When Kaddish Becomes Currency: Mapping Out the Mechanics of Merit

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Moshe Kurtz

Scenario: A friend of yours is in their year of mourning for their mother.[1] They realize that they are going to be in transit and miss minyan. As a contingency plan, they ask if you would be willing to recite Kaddish on their mother’s behalf. Can your Kaddish count for someone else’s parent? Moreover, if you are already reciting Kaddish for your own parent, would it be inappropriate or perhaps even ineffective to recite Kaddish for more than one person?

These questions are compounded by a practice that has become commonplace in many synagogues which maintain a running list of those who are deceased and sadly do not leave behind a relative to recite Kaddish on their behalf. The expectation is that either the rabbi or a member of the congregation will step up to recite Kaddish for this list of individuals. Similarly, there are now organizations that will accept funds in order to arrange for a third party to recite Kaddish and study Torah on behalf of one’s dearly departed.

The laws of mourning, and Kaddish in particular, serve as an intriguing case study for how halakhic scholarship is sometimes forced to consciously or unwittingly espouse certain theological assumptions when addressing concrete matters of ritual practice.[2]

In this essay we will explore the ability of children versus non-children to confer merit and the complication of reciting Kaddish for multiple beneficiaries. However, before we can adequately address these scenarios, it behooves us to briefly review some background sources about the origins and power of Kaddish. The Talmud (Shabbat 119b) relates:

R. Yehoshua ben Levi said: He who responds, “Amen, May His great Name be blessed,” with all his might, his decreed sentence is torn up, as it is said, “when punishments are annulled in Israel, when the people offer themselves, bless the Lord.”

Why ‘when punishments are annulled’? Because they blessed the Lord. R. Hiyya bar Abba said in R. Yohanan’s name: Even if he has a taint of idolatry, he is forgiven: it is written here, “when retribution was annulled [bifroa’ pera’oth]”; whilst elsewhere it is written, “and Moses saw that the people were broken loose [parua’]; for Aaron had let them loose.” Resh Lakish said: He who responds “Amen” with all his might, has the gates of Paradise opened for him, as it is written, “open the gates, that the righteous nation which keeps truth [shomer emunim] may enter in”: read not “shomer emunim” but “she’omrim amen” [that say, amen]. What does “amen” mean? — Said R. Hanina: God, faithful King.

Evidently, the Sages believed that Kaddish possesses profound spiritual benefits for one who capitalizes on the opportunity. One of the earliest sources identified that connects Kaddish to the context of bereavement can be traced back to approximately the eighth century Tractate Sofrim (19:9), which explains that mourners go to the synagogue to be comforted as follows:

After the reader finishes the mussaf, everyone goes behind the doors of the Synagogue, which are in front of the Synagogue, and there meets the mourners and all their relatives. The benediction is said followed by Kaddish.

A more explicit account of the connection between Kaddish and mourning originates in the legend of Rabbi Akiva and the son of a flagrant sinner, a story that first appears in medieval times in works such as Kallah Rabbati (2:9) and Or Zaruah (Hikhot Shabbat, no. 50):

Rabbi Akiva once saw (what he thought was) a man struggling with a heavy burden on his shoulders and bemoaning his lot in (what Rabbi Akiva thought was) life. Concerned that this might be an overworked slave deserving to be freed, Rabbi Akiva asked the man what his story was. The oppressed laborer replied that he was the soul of a person who committed every conceivable sin and that if he stopped to talk, he’d get in even more trouble. The punishment of this particular sinner was to gather wood, which was used to burn him every day. Rabbi Akiva asked if there was any way to free this soul and the deceased replied that the only way was if he had a son who would stand in front of the congregation and say “Barkhu et Hashem ha-Mevorah” or “Yitgadal ve-Yitkadash…,” after which the congregation would reply, “Barukh Hashem hamevorah le-olam va-ed” or “Yehei shmei rabbah…,” respectively. (These are the prayers of Barkhu and Kaddish, in which the leader of the service calls upon the congregation to praise God, which they then do.) Finally, Rabbi Akiva asked the man who had survived him; the spirit replied that his wife had been pregnant when he died. Rabbi Akiva recorded the name of the deceased, the man’s wife, and his hometown so that he might investigate the matter. Hurrying to the man’s city, Rabbi Akiva discovered that the deceased was particularly reviled by the townspeople. He had been a corrupt tax collector who took bribes from the rich and oppressed the poor. Among his more notorious deeds, the man had violated a betrothed girl on Yom Kippur! Rabbi Akiva located the widow, who had given birth to a son. So despised was her husband that no one had even circumcised the child. Rabbi Akiva took care of this grievous omission and, when the child was old enough, he taught him Torah and how to daven in shul, including the prayers the man had specified. As soon as the boy recited the appropriate prayers, his father’s soul was relieved of its harsh punishments. The man’s spirit re-appeared to Rabbi Akiva in a dream to thank the scholar for saving him from the tortures of Gehinnom.[3]

