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Peninei Halakha > Prayer > 04 - The Chazan and the Mourner’s Kaddish

04 – The Chazan and the Mourner’s Kaddish

01 – An Appropriate Prayer Leader

The chazan leads the prayer service. Sometimes, the whole congregation says the prayers together with him while he sets the pace; other times, he recites the prayers and the congregation responds Amen, such as in Chazarat HaShatz (repetition of the Amidah) and the recital of the Kaddish prayers. Hence, the chazan must be an upright, highly regarded, humble, amiable person, who has a pleasant voice and is accustomed to reading the Torah, Nevi’im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Sacred Writings) (Ta’anit 16a; Shulchan Aruch 53:4).

We must be especially meticulous about this on the High Holy Days, and on fast days, when we pray to Hashem and beg Him to forgive us for our sins, save us from our troubles, and bring our redemption closer. For if there is fault in the chazan, the congregation’s prayer will not ascend properly (Rama 581:1).

During Chazal’s time, it was forbidden to write siddurim because only the written Torah (Torah Shebichtav) was permitted to be written down. Anything that was transmitted by word of mouth, including the prayers and blessings instituted by the Chachamim, was forbidden to be put into writing (Temurah 14b). At that time the chazan’s task was very important because all the prayers had to be recited aloud in order to fulfill the obligations of the congregation. Therefore, the congregation designated one chazan for this honorable task, and all the laws that apply to appointing the chazan on fast days also pertained to the regular chazan. L’chatchilah, each and every person in the congregation would have to agree to the chazan‘s appointment, since he fulfilled everyone’s obligation. However, today, when everyone has a siddur, the chazan‘s job is less important and selecting a permanent chazan for the whole year is no longer customary. Instead, every day a different person can lead the prayer service; therefore we are less meticulous in choosing a chazan (Shulchan Aruch 53:19; Mishnah Berurah 53:53).

Even so, when appointing chazanim, the gabba’im (synagogue coordinators) must try to choose decent people who abide by the Torah and observe the mitzvot. They should be people whom the congregation agrees to have as its prayer leaders, for the chazanim are the ones who repeat the Amidah and recite the Kaddish prayers on its behalf (see Kaf HaChaim 53:86). Additionally, on Shabbat and festivals, when it is customary that the chazanim sing and chant part of the prayer service, the chazanim should be musically gifted with pleasant voices.

02 – Chazanut for the Sake of Heaven

While singing, the chazanim must have kavanah for the sake of Heaven, but if they prolong their chazanut (cantillation) and their only intention is to show off their beautiful voices, the Torah writes about them, “It raises its voice against Me, therefore I have hated it” (Jeremiah 12:8). They are using the holy prayer service to arrogantly boast as if on a stage. Even a person whose only intent is for the sake of Heaven should not excessively extend his cantillation so as not to burden the congregation (Rashba; Shulchan Aruch 53:11).

While chanting the prayers, the chazanim are prohibited from repeating any words of the berachot and Kaddish, because doing so changes the nusach that the Chachamim established. If the repetition of the words alters the meaning of the berachah, those words are considered to be an interruption (hefsek) and the chazan must recite the berachah again from the beginning. However, if the meaning does not change, b’dieved he does not need to recite the berachah again, because he did not interrupt its recital with another matter (see Igrot Moshe, Orach Chaim, part 2, 22; Yabia Omer, part 6, 7).

One must be strict not to appoint a singer who is accustomed to singing indecent songs to be a regular chazan, or a chazan for the High Holy Days (Rama 53:25).

