New Rituals for Women’s Tefillah Groups

By Susan Hornstein

What is the first step in coming up with a new ritual? It seems that the need always arises from a hole, an emptiness, a sense that something is missing.

Sometimes it is a hole in the order of the tefillah itself, as in the time that our Women’s Tefillah Group of Raritan Valley, now in its twenty-fourth year, instituted reciting a pasuk (biblical verse) to serve as an introduction to the haftarah. We were not saying the traditional blessing before the haftarah, on the advice of our posek. That left us with a hole that made us say, “Um, OK, now here’s the haftarah.” But it was also a hole that came from the other big role that the berakhah there serves—to ease the transition from Torah trop to haftarah trop. How can you get haftarah trop into your head without the big kadmah v’azlah that comes with the “Barukh ata-a-a-” at the beginning of the berakhah before the haftarah? So we chose a verse from the Song of Devorah in the Book of Judges, read in haftarah trop, to fill up the hole. 

Innovation in Mourning Ritual

Our innovation in the rituals of mourning came from a different kind of hole. The tefillah is complete without Mourner’s Kaddish; in fact, that prayer rather pointedly sits outside the order of the service and is not said in women’s tefillah groups because it requires a minyan. Here our hole was more emotional, more personal. Many members of our tefillah group are in a period of our lives when we are losing loved ones—and being a very close, supportive community, we want to be there for one another in going through the process of aveilut (mourning). It seemed ironic that at the very moment we most wanted to be together, our members were running off to shul to say Kaddish with a minyan.

We knew that instituting a new practice in this area would require more delving. For us, that meant study as a group. We bought a stack of copies of JOFA’s halakhic source guide, A Daughter’s Recitation of Mourner’s Kaddish by Rahel Berkovits, and proceeded to learn the sources together over a number of months. We drew two conclusions from our study: first, that women reciting Mourner’s Kaddish with a minyan has a rich history and an important place in our lives today, and second, that there is a place outside a minyan for a ritual that would fulfill the main purposes of the Kaddish.

The original purpose of Mourner’s Kaddish was to elevate the soul of the deceased. This has generally been accomplished by the mourner either leading the tefillah or reciting Kaddish—in both cases, reciting a passage that praises God and eliciting a response from the community that does the same. We believe that the merit of making a group of people praise God in memory of a deceased loved one elevates that loved one’s soul. 

Most people who have recited Mourner’s Kaddish will attest that it accomplishes a purpose for the mourner as well. Whether it is the support of the community, the feeling of honoring the loved one, or just a way to mark time through the mourning process, saying Kaddish can help the mourner deal with the loss. Clearly, our ritual for our tefillah group needed to serve both these purposes: to provide a passage praising God with a response by the community similarly praising God, and to be something that people in aveilut could recite over the prescribed time period, in the group of their choice. 

We decided that having the mourner recite a chapter of Psalms, followed by a response from the entire tefillah group, would be appropriate. But which chapter should we choose? It couldn’t be too long or it wouldn’t fulfill the second requirement—that people recite it regularly.

What should it say? This requires a peek into the content of the Kaddish. The Kaddish says nothing about mourning. Rather, it seems to reflect the emotions that we wish we had during the mourning period, not necessarily the ones that we actually have during that period. The amazing thing about the Book of Psalms is the extent to which it reflects a huge breadth of human emotions. We sought a chapter that included darker emotions, but also faith and hope. 

This description of the desired emotions led us to Chapter 13—short, full of the despair and the gloom of mourning, but ending on a high note of trust, of praising God. 

1 For the leader. A psalm of David.

2 How long, O Lord?! Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me?

3 How long will I have cares in my soul, grief in my heart all day? How long will my enemy loom over me?

4 Look, answer me, O Lord, my God! Light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death;

5 Lest my enemy say, “I have overcome him,” my foes exult when I stumble.

6 But I trust in Your faithfulness. My heart will exult in Your deliverance, I will sing to the Lord, for He has dealt bountifully with me.

After this recitation by the mourner, what was the appropriate response? We chose the Hebrew version of the Kaddish response, usually said in Aramaic: “Yehi shem Adonai mevorakh me’atah v’ad olam.” “May the name of the Lord be blessed from now and forever.”

This is our new ritual. After Aleinu and the psalm of the day, the mourners recite Psalm 13. At the end, the whole group responds with praise of God. We elevate the soul of the deceased loved one, in the loving embrace of our group. We praise God. We recite a psalm at a point of the service when psalms are traditionally recited.

We are still working out the kinks: Hebrew and English? Hebrew only? The cadences are not the familiar staccato of the Kaddish, but it seems to feel right to the mourners to recite this psalm and to be responded to by the group. It’s new, but it’s old. Our purpose is old. Our way is new. We’re not moving too fast, but neither are we standing still. 

Dr. Susan Hornstein is a cofounder of the Women’s Tefillah Group of Raritan Valley, which meets in Highland Park, New Jersey. She holds a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and works in the field of usability, designing computer systems and websites so they are both useful and usable. She has taught Torah in a variety of settings, including Congregation Ahavas Achim in Highland Park and the Sinai Special Needs Institute.