Both the Beit Yosef (Yoreh Deah 376, s.v. Nishal) and Rema[4] (Yoreh Deah 376:4) cite this story from earlier sources and codify it as halakhic precedent for a child[5] to recite Kaddish upon the loss of their father or mother. The question this raises, however, is whether the child’s role in reciting Kaddish is merely preferable or indispensable. For instance, if, God forbid, a parent recited Kaddish for their child, would it have the same spiritual standing as when a child recites Kaddish for their parent? The answer to this question is not obvious and is subject to what appear to be two diametrically opposed passages in the Talmud. In Sanhedrin (104a) the Gemara sorts which Jewish kings qualified to enter the World to Come:

And why was Amon [a wicked king] not included [in the list of those excluded from the World to Come]? Because of [his son] Josiah’s honor. Then Manasseh [Hezekiah’s son] too should not be included, because of Hezekiah’s honor? — A son confers privileges on his father, but a father confers no privilege on a son (Bara mezakeh aba; aba lo mezakeh bara).

The Gemara is clear: Only the son has power to confer merit (zekhut) to his father, while the reverse is ineffective: Bara mezakeh aba; aba lo mezakeh bara. It goes without saying that any other individual would certainly be incapable of providing merit. Returning to our scenario, based on this passage alone, it would be doubtful that one could ask a third party to recite Kaddish in order to confer merit upon a parent.

However, this conclusion is seemingly contradicted by the a talmudic passage in Sotah (10b) in which King David ostensibly prays for his son Avshalom to be lifted out of Hell and given a lot in the World to Come:

And the king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said: O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died for you, O Absalom, my son, my son. And the king covered his face, and the king cried with a loud voice, O my son Absalom, O Absalom my son, my son. Why is “my son” repeated eight times? Seven to raise him from the seven divisions of Gehinnom; and…to bring him into the World to Come.

Thus, in contrast to the prior passage, we have a Talmudic teaching which conveys that a father has the power to provide metaphysical aid to his son.

In order to resolve this apparent contradiction, commentaries and later authorities are forced to reinterpret the meaning of one of the two passages. Broadly speaking, there are what we might term the maximalist and minimalist camps: The former seeks to maximize the ability of non-children to produce merit for others, thus enshrining the David-Avshalom passage as the paradigm. The minimalist group, on the other hand, endeavors to minimize the ability of a non-child to confer merit by reciting Kaddish, thus emphasizing the line in Sanhedrin, that only a child confers merit upon his father but a father does not confer merit upon his son.[6]

(A) Maximalist Approach #1: R. Yaakov Reischer (Responsa Shevut Yaakov 2:93), based on Tosafot (Sotah 10b), suggests that the Gemara in Sanhedrin is dealing with exceptionally evil individuals – wicked kings who led the Jewish people astray from the ways of God. Therefore, the only recourse available to them was exclusively through the merit of their own offspring. However, the typical person can certainly benefit from the good deeds performed by additional family members and beyond. Shevut Yaakov infers this from the Gemara in Shavuot (39a), which states that in certain instances recompense for a sin can be exacted from one’s family. It therefore follows that certainly the opposite is true and one can serve as a source of merit for their entire family.