The poskim disagree whether or not it is permitted to use melodies of offensive songs for prayers and liturgy. In practice, when the congregation is not familiar with the vulgar song’s lyrics, it is customary to be lenient and adjust the melody to suit the prayer. But if the congregation recognizes the song, its tune may not be used for prayer, because when people sing it, they will be reminded of the crude theme of the song and their concentration is likely to be disrupted.[1]

[1]. Yabia Omer, part 6, Orach Chaim 7, summarizes that according to the Ma’aseh Roke’ach and Rabbi Chaim Palaggi , it is forbidden to use non-Jewish tunes for prayer. By contrast, Maharam Lunzanu and the Birkei Yosef (section 570) permit it, and this was done by many great Jewish leaders. That is also what the Yabia Omer rules in practice. Still, the Tzitz Eliezer 13, 12 is stringent in this matter. Regarding melodies that were composed for the sake of idol worship, most poskim rule stringently (Sefer Chassidim 238; Bach, old responsa 127). However, the responsa of Krach shel Romi is lenient and relays that there were prominent leaders who listened to Christian melodies and employed them even for the High Holy Days’ prayers, but as mentioned, most poskim are stringent against this. See Tzitz Eliezer there, who emerges strongly against his words. In summary, most poskim are of the opinion that if the secular vulgar songs are not familiar to the congregation, there is no prohibition against using their melodies. However, melodies of decent secular songs, although recognized, are permissible to use.

03 – Appointing a Chazan

The chazan is the emissary of the congregation, and therefore a person is prohibited from taking hold of the chazanut unless he is asked to do so by the congregation or by the gabbai as its representative. Hence, one may not respond Amen to a person who appointed himself to be chazan against the congregation’s wishes (Rama 53:22).

When the gabbai asks someone in the congregation to lead the prayer service, it is polite to initially decline, so as not to appear as one who desires to flaunt his voice. However, when the gabbai insists, he should prepare himself to ascend, but wait to see if there is another person more appropriate than he. If he is asked a third time, he should comply and begin to pray. However, if an important person asks him to ascend, he should accept immediately, for it is not proper to refuse a distinguished individual (Shulchan Aruch 53:16). Additionally, when the gabbai asks a person who declined in the previous prayer service to ascend, he should consider it a second request and ready himself to stand, but wait to see that there is no one more appropriate. If asked again, he should concur immediately.

If a person is able to lead the prayer service but declines more than the Chachamim instructed, he offends the respect due to the prayer and to Heaven (kevod Shamayim). Likewise, a person whom Hashem endowed with a talent for singing and a pleasant voice should not decline on Shabbat and festivals since the prayers on those days are rich with song and melody. If he refuses to pray out of stubbornness or laziness, and does not praise Hashem with his voice, it would have been better for him not to have come into this world (Sefer Chassidim 768). The Chachamim said about Navot the Israelite, who had an exceptionally pleasant voice, that he would ascend to the Temple in Jerusalem for the three pilgrimage festivals (shalosh regalim) and all of Israel would gather to hear him. The one time he stayed home to guard his vineyard, he was punished – lawless people testified that he rebelled against the king and he was put to death (Pesikta Rabbati 25).

04 – Indecent Attire and the Importance of a Beard

The Chachamim say (Megillah 24a) that a poche’ach, a person whose clothes do not cover his body in a respectable manner, may not read from the Torah nor lead the prayer service. Therefore, a person wearing a sleeveless shirt or shorts may not be appointed chazan.

If his sleeves are very short and do not reach near his elbow, he should cover his arms until his elbow with his tallit. However, one whose short sleeves almost reach his elbow may serve as chazan.[2]

Likewise, the Chachamim state that a person whose beard is not yet full may not be appointed a regular chazan, since it is disrespectful towards the congregation and the prayer service to select someone who has not yet completely matured. However, on a temporary basis, even an adolescent whose beard has not yet started to grow may lead the prayer service.

An eighteen year-old whose beard has started to grow slightly may be appointed a regular chazan. Similarly, appointing a twenty year-old whose beard has not yet sprouted is permissible, since it is clear to all that he is an adult and there is no disgrace to the congregation or to the prayer service (Shulchan Aruch 53:6-8).

