Thursday, April 21, 2005


Today was a little unusual in that it featured two - count ’em! - two - Events of Minor Religious Significance.

The first was personal: my mother’s Yahrzeit, the anniversary of her death. The Yahrzeit is observed on the Hebrew date, so it floats around relative to the secular calendar - but it’s always the 12th of Nisan on the Hebrew calendar.

Three days before the start of Passover.

I can tell you that our Passover seder in 1988 was the most difficult one I have ever experienced. Here it was, only three days after Mom shuffled off this mortal coil, and we were obligated to foreshorten the normal seven-day period of mourning - shiva - due to the arrival of the holiday. Not only that, but we were obligated to have a festive meal.

Well, it wasn’t especially festive - but at least we had the benefit of having the entire family together in one place already.

Seventeen years later, I still miss Mom, but I no longer suffer the acute pain of a mourner. That’s as it should be, of course.

Jewish practice with respect to death and bereavement is designed to facilitate the healing process for those who have suffered the loss of a loved one, while at the same time ensuring that the memory of the deceased is kept alive and honored. A seven-day period of intense mourning (shiva) gives way to a thirty-day period of restricted activities (sh’loshim) during which certain amusements - concerts, movies, and the like - are forsworn. After sh’loshim ends, the deceased is honored by the daily recitation of Kaddish for a year - eleven months for parents, who, as the custom goes, are said to have sufficient merit in the eyes of the Almighty that the extra month is not required. Once the year (or eleven months) ends, a memorial stone may be erected and the bereaved person is able to go back to a normal life.

But five times a year, on the deceased’s Yahrzeit and during special memorial services held on the major Jewish holidays, surviving relatives stand and recite the Mourner’s Kaddish.

The Kaddish is often wrongly described as the Jewish prayer for the dead. It is that, but it is so much more. The Kaddish is an Aramaic prayer of praise and blessing - one of the oldest in our liturgy - that does not mention death at all. Many versions of the Kaddish are sprinkled throughout Jewish worship services, where they function as transitions between different sections of the service. Its significance to mourners lies in the fact that it is a supreme act of faith in and respect for the Eternal to praise Him at a time when the natural tendency would be to blame Him for taking a loved one away.

Kaddish must be recited only in the presence of a minyan - a quorum of ten adult Jews. Therefore, to fulfill one’s obligation to honor the memory of a loved one, one needs the support of the community. It’s our local practice that the person observing a Yahrzeit treats the others attending minyan that day to breakfast at the Local Bagel and Smoked Fish Emporium - a way of thanking everyone just for being there.

And that brings me to the second Event of Minor Religious Significance.

Normally, the day before Passover is the Fast of the Firstborn, a day on which firstborn males are obligated to fast in memory of the firstborn males of the Egyptians, who died in the tenth plague as recounted in the Bible. The fast is also an expression of thanks for the Hebrew firstborn males, who were spared. This year, however, Passover begins on Sunday. Because it is traditional to not fast on the Sabbath or the day before the Sabbath, the fast is moved up - to the 12th of Nisan. Today. And so, this year, the Fast of the Firstborn falls on my mother’s Yahrzeit.

There is a way to avoid having to fast. Completing the study of a tractate of Talmud is a happy occasion, one celebrated with a festive meal. So we simply tack on a Talmud study session to our morning worship, and Bingo! No fast.

And that’s just what we did. Our study session, heavily attended by the Annual Load o’ Firstborn Males, was followed by breakfast at the synagogue, so technically, I could have dodged the Breakfast Bullet.

But as it turns out, several of us ended up at the Local Smoked Fish and Bagel Emporium anyway, tradition being hard to ignore...and breakfast was on me. And I really didn’t mind, having had the honor of reading the day’s Torah portion.

Torah, Kaddish, and a chunk of Masekhet Sanhedrin. It was a nice way of remembering Mom before running off to the airport for my trip to New York.

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