(B) Maximalist Approach #2: R. Yehiel Mikhel Tukatzinsky (Gesher Ha-Hayyim 2:23) also espouses the belief that one can dedicate merit for someone other than their parents. R.  Tukatzinsky bases his approach on the final suggestion of Tosafot in Sotah:

That which it states [in Sanhedrin] that “a father cannot confer merit upon his son” only means to say the consideration of the father’s honor is not sufficient to withhold him [i.e. the son] from being counted among the wicked without the use of prayer. But prayer is efficacious just like David prayed for Avshalom.

R. Tukatzinsky understands Tosafot (ibid.) to be distinguishing between what we may term passive versus active generation of merit. Any person may consciously dedicate a mitzvah for the benefit of another, with prayer merely serving as but one example. Whereas, the unique quality of a child is that by simply leading a Torah observant life, they serve as a testament to not only the parents’ mitzvah of bringing them into the world, but also the effort they put into raising them right. Every mitzvah the child performs is thus viewed as an automatic byproduct of the parents’ dedication to their child.

(C) Minimalist Approach #1: Responsa Binyamin Zev (no. 202) reads the aforementioned passage in Tosafot differently than R.  Tukatzinsky. Instead of portraying prayer as simply one possibility for actively conferring merit, he argues that prayer is essentially the sole method for aiding a non-parent. In other words, only a son can confer merit upon his father via means other than prayer. However, prayer is unique in the sense that any person may utilize it to metaphysically aid another, just like King David successfully prayed for the welfare of his son Avshalom in the netherworld.

We should add that R. Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel (Mishpatei Uziel Orah Hayyim 1:2), based on Beit Lehem Yehudah (Yoreh Deah 376), argues that Kaddish is actually not a form of prayer, but rather a means of conferring merit. If we accept this characterization, it would follow that Kaddish could only be efficacious when recited by the child, no different than any other mitzvah.

(D) Minimalist Approach #2: Responsa Binyamin Zev (ad loc.) offers an additional reconciliation of the two Talmudic passages in which, again, he attempts to mitigate the significance of the David-Avshalom narrative. Again, he posits that the principle of aba lo mezakeh bara in Sanhedrin is the default point of departure. Unlike Tosafot’s reading of the Gemara, he portrays David’s deed as not that of prayer, but of forgiveness. King David did not metaphysically intercede on his son’s behalf, but rather, once he forgave his transgression, the spiritual consequences in the next world naturally dissipated. Thus, King David cannot serve as a model for a father conferring metaphysical benefits upon his child—as this was an instance of granting forgiveness of transgression instead of conferring merit.

Responsa Binyamin Zev supports his contention from the aforementioned legend of Rabbi Akiva. If anyone can confer merit upon anyone they wish, then why did Rabbi Akiva go to such lengths to track down the son of the suffering man and train him to recite Kaddish and Barekhu when he could have found another relative—or just recited Kaddish himself like many rabbis do today! From this account, one can infer that there is at least some unique, if not exclusive, power that the child possesses. Indeed, that is why it is specifically the child who is instructed to proclaim “hareini kaparat mishkavo,” (may I be an atonement for his resting soul),[7] when invoking his father’s name, as the power to atone may be exclusive to the child.[8]

Shlihut: Appointing an Agent to Recite Kaddish in One’s Stead
According to proponents of the minimalist perspective, is there any way that another party can confer merit through Kaddish in lieu of the child?

Magen Avraham (132:2) rules that if a child cannot recite Kaddish they should not simply designate another party, but should pay them for their service as well. While Mahatzit Ha-Shekel (ad loc.) comments that the purpose of the payment is to guarantee that the appointee will take his role seriously,[9] there is perhaps something more profound taking place here.

R. Moshe Shternbuch (Teshuvot Ve-Hanhagot 3:57) understands that the goal of paying the appointee to recite Kaddish is to effectuate a super form of sheluho shel adam ke-moto, or power of attorney. Generally, the Talmud[10] rules mitzvah bo yoter me-beshluho, that it is better to perform a mitzvah directly rather than appoint an agent. However, Shakh (Hoshen Mishpat 105) qualifies that when one pays their agent, Halakhah would view sheluho shel adam ke-moto as ke-gufo mamash – as if the appointer is physically the one performing the deed.[11] Thus, R. Shternbuch suggests that even if there are unique powers exclusive to the child, if he hires another party it would be considered as if he is actually the one reciting the words of Kaddish.

