Mourning is a highly prescribed ritual in Judaism. For a year after the death of a parent or other family member, the mourner must attend morning and evening prayers faithfully and, in the company of at least ten worshippers, recite the kaddish prayer, which glorifies the Deity and pleads for the “coming” of his “Kingdom.” Its poetic center consists of six parallel phrases that rise with incantatory power as they seem to grope for the best words to praise the power of the “Holy One (He is Blessed!).” Although the mourner’s kaddish is only slightly different from the kaddish said at other points of the Jewish service or sometimes after study (in which contexts it is known as the “rabbis’ kaddish”), it is universally associated with mourning in the Jewish mind. Many Jews who know little of the Hebrew liturgy find themselves uttering this prayer with relative ease when it is recited in unison by the congregation in both Reform and Conservative services or chanted at a gravesite. Despite its profound association with death, nowhere in any version of the prayer is there an allusion to death, the dying, or the individual mourner’s grief.
With the death of his father on March 24, 1966, Leon Wieseltier elected to recite the kaddish three times daily at an Orthodox synagogue, and when away from his home in synagogues wherever he might be. For a modern person caught up in the busy lifestyle of a literary editor, this was no idle commitment. Immediately, he felt that his compulsion to do this, fed by grief and respect for his father, was somewhat embarrassed by the fact that he did not really know much about the ritual, the prayer, or its traditional and theological history. The intellectual in him seemed to be calling the devout and grief-stricken son to account. How would it be possible to carry out such a demanding ritual without knowing more about it? He had no choice but to begin a careful study of its background. Emotionally, he would have despised himself if he had not assumed the responsibility of the year’s demanding ritual, but he had the foresight to know that unless he accompanied his feelings of filial obligation with intellectual curiosity, he would not have been able to follow through.
In his initial researches, Wieseltier discovered that in the early Middle Ages the kaddish had little to do with mourning; gradually, the prayer was connected to mourning because of the difficulties arising from the clash between funerals and holidays. Mourning was not allowed, traditionally, on feast days, but the forces of compassion eventually prevailed under the leadership of such sages as Rashi. The deciding factor, however, was the Crusades. In 1084, the Jews of Mainz and Worms were subjected to a terrible presecution by the army of Crusaders making their way down the Rhine:
In the years before the Crusades, there was no mourner’s kaddish. In the years after the Crusades, the mourner’s kaddish makes its appearance. This cannot have been a coincidence. The Crusades provoked the first major attempt to exterminate an entire Jewry in Europe. It failed, but it left many, many mourners in its wake.
Wieseltier is intrigued to discover that after the Crusades veneration for men of learning reached a new peak. Having to mourn its own in such great numbers, the Jewish community was more grateful than ever for its sages and rabbis, who continued to support faith in the sustaining power of Torah and the law. The “charisma of learning,” as Wieseltier puts it, trumped the festivals, and it became customary to say the mourner’s kaddish for dead scholars at the most important religious holidays and services.
Linking scholarship with the catastrophe of the Crusades and the mourner’s kaddish, Wieseltier weaves into his narrative one of its essential strands: the joining of study with survival. His curiosity over the origins of the mourner’s kaddish is driven by the same will to preserve the community that has sustained...
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