Based on this, some Acharonim write (Pri Megadim; Bei’ur Halachah) that a young boy who has lost one of his parents may not be a regular chazan for Shacharit and Minchah, rather he should suffice with saying Kaddish. But for Ma’ariv, in which there is no Chazarat HaShatz, even one whose beard has not yet grown in completely may lead the prayer service regularly.[3]

[2].Rashi interprets “poche’ach” as one whose thighs are showing. It is from here we learn that one’s legs must be covered at least until the knee. I do not distinguish here between above the knee and below it, because today most people do not usually stand in front of important individuals with knee-length pants, and therefore the chazan is prohibited from wearing such pants. However, in kibbutzim or youth organizations, where the people regularly wear shorts even when they approach respected people, it is permissible for the chazan to wear pants that only reach the knee.

Concerning the upper limbs: The Rif, Rambam, and Tur maintain that a poche’ach is one whose shoulders are exposed. Therefore, if one wears a shirt with very short sleeves yet his shoulders are covered, he may be appointed chazan. That is how the Mishnah Berurah 53:39 rules. However, the Shulchan Aruch 53:13 rules based on the Itur, and so rules the Bach, that even if one’s arms are showing, he is considered a poche’ach. According to this, the chazan must be wearing sleeves that reach his elbow. However, it seems that even according to the Shulchan Aruch it is not necessary to measure exactly, but near the elbow is also considered until the elbow itself. There are those who are stringent that the chazan must wear long sleeves because it is accepted and modest to go before prominent people in that manner (Yaskil Avdi, part 7, p. 329). Nevertheless, since the Rif, Rambam, and most poskim are completely lenient regarding arms, one may be lenient and permit sleeves that reach close to the elbow. Those who seek to glorify the mitzvah cover their entire arm with a long sleeve. My rabbi and teacher, HaRav Tzvi Yehudah HaKohen Kook, would meticulously insist that the chazanim wore long sleeves.

[3].In Chullin 24b it is written, “Once a person’s beard has filled in he is fit to become an emissary of the community and descend before the ark.” The Tosafot ask: but didn’t we learn in Megillah 24a that even a 13-year-old boy may descend before the ark? They answer that he may be a chazan temporarily, but not on a regular basis, nor for fast days. That is also the opinion of most of the Rishonim. However, the Ramban and the Ran maintain that one whose beard has not yet filled in may not serve as chazan even temporarily, and only if no one else there can lead, a 13-year-old may be appointed. Additionally, although one who shaves is considered someone whose beard has filled in, my rabbi and teacher, Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook, was accustomed to enhance the mitzvah by only appointing a fully bearded person to be chazan. (Perhaps in doing so he also intended to encourage the yeshiva boys to grow beards of their own).

Concerning a young boy who is mourning the death of one of his parents, the Pri Megadim and Bei’ur Halachah 53:6 s.v. “Yuchal,” write that he may not be a regular chazan. Shut Shivat Tzion 18 writes that where he lived the minhag was not to be strict about this. Instead they let the mourning youths lead the services throughout the whole year, since the congregation relinquishes its honor. However, it should be noted that only according to the Rambam a congregation can relinquish its honor, but according to the Rosh, a congregation does not have the authority to do so (because there is also the matter of the respect of Heaven, kevod Shamayim). Furthermore, the Acharonim discuss the case of a yeshiva of young adults. Beit Baruch 29:45 maintains that because all of them are young, they surely relinquish their honor. Again, his words are justified based solely on the opinion of the Rambam. Moreover, if there are 15 and 16-year-olds present, there are almost always some there whose beards have filled in. Since this is a matter of uncertainty, the rabbi of the yeshiva must determine what is best according to the situation at hand.

The Magen Avraham, brought by the Mishnah Berurah 53:25, writes that it is not necessary to testify whether or not a 13-year-old has two hairs, for we rely on the presumption (chazakah) that he has. However, the Pri Megadim writes that according to the Rambam, who maintains that prayer is a biblical commandment, testimony is necessary. Nevertheless, it seems that since today the chazan does not fulfill a person’s obligation to pray for him, all poskim agree that testimony is unnecessary.