While this is a creative framework, it would seem that it either did not occur or was deemed not worthy of serious consideration by proponents of the minimalist camp. R. Ben Tzion Uziel (Responsa Mishpatei Uziel Orah Hayyim 1:2) severely circumscribes the benefit of appointing another party to recite Kaddish in one’s stead. R. Uziel posits that there are two benefits to reciting Kaddish: (1) Providing merit for one’s parent, and (2) fulfilling the mitzvah of honoring one’s parent. According to R. Uziel, when the child appoints another party, he is only accomplishing the mitzvah of honoring his parent, while the ability to provide actual metaphysical benefit could only come from reciting Kaddish himself.

Moreover, R. Maurice Lamm (The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, pp. 163-164)[12] offers strong words of rebuke for a child who would consider outsourcing their responsibility:

Relatives or friends cannot relieve the son of his obligation—whether or not an uncle happens to attend services regularly, or perhaps a brother was closer to the deceased than the son. It is the son who must recite the Kaddish, even though it will be irregularly, or even unconscientiously, performed. There is no doubt that the daily recitation of the Kaddish may become burdensome, but it is a burden that must be borne and, like other vital burdens in life, cannot be delegated.

No person may be hired to say Kaddish in the place of a living son, whether the designated person is very pious or moral or scholarly, or a rabbi or a cantor or sexton, whether or not he is a better person than the son. The Kaddish is not a magical incantation, some exalted abracadabra that opens the gates of Heaven and that needs saying, no matter by whom.

The son’s paying for the Kaddish, rather than praying it, defeats every conceivable purpose of the sacred prayer. No value can be achieved by transferring this personal religious responsibility to a paid emissary. There is no possibility for a “merit of the children;” no respect given to the deceased; no psychological healing; and no sanctification of the name of God. There is, in sum, nothing religious about the whole matter. It is another unfortunate consequence of the prevalent utilitarian idea that everything in this world can be bought. “Merit of the children” must be deserved; it cannot be bought. A bought Kaddish will only reflect adversely on the parent whose child has no time or patience for the reverence he should give.

Thus, there are several important factors a child should consider before out-sourcing their Kaddish if it remains at all possible to recite it themselves.

Reciting Kaddish for Multiple People?
To compound an already complicated issue, how might the equation change if one is reciting Kaddish not just for someone else’s parent, but someone else’s parent in addition to their own parent? While this is, of course, a non-starter for the minimalist camp, we will see that it also might present a challenge for the merit-maximalists who generally believe in the efficacy of a third party. The Rema (Yoreh Deah 376:4) writes:

This [above-mentioned] Kaddish applies only [when it is recited] for a father and mother alone, but not [in the case of] other near-of-kin. If there is no one present in the synagogue who is in mourning for one’s father or mother, that Kaddish may be recited by one who has no father and mother on behalf of all the dead of Israel.

Later authorities, such as R. Feivel Cohen (Badei Ha-Shulhan, Yoreh Deah 376:4, Biurim, p. 97), infer from this Rema that there is nothing to lose from reciting Kaddish for the merit of multiple people.[13] However, this possibility leads almost to a reductio ad absurdum: If there is a limitless quantity of merit to go around, then why is the default for people to be selfish and hoard the merit of Kaddish exclusively for their own parents? If there is nothing to lose, then every person should dedicate every Kaddish “on behalf of all the dead of Israel!”

Indeed, R. Moshe Feinstein (Responsa Igrot Moshe, Yoreh Deah 1:254) takes issue with this very position. In addressing an official of a synagogue who earned income for reciting Kaddish for multiple families, R. Feinstein presents a significant circumscription: Each Kaddish may only be dedicated for one individual at a time. Accordingly, one may only recite Kaddish for as many individuals as the amount of Kaddishim that are available to him that day.[14]

However, R. Feinstein does not precisely articulate why one may not dedicate a single Kaddish for multiple people. Responsa Doveiv Meisharim (2:15) assumes that one only has a finite amount of kavanah, or mindfulness. When reciting Kaddish one should actively concentrate on the intended beneficiary—attempting to focus on two individuals simultaneously will detract from one’s focus on each one.[15] However, I would like to suggest that the issue that troubled R. Feinstein can actually be extrapolated from a later responsum in Igrot Moshe.

