A full appreciation of Agnon's* art hinges on savoring the gap between the normative expectations spun by the reverent way in which the story is told and the more troubling events that are enacted within that framework. The best and more subtle example of this paradox is "The Tale of the Scribe." The office of the scribe was an object of boundless fascination and veneration for Agnon. He compiled an anthology of legends and lore about scribes, and clearly identified his vocation with theirs.

That relation is evident in the loving description of Raphael the Scribe, his devotion to his calling, and the daily round of his spiritual exercises. The sadness in the picture of his life is the barrenness of his pious and modest wife Miriam. She dies of sorrow at an early age, and Raphael copies out a Torah scroll in memory of her soul and the souls of his unborn children.Now on the surface of things, the tragic dimension of the story would appear to result from God's inscrutable will or, in a naturalistic framework, from the equally unfathomable accidents of biology.

On closer inspection, however, the reasons for Miriam's childlessness lie closer to home. Raphael has abandoned himself so totally to the regimen of purity and sanctity required by his calling that he has left no room in their house for sexual desire and its fulfillment. Each month Miriam returns from the ritual bath purified and available to her husband for the kind of marital relations that are not only permitted, but encouraged by Jewish law. Although they are drawn toward each other, their union never takes place.... They part from each other silently and return to their separate spiritual endeavors.

In "The Tale of the Scribe" the problem is not the failure of human beings to live up to divine expectations, but rather a quality of excess at the heart of the tradition itself – at least within the ascetic tendencies of Ashkenazic Jewry. This is a piety that, by sublimating the life force, sows the seeds of its own destruction.

We have selected for this edition of JHOM ("Letters") excerpts from Agnon's story which focus on the actual writing of the letters on the Torah parchment. The devout ecstasy which prevented his union with his wife now causes the quill to spatter droplets of ink, so that "he was unable to write even a single letter properly." Likewise, the energy which allows him to complete the final letters of the Torah take on a sexual nature. It is ironic and sad that thus does he sublimate the desires he has repressed and never consummated with his departed wife, for whose memory he writes this scroll. This transferral recalls the mute, repressed Ada who sublimates her passions in her piano-playing, in Jane Campion's award-winning film, "The Piano." [The Editor]

...At the end of the seven days of mourning, Raphael the Scribe arose, put on his shoes, went to the marketplace, and obtained sheets of parchment, bundles of quills, a string of gallnuts for ink, and soft gut-thread for sewing together the sheets of parchment, and set his heart to the writing of a Torah scroll in memory of the soul of his wife whom God had taken away.

What may this be likened to? To a great gardener who raised beautiful plants in his garden, and all the officials who were to see the king would first come to his garden and buy the beautiful flowers to take with them. Once the gardener's wife was to see the king, and the gardener said, "All others who visit the king take flowers from my garden. Now that own wife is to visit the king, it is only proper that I go down to my garden and pick flowers for her."

The comparison is clear. Raphael was a great gardener. He planted beautiful Torah scrolls in the world. And whoever was invited to appear before the King -- the King over king of kings, the Holy One blessed be He – took a Torah scroll with him. And now that Miriam's time had come to appear before the King, Raphael immediately went down to his garden – that is, to his pure and holy table – and picked roses – the letters of the Torah scroll he wrote – and made a beautiful bouquet – the Torah scroll he had prepared. Thus the work began.

Raphael sat and wrote. He wrote his Torah scroll day and night, interrupting the work only for prayers with the congregation and for the recitation of the kaddish. A tallit was spread over the clean table, its fringes drooping below the table and getting intertwined with the fringes of the little tallit he wore. On the tallit lay a lined sheet of parchment dazzling in its whiteness as the sky itself in its purity.

From morning to evening the quill wrote on the parchment and beautiful black letters glistened and alighted on the parchment as birds upon the snow on the Sabbath when the Song of Moses is read. When he came to the writing of the great and awesome Name he would go down to the ritual bath and immerse himself. Thus he sat and wrote until he completed the entire Torah scroll.

