Kaddish is an unusual piece of liturgy. On one hand, its text is incredibly straightforward: it’s hard to miss the hieratic language – the heaping of synonyms – to praise, laud, glorify, and magnify God. On the other hand, Kaddish serves an unusually wide variety of purposes. This is radically different from the standard way our liturgy functions. We wouldn’t welcome Tuesday evening with L’cha Dodi; rather, this poem specifically welcomes Shabbat. Avinu Malkeinu is so strongly tied to the Season of Repentance that the tradition for generations past has been to omit it when Yontiv and Shabbat coincide, lest our very orderly liturgy and traditions become thematically tangled. So why do we say Chatzi Kaddish?
The themes of Kaddish are simple, and in a way generic. At other times when we praise God it has a bundled context – in thanks for our food or alongside a request. Kaddish is pure and total praise. Let’s not confuse that, however, with simplistic or shallow. The contexts of Kaddish show the true depth of our prayer.
On Shabbat, we hear Chatzi Kaddish before Bar’chu. This Kaddish marks the most central moment of transition in our tradition. On Friday night we invite Shabbat in with Psalms and Songs. Once Shabbat is here, we mark this new, sacred time with Kaddish. “Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei rabba.”
With the changing of the seasons, on Sh’mini Atzeret and Passover, our liturgy contains poems describing our people’s intimate connection with water. Rain and dewdrops are synonymous with life itself to us. Here too there is a Chatzi Kaddish to mark the changing of the season. “B’alma div’ra chirutei v’yamlich malchutei.”
When we usher in the New Year it comes with its own Chatzi Kaddish as well. “b’chayeichon uvyomeichon.” Each Chatzi Kaddish, while identical in text, comes alive with a musical tradition that imbues it with great individuality. “Yitgadal” not only means “magnified” or “praised,” but also it means the time you went to synagogue as a child with a grandparent. It means apples, honey, matzah, or rest. Kaddish Yatom, the extended cousin of Chatzi Kaddish we recite in memory of loved ones, is also a marker of sacred time. As we mourn, this Kaddish is there for us without failing, morning, noon and night, as sure as the sun rises and sets. It returns to us every year to help us in the sacred task of remembering at very sacred moments.
Tonight, we mark a new transition. While we have not yet reached the New Year, and certainly have a while to go until Yom Kippur, the herculean task of T’shuvah gets a head start so we can be prepared for Yom Kippur. This transition too comes with a Chatzi Kaddish – a marker of sacred time as potent as the smell of autumn, the glimmer of snowflakes, and the heat of the summer sun. Our Chatzi Kaddish tonight says the Yamim Noraim – the Days of Awe – are here.
Maurice Ravel composed a Chatzi Kaddish for this occasion, commissioned by Alvina Alvi in 1914 as part of “Deux Mélodies Hébraïques.” We will enter this new type of sacred time with Ravel’s Kaddish.
This d’var t’filah was originally delivered at the Joint Selichot Service of the New Haven County Reform Congregations.