While it is traditionally accepted that one cannot post-facto sell their Divine reward,[16] Rema (Yoreh Deah 246:1) codifies how one could enter into a business arrangement called heskem yissakhar u-zevulun, in which one party financially supports the other in order to derive a share of the merit generated from the beneficiary’s Torah study.[17] There are two possible ways to conceptualize this arrangement: (A) The one learning Torah retains the full measure of Divine reward for his or her mitzvah of Torah study, while the financial benefactor earns independent metaphysical reward for the mitzvah of supporting Torah study. (B) Alternatively, R. Feinstein (Igrot Moshe Yoreh Deah 4:16) espouses the belief that the financial benefactor is actually siphoning off fifty percent of the merit generated by the Torah study. He dismisses the analogy that some have made to one flame kindling another in which the initial flame does not diminish in the process. R. Feinstein believes that there is only a finite (yet unquantifiable[18]) amount of merit generated by a given mitzvah, which is being divided between two parties.

Perhaps this is precisely R. Feinstein’s concern vis-a-vis one agent accepting a virtually limitless portfolio of clients for whom to recite Kaddish. If Kaddish, like any mitzvah,[19] generates a finite amount of merit, to begin reciting Kaddish for additional parties would diminish the reward that the initial deceased beneficiaries would have received.

If we accept this premise, it becomes ethically dubious for a person currently mourning a parent to have in mind an additional deceased during Kaddish, as it would diminish the merit that his parent would have reaped.[20] In fact, if we were to posit that Kaddish could generate an undepletable quantity of merit then we would be forced to return to our initial question and inquire how it is ethical for a mourner to selfishly reserve his Kaddish strictly for his own parents when he could easily benefit others for no extra cost. After all, we are rakhmanim bnei rakhmanim[21] and Halakhah in certain instances even goes so far as to coerce people who are unnecessarily stingy.[22] Therefore, it should at least give one pause to consider the potential ramifications of reciting Kaddish on behalf of multiple beneficiaries.

Charity as an Alternative Avenue
R. Shternbuch (Teshuvot Ve-Hanhagot 3:57) suggests an alternative that circumvents all of these complications. He explains that when one hires a member of a local yeshiva, kollel, or other Torah institution to say Kaddish, the merit comes from the charity given to the institution, not from the subsequent recitation of Kaddish. The goal is not to buy a share in another party’s Kaddish or Torah study, but for the charity used to support the Torah study and lifestyle to serve as an independent source of merit (similar to how some actually conceptualize the heskem yissakhar u-zevulun).

The unique power of charity is accepted even by many proponents of the minimalist camp. Charity as a method of granting merit can be traced back to commentary on Deuteronomy’s (21:8) discussion of the eglah arufah ceremony performed for an unsolved murder:

“Absolve, Hashem, Your people Israel whom You redeemed, and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among Your people Israel.” And they will be absolved of bloodguilt.

Rabbeinu Bahya, citing earlier sources[23], comments:

According to Pesikta[24] on our verse, the word “atone” refers to the living who can attain atonement by means of their money. The words “whom You redeemed,” refer to the already dead who will achieve their atonement by charity given by the living. The verse teaches that the donations made to the Temple treasury by the living on behalf of their dead are of benefit. This is so in an increased measure if the son donates in his father’s name; it is considered a merit for the departed father…

While the child has a qualitative advantage, it would appear that anyone can contribute charity in order to help any deceased individual earn atonement. This has served as the basis for pledging charity on Yom Kippur (see Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 621:6), which was later expanded to pledging charity during Yizkor recited on the Holidays in Ashkenazic communities.[25] So potent is this practice that some have warned that failing to actualize one’s momentary pledge can, God forbid, be detrimental to the soul of one’s dearly departed![26]

In any event, we see that both prayer and charity are well-documented methods for availing the souls of the deceased, irrespective of familial relationships. While the efficacy of reciting Kaddish for a non-parent is debatable, the best course of action might be to support Torah study and hire someone else to recite Kaddish on their behalf.

