Question: Should a convert recite Kaddish after the death of their non-Jewish parent?
Answer: The custom to recite Kaddish as a memorial prayer is connected to a story about Rabbi Akiva found in various early sources. We are told that Rabbi Akiva happened upon a lost soul in a cemetery; a person toiling away at hard labour because when he came to the gates of heaven after his death he did not have sufficient merits to enter. Rabbi Akiva asked him what can be done to help? The man told him that if his son would recite Yehe Shme Rabba [the key words of the Kaddish] in public, it would help redeem his soul and enable him to reach his final destination in peace. [Kallah Rabbati 2:9 and others]
There are many ways to understand the story, but the simple explanation is that when we stand before God on our final judgement day our achievements in life are taken into account. This includes not only the things we did in our lifetime, but also, if we raise children who go on to do good deeds, our children’s accomplishments, which stand to our credit. A child has the ability to tip the balance of life in their parents’ favour. Hence the custom for a child to recite Kaddish after the death of their parent for 11 months.
The legal status of convert is complicated. From a philosophical point of view, a convert’s parents aren’t Jewish and one could ask whether Jewish rituals would act in thier favour or not. From a legal point of view, when a person converts to Judaism it is as if they were born anew. Legally speaking, their parents are no longer their parents.
In spite of these problems, there are powerful reasons to think that a convert is allowed, and perhaps is also obliged, to recite Kaddish for their parent. Philosophically, it is hard to think what could be wrong with reciting a prayer on behalf of our non-Jewish person. There are plenty of precedents in the Bible for prayers being said on behalf of non-Jews. And even if from a legal point of view the connection between a child and their parent has been cut, it does not mean that that person isn’t a parent. It is clear that converts still own a huge debt of thanks to their parents who brought them into the world, nurtured them and took care of them throughout their lives. The way we express our thanks to our parents in the Jewish tradition is by reciting Kaddish. The convert, who is now a Jew, should be expected to show their love and concern for their parents through the practices of the Jewish tradition.
There is some discussion in the halachic sources about whether the needs of the convert should take precedence over the needs of a Jewish person in reciting Kaddish. These date to a time when the number of opportunities to recite Kaddish was limited as only one person recited the Kaddish on each occasion. In those circumstances, it is understandable that there was a debate over whose obligation was greater. But the universal custom today is for all the mourners to recite the Kaddish in unison. Although there is no legal obligation, any convert who wishes to recite Kaddish for their parent should be allowed, and indeed encouraged, to do so.
Based on Obadiah Yosef, Yachave Da’at
Rabbi Chaim Weiner
This study sheet is sponsored by Jewish Journeys Ltd: Currently booking trips to Uzbekistan (The Jews of the Silk Route) and Andalucía (The Jews of Muslim Spain) .