But the doing does not flow as fast as the words. Raphael sat at his toil a long time before he completed the writing of the scroll. His face shrank, his cheeks became hollow, his temples sunken, his eyes larger and larger, as he sat bewildered in the emptiness of his desolate house. Near its hole a mouse plays with a discarded quill, and the cat lies dejectedly on the abandoned oven. A month comes and a month goes, and time sprinkles his earlocks with gray.

Raphael prods himself with the sage's saying: "Raphael, Raphael, do not forget death because death will not forget you." Month comes and month goes and there is no action and no work done. The sheet of parchment lies on the table and the quill lies in the sunshine, and the sun's reflection out of the quill shines as the hidden light from among the wings of the celestial creatures. Sunbeams come down to bathe in the scribe's inkwell, and when they depart in order to bid welcome to the shadows of the night, the sheet of parchment lies unchanged.

At time Raphael summoned strength, dipped the pen in ink, and wrote a word, but this did not lead to any more work because his eyes filled with tears. When he sat down to write a single letter in the Torah, immediately his eyes brimmed with tears which rolled down onto the parchment.

In vain do builders build palaces
If a flooding river sweeps away their foundations;
In vain do people kindle a memorial candle
If the orphans extinguish it with their tears.

And when he swallowed his tears, and said to himself, "Now I will work, now I will write," he would reach such a peak of devout ecstasy that his quill spattered droplets of ink, and he was unable to write even a single letter properly....

Moroccan Jewish Scribes, 1919
Click to View Enlargement

When a scribe is about to complete a scroll, he leaves several verses at the end unfinished, in outlined lettering, in order that any Jew who had not himself had the privilege to fulfill the biblical admonition "And now you shall write down this song for yourselves" may be afforded the opportunity to come and fill in one of the letters of the Torah. And whoever is so favored takes a pen, dips its tip in ink, and fills in the hollowed, outlined letter. Raphael put down his quill, having left several verses in outlined letters, and said to himself: I shall go and invite a quorum of ten Jews, so that the Torah will not be lonely, and saintly Jews may see and rejoice in the completion of a Torah. He walked over to the mirror to look into it and straighten out his earlocks and his beard in honor of the Torah and in honor of those who would come to rejoice with him.

The mirror was covered with a sheet. From the day of Miriam's death, peace be with her, no one had removed this sign of mourning. Raphael pulled aside the end of the sheet, looked into the mirror, and saw his own face, and the east-wall embroidery across the room, and the scroll he had written, with the hollow, outlined letters at its end. At that moment his soul stirred and he returned to the table, took the quill, and filled in the letters in the scroll he had written in memory of his wife's soul. When he completed the task he rolled up the scroll, raised it high, dancing with great joy, and he leaped and danced and sang in honor of the Torah. Suddenly, Raphael stopped, puzzled about the melody he was singing in honor of the completion of the scroll. He felt sure that he had heard this melody before but he could not remember where he had heard it. And now, even when he closed his lips the singing of the melody continued by itself. Where had heard this melody?

* "Throughout his long career, Nobel Laureate in Literature S.Y. Agnon (1888-1970) fashioned and refashioned the myth of himself as a writer. He told the story of his upbringing in Galicia, his journey to the Land of Israel, his extended sojourn in Germany, and his return to Jerusalem in many different versions, placing the persona of the writer at times at the center of the story and at times at the margins as a kind of ironic scaffolding... He shaped the narrative of his own beginnings to produce an image of the artist as a figure at once solitary and part of a community, both a rebel and a redeemer...." (From the introduction to A Book that was Lost and other Stories) [back]

From: A Book that was Lost and other Stories, by S.Y. Agnon. Introduction by Alan Mintz and Anne Golomb Hoffman. New York: Schocken, 1995.

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