Caveats & Conclusion
R. Dr. Natan Slifkin, wrote an excellent essay[27] in which he sought to convince the reader of the minimalist approach to the efficacy of Kaddish. In his conclusion he wonders why mainstream Jewish discourse appears to uncritically adopt the maximalist position:

There would appear to be two answers to this: One is that it is enormously emotionally comforting for people to believe that they can do something for someone that they care about … Second is that there is a lot of money to be made from it. Many yeshivot and kollelim find it very hard to obtain financial support. A solution is to convince bereaved people that they can help the deceased by giving money to people who will learn Torah on their behalf … “For bribery blinds the eyes of the wise, and distorts the words of the righteous” (Exodus 23:8). Even the wise and the righteous are not immune to being swayed by financial benefits.

The less-than charitable portrayal notwithstanding, R. Dr. Slifkin ultimately raises an important caveat. While religious non-profit institutions ultimately rely on donations to function, it is of paramount importance that the relationships cultivated with constituents do not become contingent on the potential for monetary extraction. (This is acutely important for proponents of the maximalist approach to merit-granting.)

Along similar lines, it is worth returning to the piercing words of R. Maurice Lamm (The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, p. 165):

It should be noted that this custom [of out-sourcing Kaddish], while it is practiced sincerely and conscientiously, has unfortunately brought a host of unintended consequences in its wake. It has caused people to think of respect for the dead in material terms. It has engendered the feeling that somehow the Kaddish is a sort of credit system that can be manipulated financially. It has encouraged people to “pay” for all religious services, like “hiring” a yahrzeit commemorator or Yizkor reciter, or an Kel Mal’e Rakhamim prayer at the grave, a practice that is reprehensible to the religious spirit. Some people have come to believe that paying is more important than praying and to think of the synagogue as a celestial supermarket. They substitute the bank for the Bible and believe that they can erase all personal vices by contributions to charity. The harm this practice has caused far outweighs the good it has innocently sought to instill. As such, it should be minimized, if not totally abandoned.

 * * *

A separate, but also noteworthy caveat, is made by R. Yechiel Michel  Tukatzinsky (Gesher Ha-Hayyim Ch. 30, 8:8)[28] and R. Yosef Tzvi Rimon (Hilkhot Aveilut, p. 191), in which they direct their words to the mourners themselves. While one is understandably passionate, and even desperate, to honor their loved one, it should not come at the expense of proper interpersonal conduct. R.  Tukatzinsky writes that if someone forces himself upon the congregation to lead the prayers when someone else was entitled to it, his Kaddish will not be accepted by God. R. Rimon suggests that if one is willing to compromise and allow another man to lead, it will serve as a greater merit for his dearly departed.

* * *

Kaddish is halakhically a public act, but it is also a highly personal experience that is exceedingly sensitive for many. While the above analysis in this piece is intentionally meant to strike a somewhat dispassionate tone, I hope that it in no way minimizes the dedication and sacrifices that many make in order to recite Kaddish for their dearly departed. In fact, the impetus for this piece was borne out of the many questions I receive from congregants who are well-meaning and endeavor to do what our religion determines to be objectively optimal for their loved ones. There are few pursuits that can be more significant and urgent than seeking the welfare of our loved ones’ eternal souls.

The Talmud (Ta’anit 5b) teaches that “our patriarch Jacob lived on through the actions of his children.” So too, when we faithfully perform the commandments of God’s Torah, our parents and loved ones live on through us. This is not just comforting on a sentimental level, but as we have outlined above, there are concrete methods that Judaism makes available to us to make it a reality.

While we can only try our best to understand God’s ways, I pray that the information presented in this piece serves to motivate the curious and caring mourner to delve further and continue pursuing ways to both help and honor their dearly departed.

May death be swallowed up forever, and may the Lord God wipe away tears from every face and remove the mocking of God’s people from throughout the world, for the Lord has spoken (Isaiah 25:8).

[1] Translations are adapted generally from Sefaria, Soncino, and my own. I would like to thank Yosef Lindell for his expertise in editing this piece. Furthermore, I like to acknowledge the members of Congregation Agudath Sholom who offered feedback during my various oral presentations on this topic.

