“You Shall Love Your Neighbor As Yourself” (Leviticus 19:18)

Mourners Kaddish – Learn When To Bow And Why.

I am the President of a large synagogue and a leader in the Jewish community and most people assume that I always feel comfortable when praying.

That assumption is far from the truth.  I am just like everyone else and am often challenged by Jewish traditions and expectations. 

One particular prayer that has always confounded me is the Kaddish. 

The Kaddish is the most frequently recited prayer and for many years every time I went to the synagogue, a funeral, or home minyan, I felt a little out of place. 

The part of the Kaddish that I found most confounding comes at the end of the prayer and is the bowing and physical movements.  

While these movements are themselves very simple, like most things in Judaism the “why” behind “what” we do is complicated and there is disagreement agreement among commentators. 

What are we supposed to do and when are we supposed to do it?

When are we supposed to move and bow? 

It’s easy to remember when it’s time to move and bow.  Just wait for the last sentence of the Kaddish: 

“Oseh shalom b’m’romah, hu ya’aseh shalom alenu v’al kol yisroel, v’imru amen”

“He who make shalom up high in heaven, he shall make peace for us and for all of Israel, and say ‘amen'”.

What are we supposed to do?

The physical movements are simple to remember: 

  • First, three steps back;
  • Second, bow to the left;
  • Third, bow to the right;
  • Fourth, bow to the center
  • Finally, three steps forward to where you started. 

Why do we step, bow and step? 

Things start to get complicated when we try to find out the “why” behind this tradition. 

Like most things in Judaism, there are multiple explanations. 

Why do we take three steps back?  This is what my Rabbi told me…

I was taught that when we pray we are praying to the Holy One who is, metaphorically, a King. 

Subjects are never supposed to turn their back on a King, so at the end of the Kaddish, we are taking leave of the King as if we were in his physical presence. 

And, if we were in the physical presence of a King we would leave the room by taking steps backward while facing the King; hence we step backward.

I found two other explanations for why we take three steps backward

By stepping backward, we are trying to promote peace

Many commentators suggest that the timing of when we take three steps backward is important because it is the part of the prayer when we ask G-D for peace. 

Some Jewish scholars suggest that the first thing needed to avoid confrontation and achieve peace is to back off and give the other person space. Stepping backward gives people in front of our space. 

Also, by stepping back we are able to gain perspective and see the issue from another point of view. 

Stepping back is a show of respect for other people

Other commentators suggest that by stepping back we are showing respect for others. 

Also, by changing our physical location, we are physically changing how we view others.

Why do we bow to the left and then to the right and then in the middle?  This is what my Rabbi told me….

I was told that bowing to the left and right is to show respect to those who may be in the presence of G-D when we say the Kaddish.  The assumption is that G-D is not alone and whoever is with him is also sacred. 

The order in which we bow is to signify the order of seniority and sanctity of those who are with G-D. 

When we bow to the left we are bowing to the “right hand” (most important) presence with the Lord (those on our left are on the right of the Lord). 

When we bow to the right we are bowing to lesser, yet still sacred, entities in the presence of G-D. 

Then finally we bow to G-D, the almighty, in a sign of ultimate servitude.

Other explanations of the order of bowing

Bowing to the left and right represents an acknowledgment of the Divine attributes of justice and mercy

These commentators suggest that after we acknowledge justice and mercy, we recognize that only G-D can balance these two Divine aspirations by bowing to the middle.

Bowing to the left and right signifies the importance of everyone in G-Ds presence

If we bow to the left and right, before bowing in the center to G-D, we have acknowledged every being in G-D’s presence, and in our minyan, and therefore have shown respect to everyone and every being.

Hopefully though and understanding of the “why” behind what we do during the Kaddish will help you better connect with this essential prayer and bring meaning and impact to the experience. 

Mark Sunshine

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