5: Text excerpt from "Mahzor Vitry," 11th Century CE.
The text of the Mourner’s Kaddish prayer is not clearly related to death. Yet its recitation has long been part of Jewish customs for mourning one’s parents. Rabbinic sources have sought to explain this connection. One of the most frequently recounted is a midrash (commentary) concerning the important Talmudic figure Rabbi Akiva (c. 50-135 CE). This version comes from the Mahzor Vitry, an 11th century volume of Jewish law and liturgy.
Suggested Activity: Introduce the passage and its background. Read it as a class, in partners, or as individuals. Ask your students to consider and discuss questions about one or both of the following themes:
1) Sanctification: The “dead” man’s son redeems his father by reciting a prayer of sanctification and blessing. Why might such a prayer have redemptive qualities? What does this story tell us about the relationship between parents and children, or between generations more generally, in traditional Jewish texts? In what ways are these relationships reflected—or not reflected—in Ginsberg’s poem?
2) The Fear of Recurrence: The man Rabbi Akiva encounters shares his name. Do you think that this story is partially about Rabbi Akiva’s fear of a shared fate or the way he sees his own reflection in the dead man? To what extent is this fear present in the relationship between Allen and Naomi in Kaddish?
Source: Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish (New York: Vintage, 2000), 41-3.