[2] For instance, the standard of granting priority for leading services to a man in mourning for his parent over other mourners may very well be assuming a unique metaphysical status of a child vis-a-vis their parent. See Rema (Yoreh Deah 376:4).

[3] There are several versions of this legend in which details such as the identity of the rabbi and the particular sin committed by the suffering man vary, but the essence remains the same. The passage above is translated by Rabbi Jack Abramowitz for the Orthodox Union based on Kallah Rabbati (2:9) and Or Zaruah (Hilkhot Shabbat, no. 50). See Mahzor Vitry (no. 144) and cf. Tana De-Vei Eliyahu Zuta (no. 17) who presents Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai as the protagonist, instead of Rabbi Akiva.

[4] The Rema, in his responsa (no. 118) writes that even a maternal grandchild would be worthy of reciting Kaddish since he is obligated to honor his grandparents. Cf. Rema in Yoreh Deah (240:24) where he codifies an obligation to honor one’s grandfather but also cites the position of Maharik (no. 44) who believes that no such responsibility exists.

[5] Subsequent halakhic codes extrapolate that a son possesses the power to recite Kaddish for his mother even though the legend of Rabbi Akiva only contains a father figure. If gender is not exclusive vis-a-vis the parents it would stand to reason that the gender of the child in this story should not serve as a basis to preclude a daughter from performing the same role. See Havot Yair (no. 222) cited in Pithei Teshuvah (Yoreh Deah 376:3) and R. Hershel Schachter in Be-Ikvei Ha-Tzon (Essay no. 5, fn. 5). However, see also sources cited within Sedei Hemed (Aveilut, no. 160).

[6] We should also note the approach of Rashba (Responsum 5:49) which does not neatly fall into either camp. Rashba suggests that indeed there is a foundational concept of zekhut avot, the merit of our forefathers. However, he qualifies that such a merit will only aid one in this world, whereas only a child can confer merit that will be enjoyed in the world to come. If anyone could confer merit, it would diminish the significance of the Talmud’s exhortation in Avodah Zarah (3a): “One who takes pains on Shabbat eve will eat on Shabbat, but one who did not take pains on Shabbat eve, from where will he eat on Shabbat?” In general, one needs to take responsibility for their own actions and cannot rely on others to help them earn their place in the World to Come.

In a similar sense, R. Moshe Shternbuch (Ta’am Ve-Da’at, Vol. 2, p. 122) critiques Bilaam for saying, “Let me die the death of the righteous” (Num. 23:10), which he interprets to mean that Bilaam did not desire to live an ethical life but was content with others doing righteous acts on his behalf after death.

[7] The passage in Kiddushin (31b) reads as follows: “How [does he honor him] in his death? [If] he says a matter he heard from his [father’s] mouth, he should not say: So said Father. Rather, [he should say:] So said father, my teacher, may I be an atonement for his resting [soul]. And this applies within twelve months [of his death]. From this [time] onward he says: May his memory be for a blessing, for the life of the World-to-Come.” Some suggest that this requirement only applies when citing a Torah teaching from one’s father, as the purpose of this declaration is to create merit for his benefit. (See Arukh ha-Shulkhan Yoreh Deah 240:15). As mentioned earlier, the same principles are extrapolated to mothers as well (see Rema Yoreh Deah 240:9 and Ben Ish Hai, Halakhot, Second Year, Shoftim, Ch.14).

[8] Responsa Zera Emet (Yoreh Deah 148 on Hilkhot Aveilut, Siman 376) suggests that a child is superior due to his metaphysical bond to his parent, and furthermore he is charged with the mitzvah of honoring his parents. Badei Ha-Shulhan (Yoreh Deah 376:66) also mentions that it bodes well for the parents when their child performs a mitzvah since they brought him into the world (similar to what Gesher Ha-Hayyim and others suggested). R. Moshe Shternbuch (Teshuvot Ve-Hanhagot 3:57) also suggests that reciting Kaddish operates as a form of tziduk ha-din. Meaning that there is a sanctification of God’s name that despite the loss that the child is experiencing, he proclaims the Name of God nonetheless. If that is the case, it is at least understandable why there would be no benefit for a stranger to recite Kaddish on the child’s behalf.