05 – The Mourner’s Prayer

A person mourning the death of one of his parents says Kaddish during the first year. Saying Kaddish is of great value to the deceased; it saves him from the judgment of Gehinnom, for since his son, whom he left behind in this world, is sanctifying God by reciting this prayer, his merits increase. One must say Kaddish even for completely righteous parents, as well as for someone who was killed for the sanctification of God’s Name. Concerning righteous parents, though they are already promised life in the next world, their sons’ Kaddish elevates their souls and causes them to be at peace. Certainly, one must recite Kaddish for evil parents since they are in great need of Kaddish which diminishes the judgment of Gehinnom. We even say Kaddish for someone who committed suicide. Although the Chachamim teach that we do not mourn for him and he does not have a share in the next life, the Kaddish that his sons recite for him helps repair his soul slightly.[4]

If the son knows how to lead the services, he should be the chazan on weekdays, since this benefits the deceased even more. If it is difficult for him, he should try to lead the prayer service from Ashrei after Tachanun until the end of the service. It is especially good for him to be the chazan for Ma’ariv, since at that time the judgments from Gehinnom intensify. This is particularly true on Motza’ei Shabbat, when the souls return to Gehinnom after their respite during Shabbat. It is important to note that according to the Ashkenazic minhag, on Shabbat and festivals, those in mourning say Kaddish but do not lead the services (Rama, Yoreh De’ah 376:4). Even on Rosh Chodesh and Chanukah, it is customary that the mourners do not lead the services.[5]

This only applies when the son knows how to be the chazan, but if he does not know how to say the words properly, or his voice is unusual, or he excessively shortens or extends his prayer, it is preferable for him not to be the chazan. Rather, he should suffice with saying Kaddish. If he insists on being chazan against the wishes of the congregation, instead of sanctifying God’s Name, he desecrates the Name of Heaven and causes pain to the deceased. In general, mourners must know that despite the importance of serving as the chazan and the recital of Kaddish, the most meaningful and beneficial acts children can do in order to aid the ascent of their dead parents’ souls are to increase their Torah learning, their giving of charity, and their fulfillment of other mitzvot.

There were certain communities in which, over time, more and more people did not know how to lead the prayer service, and therefore they established that mourners should not lead the services. However, for Ma’ariv, it is proper not to prevent mourners who are capable of being chazanim from leading the prayer service (Mishnah Berurah 53:61).

[4].In Masechet Sofrim, chapter 19, it is written that people in mourning say Kaddish. Or Zarua, part 2, end of section 50, brings a story about a dead person who suffered greatly because of the sins he committed while he was alive. Rabbi Akiva saw him and wanted to save him from his suffering. He found out that he had a son who was completely uneducated, so Rabbi Akiva put great effort into teaching him until he could say Kaddish for his father. Afterwards, the dead person appeared to Rabbi Akiva and said to him, “Rabbi, let your mind be at ease in the Garden of Eden just like you put my mind to rest and saved me from the judgment of Gehinnom.” Here we see that the Kaddish indeed helps evil people (Beit Yosef, Yoreh De’ah 376). The Chatam Sofer (Even HaEzer, end of section 69), writes that a person who commits suicide does not have a share in the World to Come, but can be saved from the judgment of Gehinnom through prayer, in the same manner that David prayed for his son Avshalom (See Yabia Omer part 6, Yoreh De’ah 36). On a parallel but distinct note, the Maharil (responsa 96) writes that Kaddish is said for righteous people as well.

One who needs to say Kaddish but arrives late to pray: if the congregation finished the Shir Shel Yom (Psalm of the Day) while he is still in the middle of saying Pesukei d’Zimrah, he may interrupt to recite Mourner’s Kaddish, if there will not be another chance to say it. However, for Kaddish d’Rabbanan one may not interrupt (Maharshag 1:48; Yabia Omer, part 7, 10).

[5]. The Bei’ur Halachah section 132 writes that on days that we do not say Lamenatze’ach, mourners do not lead the prayer service (Maharil 22). By contrast, the Mishnah Berurah writes in section 581:7 that on Rosh Chodesh a mourner may lead the Shacharit, Minchah, and Ma’ariv services, but for Hallel and Musaf, someone else should be the chazan. However, he wrote regarding Chanukah in section 683:1, that a mourner should not lead the Shacharit service. There are those who have the custom that even on Tu B’av, Tu Bishvat, Purim Katan, and Lag BaOmer, mourners do not serve as chazan, but the widespread minhag is what I wrote above.

06 – The Duration of the Kaddish Recital and the Yahrtzeit Day

According to Ashkenazic custom, a mourner leads the services and says Kaddish for eleven months after a parent’s death. This is because the judgment of evil people in Gehinnom is twelve months, and if a mourner recites Kaddish for the deceased for a full twelve months, it will seem as though he was considered evil (Rama, Yoreh De’ah 376:4). The Sephardic custom is to stop for the first week of the twelfth month and then continue to lead the services and say Kaddish until the anniversary of the death (yahrtzeit) (Birkei Yosef there). Kaddish recited after learning, which is not within the framework of prayer, may be said by the mourners throughout the whole twelfth month (Rav Pe’alim, part 4, Yoreh De’ah 32). However, for one who was known to be an evil person, such as someone who committed suicide or an apostate, Kaddish is recited for the full twelve months (Pitchei Teshuvah, Yoreh De’ah 376:9).

It is also customary to say Kaddish and lead the prayer service on the day of the yahrtzeit. According to Sephardic custom, one begins to say Kaddish from the Friday prior to the anniversary until the yahrtzeit day. Additionally, one who is well-liked by the congregation should also be chazan (Kaf HaChaim 55:23). Even among Ashkenazim there are those who have the custom of leading the services on the Shabbat before the yahrtzeit and for the Ma’ariv prayer at the close of that Shabbat (Pnei Baruch 39:2). However, they cannot preempt a mourner in his year of mourning or someone who has a yahrtzeit on that specific day (Piskei Teshuvot 132:26). The yahrtzeit is set according to the day the person died and not the day he or she was buried. Even at the end of the first year, the yahrtzeit is established based on the day of the person’s death.[6]

[6]. Whereas for mourning purposes the day of the burial starts the count of the seven days of shivah, the 30 days (sheloshim), and the 12 months of mourning, the yahrtzeit is always the date on which the person died. There are those who have the custom to commemorate the first yahrtzeit on the burial date. However, the primary minhag is to commemorate it on the date of the person’s death even that first year, as brought by Pnei Baruch 39:35 and Yalkut Yosef, chapter 7, 22:3. In a leap year, according to the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 568:7), the yahrtzeit is in Adar II, and according to the Rama it is in Adar I. When a person dies on the first day of Rosh Chodesh Adar II, which is the 30th of Adar I, in a non-leap year, the yahrtzeit falls out on the first day of Rosh Chodesh Adar, which is the 30th of Shevat (Mishnah Berurah 568:42, and see Pnei Baruch 39:36-37). For the remaining halachot regarding the recital of Kaddish, see Pnei Baruch 34 and Yalkut Yosef, part 7, 23.

07 – Order of Precedence

In the past, it was customary in Ashkenaz that only one person recited Kaddish. When there were several mourners who needed to say Kaddish, it became necessary to establish an order of precedence. However, today most Ashkenazim and all Sephardim follow the custom that everyone who must say Kaddish recites it together. Even if the entire congregation recites Kaddish and there is no one there to answer Amen, that does not invalidate the Kaddish. However, lechatchilah it is preferable that there be at least two people there who can respond Amen (Kaf HaChaim 55:31). When two or more people recite Kaddish, they should try to say it in unison and should therefore stand next to each other. If the synagogue is large and it is difficult for them to gather in one place, each person may recite Kaddish in his place and those around him answer Amen.

When there are two mourners who know how to lead the prayer service and both are acceptable to the congregation, it is necessary to follow an order of precedence. This is the rule: one who is in the middle of the first seven days of mourning (shivah) takes precedence over one who is in his first thirty days (sheloshim), and someone who is in his first thirty days has priority over one who is in his year of mourning. One who is commemorating a yahrtzeit is equivalent to being in the first thirty days of mourning. If there are two mourners who are equal in status, they should divide the three daily prayers between them. They can even split the Shacharit service in such a way that one recites the main part of the prayer until after Tachanun, and the other leads from Ashrei until the conclusion of the prayer service, and then the following day they switch (Bei’ur Halachah 132, Ma’amar Kaddishin).

08 – Saying Kaddish for a Person Who Does Not Have an Adult Son

A minor whose mother or father died says Kaddish for his parent though he has not yet reached the age of mitzvot (bar mitzvah).  Mourner’s Kaddish was instituted for that purpose, since a child cannot lead the prayer service in order to facilitate the ascent of his parent’s soul. Therefore, the Chachamim instituted Kaddish (Rama, Yoreh De’ah 376:4). Even if the minor has not yet reached the age of understanding, the Kaddish is read to him; the young orphan repeats the Kaddish word for word, and the congregation answers Amen. (According to the Ari, it is important to be strict and have an adult say the Mourner’s Kaddish with the minor, because that Kaddish is included in the twelve Kaddishim that are necessary to hear every day. See further in this book 23:10.)

In the case of a man or woman who was not privileged to leave behind a son, a God-fearing grandson may say Kaddish for him or her the whole year. This is possible even if the deceased has a son who is not God-fearing and does not go to synagogue to recite Kaddish. A grandson from a son takes precedence over a grandson from a daughter. If the deceased does not have a grandson yet, but has a son-in-law, the son-in-law should say Kaddish. The grandson and son-in-law are permitted to say Kaddish only when one of their own parents is deceased, or if their parents agree to his reciting Kaddish while they are living. However, someone whose parents are strict that he not say Kaddish while they are both alive may not recite the Kaddish for his grandparent or in-law.

When the deceased does not have a son, grandson, or son-in-law, the father of the deceased recites the Kaddish. If his father is also dead, the brother or nephew says Kaddish.

When none of these relatives can say Kaddish for the deceased, part of the inheritance money should be used to hire a God-fearing person to recite Kaddish for him. It is good to hire someone who is engrossed in Torah. If there is someone in the family who is occupied with Torah study, he takes precedence over a stranger. The monetary compensation for the Kaddish is important in order to ensure the fulfillment of its recital. Furthermore, by employing someone who is involved in Torah or a poor person who has children to support, the deceased will acquire more merit.[7]

If a minor who already reached the age of understanding passes away, his father must say Kaddish for him or her (Pitchei Teshuvah, Yoreh De’ah 376:3). There are those who have the custom to say Kaddish even for a small baby (see Pnei Baruch 34:30).

One who hires himself out to recite Kaddish may do so for a number of people, on condition that he ends up saying at least one Kaddish a day for each of the deceased (Igrot Moshe, Yoreh De’ah, part 1, 254, and see Pnei Baruch 34:23-28).

It is proper for an adopted son to say Kaddish for his adoptive parents. All the more so, if the adoptive parent does not have another son, it is a mitzvah for the adopted son to say Kaddish (Yalkut Yosef, part 7, 23:13). It is also good for a righteous convert (ger tzedek) to say Kaddish for his gentile parents (Yalkut Yosef, part 7, 23:14, and Piskei Teshuvot 132:20).

[7]. Even when the deceased has a daughter, a man should be hired to say Kaddish. However, throughout the generations, there were places where the daughter would say Kaddish, either in her home or in the room adjacent to the synagogue, if there were no living son. Additionally, there are those who ruled that if the daughter is younger than 12 years of age, she should recite Kaddish in the synagogue. Nevertheless, the accepted minhag (custom) is that women do not say Kaddish. The Chavot Yair, responsa 222 states that we must object to women saying Kaddish so as not to undermine the power of minhagim, as also written in Yalkut Yosef, part 7, 23:11, Pnei Baruch 34:20, and Piskei Teshuvot 132:33.

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