ha’dahak,” a time of emergency, as a premise for adopting such a stance.  As a Jew who believes strongly in traditional modalities, not to mention the power of community, I have personally struggled with this issue.  I should also note that this leniency does not represent the majority of the members of the CJLS.  That being said, I believe that in our community, the ability to recite Mourner’s Kaddish is so deeply felt and significant that it warrants adopting this lenient position for the time being.

We currently have daily opportunities to pray in virtual spaces (see the Har Shalom website, www.harshalom.org, for a one-click connection).  Accordingly, on a temporary basis, during this time of social distancing and the closure of the synagogue, the Mourner’s Kaddish and Kaddish De’Rabbanan may be recited by those connected entirely in a virtual space, with at least 10 other adult Jews whose faces they can see, even without the presence of physical minyan.  This leniency shall apply only to Mourner’s Kaddish and Kaddish De’Rabbanan, but not to any other devarim she’bikdusha (e.g. Torah reading, Barechu, Kedusha, etc.)

I am grateful to the members of the Religious Activities Committee (RAC), Hazzan Ozur Bass, and Steve Susswein for their help and support in thinking through these issues.

May God bless us all with good health, strength, and patience as we look forward to a time when we can return to the sacred space and beautiful atmosphere of our community at Har Shalom.

With heartfelt blessings,

Rabbi Raskin

Sat, July 31 2021 22 Av 5781