[9] See also Kaf Ha-Hayyim (55:30) and Badei Ha-Shulhan (376:4).

[10] See Shabbat (119a) and Kiddushin (41a).

[11] This discussion is relevant for many areas of Halakhah e.g. a potential impetus for paying someone to light Menorah when you are lodging at their residence (see Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 677:1 and the elaboration of Harerei Kedem 1:195). However, see also Agur Be-Ohalekha (8:10, fn. 22) who marshals Dovev Meisharim (1:47) and other sources against this premise in the context of hiring another party to install one’s mezuzot.

[12] My thanks to R. Aviad Bodner for bringing this passage to my attention.

[13] See Responsa of the Ranakh (no. 77).

[14] R. Feinstein notes that from a monetary standpoint, the one reciting Kaddish should ensure that the family understands that he is only committing to recite one Kaddish per day for their deceased. Otherwise, the family could claim they hired him to dedicate all his Kaddishim, and that the arrangement was thereby agreed upon false pretenses.

[15] This is, perhaps, conceptually analogous to the principle of trei kali lo mishtamai which posits that it is not feasible to focus on two voices simultaneously (see Megillah 21b).

[16] See Responsa of Maharam Alashkar (no. 101).

[17] R. Shlomo Kluger (Responsa Tuv Ta’am Ve-Da’at 1:217) explains that Divine reward is not some form of currency that can be bequeathed on a whim. God decides who He wishes to bestow benefits upon, not man. Whereas, when one enters into a heskem yissakhar u-zevulun, God views it as if the financial benefactor is actively involved in the performance of the mitzvah that he is facilitating.

[18] See Avot (2:1).

[19] The ramifications of this topic extends to many other scenarios such as sponsoring a Torah lecture or learning Mishnah for a person’s sheloshim. One can raise a similar question whether or not we conceptualize these arrangements as one of giving away one’s merit.

[20] Still, we may ask how R. Feinstein reckons with the explicit guidance of the Rema (Yoreh Deah 376:4) which promotes reciting Kaddish for all of the deceased of Israel. In truth, this is not merely a question for R. Feinstein, but for the Rema himself who also believes in a finite amount of reward per mitzvah (Yoreh Deah 246:1): “…And a person is able to make a condition with his friend, that he will study Torah and he will support him, and he will split the reward with him.” There may very well be no contradiction in the Rema as he is comfortable with the notion of all the deceased of Israel dividing the merit generated by the Kaddish recited.

[21] See Sefer Ha-Hinukh (no. 42).

[22] See Bava Batra (12b) and related commentaries regarding the principle of kofin al midat sedom.

[23] See Midresh Tanhuma (Tazria, no. 1), Sifrei (Shoftim no. 210).

[24] Pesika no. 20.

[25] See Mishnah Berurah (621:18-19) and Kaf Ha-Hayyim (621:35) who elaborate on the origins and parameters of this practice. The latter makes reference to the Talmudic story (Hagigah 15b) of R. Meir successfully praying to alleviate the suffering of his wayward teacher, Elisha ben Avuya, as a precedent for the power of prayer as well.

[26] Sha’arei Hayyim on Sha’arei Ephraim (10:38) citing Sefer Kav Ha-Yashar (Ch. 86). See Dirshu’s Mishnah Berurah commentary (621:19, fn. 21).

[27] Expanded as a chapter in his Rationalism vs. Mysticism (pp. 485-486). R. Dr. Slifkin supports his arguments with some of the sources reviewed above and notably from the Responsa of the Rashba (7:539) who distinguishes between the power to atone on one’s behalf versus conferring additional merit, as well as Maharam Halavah (responsum no. 17), who limits the option of atonement for the deceased to communal rituals, as opposed to individuals.

[28] See also, Gesher Ha-hayyim (Ch. 30, 10:13).

Moshe Kurtz serves as the Assistant Rabbi of Congregation Agudath Sholom in Stamford, CT. He is the author of Challenging Assumptions (Mosaica Press, 2023), which addresses issues pertaining to American Jewry and the synagogue from a traditional, halakhic standpoint. For speaking requests or general inquiries, you may email: