Memorial Plaques and the Kaddish List:
May a Congregation Cease Reading the Names?



It is the custom in our congregation at Shabbat services to read aloud prior to the recitation of Kaddish the names of those whose yahrzeit occurs during that week and whose names are inscribed on the memorial plaques in our sanctuary. The families of the deceased have paid to have these plaques installed and in return have expected that kaddish will be recited. Similarly, we read aloud the names of all the deceased members of our congregational family at Yizkor service on Yom Kippur. We print a memorial book for the occasion; our members contribute to have the names of their loved ones inscribed therein and recited at the service. For how long are we obligated to read the names, particularly if there are no longer mourners for that individual in the congregation? (Rabbi Robert H. Loewy, New Orleans, LA)


We assume that there is no written contract which specifies the amounts donated by the families and the reciprocal obligations of the congregation. If such a contract existed, it would be obvious that the synagogue would be bound to honor its terms. Yet the fact that no contract exists does not imply that the synagogue is free to cease reading the names inscribed on the memorial plaques. As you describe the case, there is a long-standing custom (minhag) in your congregation according to which, in return for the purchase of memorial plaques, families expect that the names of their deceased loved ones will be read in perpetuity at kaddish and yizkor. The families, in other words, contributed their money al da`at haminhag, with the understanding that the custom would be observed and that names would continue to be read. The congregation now wishes to depart from this minhag, ostensibly because the reading of long lists of names, especially the names of those whose families no longer belong to the synagogue, has become a tiresome burden to those attending services.

Our response will proceed along two broad lines of inquiry. First, is a synagogue or community entitled according to Jewish law to alter the terms of a gift, whether those terms be defined by contract or by custom, without the consent of the donor? Second, if the synagogue enjoys this power, is it permitted to use that power in this case? Is it the "right" thing to do, or are there ethical and/or policy objections to the congregation's taking that step?

1. May the Synagogue Alter the Terms of a Gift? Jewish tradition grants to the community a broad power to change the terms of a gift, diverting the funds it has received to a purpose other than that specified by the donor, provided that the new purpose is a "higher" one than the old. This is the conclusion reached by R. Asher b. Yechiel, the Rosh (13th-14th century Germany and Spain), who is asked whether funds donated to a synagogue or cemetery may be used instead to support the study of Torah.1 He answers in the affirmative, citing the tradition which permits the sale of public property or ritual objects, including the synagogue itself, when the proceeds will be used to purchase objects of a higher degree of sanctity.2 Inasmuch as Torah study is the most sacred of all religious objectives, then surely any existing synagogue monies, including those previously donated toward other ends, may likewise be directed to that purpose.3 The Rosh is aware that such a decision will not be accepted with equanimity by donors and their relatives, who will complain that the terms of the gift have been altered without their consent. He rules, however, that we may disregard their objections. The Talmud declares that if a Jew donates a ritual object to the synagogue, that object may be sold and its proceeds used for a legitimate religious purpose (davar mitzvah). This is true even when the donor's name has not yet been "forgotten."4 R. Asher's ruling is codified in the Shulchan Arukh.5

The principle established thereby is that the needs of the community, as determined by the community, take precedence over the desires or stipulations of its individual members. We presume that the members also regard the public good as the highest goal, that they would not object when the community alters the purpose of a gift when it determines that the proceeds can be put to better use than that which was originally intended, and that the minority who do object may be overruled.

According to this theory, we could easily argue that your congregation is entitled to discontinue the reading the kaddish list on Shabbat and the yizkor list on Yom Kippur. Your congregants may well regard the recitation of these long lists as an unreasonable burden, a tirchah detzibura, particularly since many of those memorialized have no relatives or descendants in the synagogue. By ceasing the recitation, you would make the services more aesthetically pleasing, and this would certainly count as a davar mitzvah, a legitimate religious purpose, and indeed an ilu`i kedushah, the achievement of a "higher" level of sanctity.

In our Reform tradition, aesthetics has long been cited as a justification for many far-reaching liturgical changes. The established minhag in our congregations is to permit the community to abandon or to transform ritual practices in the name of improving the worship experience. This is precisely the goal of your congregation when it seeks to discontinue the reading of the kaddish and yizkor lists. Since these donations were made to a Reform synagogue, it is plausible to maintain that they were given al da`at haminhag, with the implicit acceptance of the congregation's right to alter the terms of the gifts for the sake of necessary and desirable improvements in the worship service.6

2. Should the Synagogue Discontinue the Recitation of the Kaddish and Yizkor Lists? On the other hand, even though the congregation is empowered under Jewish law to alter the terms of a gift, some cogent arguments can be made against the use of that power in this case.

First, as R. Asher indicates, the Talmud permits a synagogue community to alter the terms of a gift only if the gift was made by a Jew. If the donor was a Gentile the gift may not be altered, since the resulting dispute would be considered a chilul hashem, an embarrassment of the Jewish community in the eyes of its neighbors. This fear does not apply to a donation by a Jew, says the Rosh, because the Jew is likely to accept the rabbinic ruling which permits the alteration of the gift.

Let us now consider this reasoning in light of present-day circumstances. It is not at all obvious that, in our communities, members will be mollified by halakhic argumentation allowing a change in the terms of a gift in the absence of the donor's consent. It is more likely that, especially with regard to a gift made in memory of the dead, our people would object rather vociferously to any attempt to alter its terms. The prospect of an embarrassing dispute is quite real, and it is quite possible that the reasoning behind R. Asher's decision is not applicable to our milieu.

Second, a policy that favors "public" over individual needs, while apparently noble, can be self-defeating. It has long been the practice in Jewish communities to allow individuals to inscribe their names upon ritual objects which they donate to the synagogue. This practice, endorsed by leading authorities,7 is justified in part on the grounds that it is a good thing to publicize "the deeds of the righteous" as a means of encouraging them and other potential donors to contribute to the community.8 Were we to deny them the right to inscribe their name upon the donated object, they might very well not donate it at all. In our case, too, it may be argued that if potential donors realize that the terms of their gift might someday be altered without their consent, they will be less likely to contribute. In other words, by favoring the "needs of the community" over the "rights of the individual" we might do injury to both.

Third, it is not necessarily the case that to discontinue the reading of the kaddish and yizkor lists is a "legitimate religious purpose," let alone the achievement of a "higher level of sanctity." Many of our congregants would perceive this decision as an act of ingratitude toward the memory of the dead, to whom we owe respect, and toward congregational benefactors, to whom we owe the duty to keep our word. To cease reading the names altogether, or to drastically shorten the lists, meets one of these definitions: it is either a davar mitzvah or the betrayal of promises made to past generations of our members. The question is: which one?

As to the aesthetic arguments you cite in favor of changing your practice, we might respond that not all those in attendance find the reading of lists of names, even lengthy ones, a major interruption in the mood of the service. The simple piety that is conveyed by the recital of a name can add in a subliminal way to the sanctity of the moment. What strikes some as an insufferable tirchah detzibura may impress others as a solemn act of devotion to the ties that link generation to generation, an acknowledgment of the power of memory which cements our bonds to our predecessors and implants within us a sense of confidence that, as we face the future, we are stronger for the lessons they have taught us.

Conclusion. In sum, a synagogue is permitted to abolish the reading of the kaddish or yizkor lists altogether, but whether it chooses to do so will depend upon how much weight it assigns to the considerations which argue against this course. If you decide to alter your long-standing custom, we encourage you to replace it with an observance that in some way responds to those considerations. Thus, you might wish to read only the names of those who died during the past month, thereby emphasizing the period of sheloshim, and listing on the service card which many congregations prepare for Shabbat the names inscribed on the memorial boards. This may be supplemented by the custom, observed in a number of congregations, of allowing those in attendance to call out the names of those whom they wish to remember. The options are many, and once your congregation decides in principle on this way of solving the impasse, you may arrive at a solution that satisfies almost everyone, or at least the great majority.


  1. Resp. HaRosh 13:14.
  2. M. Megillah 3:1; BT. Megillah 25b-26a.
  3. While Torah study (talmud torah) is not one of the items listed explicitly M. Megilah 3:1, Rosh points to several passages which indicate that talmud torah takes precedence over other sacred objects. There is, for example, the Talmud's conclusion that a synagogue can be turned into a school of Torah study (beit midrash) while a synagogue may not be turned into a beit midrash (BT Meg. 26b-27a). Moreover, even though the sefer torah is listed as the "highest" degree of sanctity in M. Meg. 3:1, other passages suggest that the study of Torah is a holier thing than the scroll itself (BT Makkot 22b and Meg. 27a). Rosh concludes that any ritual implement may be sold to support Torah study, "for why does one purchase books and Torah scrolls if not to study them?"
  4. That is, everyone knows that "so-and-so donated this candle or lamp to the synagogue"; see BT. Arakhin 6b and Yad, Hilkhot Matanot Aniyim 8:6.
  5. YD 259:2-3.
  6. See Isserles, SA, YD 259:2: whoever donates to a synagogue does so in accordance with the customary practices of that congregation (kol demakdish ada`ata deminhag hu makdish).
  7. R. Shelomo b. Adret (Spain, 13th-cent.), Resp. Rashba, v. 1, no. 581; Isserles, YD 249:13.
  8. Rashba notes that even Scripture engages in this practice. See Genesis 37:21, which recounts Reuben's efforts to save Joseph from death at the hands of his brothers. The Torah, as it were, inscribes the names of the righteous upon their deeds, as a way of encouraging others to follow their example.

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.