Shai Agnon

A pair of stories from the 1930s, "On One Stone" and "The Sense of Smell," offer delicate portraits of the writer's relationship to Jewish mystical traditions of writing. "On One Stone," which is set in eastern Europe, approaches the mythical as it positions the figure of the writer in relation to wonder-working rabbis of the past and to a conception of writing as magical in its capacity to create worlds. This belief in the special potency of the Hebrew language goes back very far in Jewish tradition. At the beginning of Bereshit Rabbah, the midrash on the Book of Genesis, we find the belief that God looked into the Torah to find the blueprint for Creation. This conception of the special powers of the very letters in which the Torah was written held enormous appeal for Agnon, whose writing plays out a variety of positions in relation to the holy tongue.

With the model of the world-creating language of Torah before him, Agnon enacts the attempt and failure to attain the linguistic level of the sacred. "On One Stone," written in 1934, mimics a passage in The Book of Praises of the Baal Shem tov, a compilation of stories of the Baal Shem Tov, the eighteenth-century holy man around whose life and works Hasidism developed. The Baal Shem Tov is a luminous figure in hasidic traditions, a wonder-worker whose miraculous deeds are told and retold by his followers. In the source passage in The Book of Praises, the Baal Shem Tov speaks directly to a stone, so that it opens up and he can place his writings in it. Without ever explicitly referring to the Baal Shem Tov, Agnon's story invokes this act of enclosure in a variety of ways that remind us of the story of the Baal Shem Tov, as well as of other wonder-working rabbis.

The first-person narrator of "On One Stone is a writer, but he opens his story by referring to the days in which he devoted himself to writing about the wonder-working rabbi Adam Baal Shem, a predecessor of the Baal Shem Tov, who used the holy writings in his possession to bring about the redemption of souls in Israel. The narrator tell us how Rabbi Adam Baal Shem went to the forest and sealed his writings in a rock when the time for his death drew near. Emphasizing all the while the profound gap that separates him from the level of Rabbi Adam Baal Shem, the narrator of our story "inadvertently" reenacts a latter-day version of the moment at which the rabbi gave up his writings to a rock. Concerned about finding himself beyond the Sabbath boundary of the town, the narrator goes in search of the writings he had left lying out in the open upon a stone, only to see them swallowed up by that stone before his very eyes. What follows is a scene of radiant wonder that mimics a mystical moment in which word and world are fused. For that brief moment, it is as if the narrator gains access to the language of Creation.

— Alan Mintz and Anne Golomb Hoffman

Those were good days. I remained secluded in my house, writing the adventures of Rabbi Adam Baal Shem. This wise sage knew the Kabbalah in both theory and practice. He could recognize ghosts and demons as they set out upon their ways. He would throw a shawl over their eyes so that they could not see to do any harm. He was an expert on trees and could tell which ones grew by God's grace and which ones were formed from the bodies of sorcerers in order to trick people. These he would cut down, limb by limb. Thus he saved many of Israel from the depths of evil and restored them to their own root. All this Rabbi Adam did only by the word, for he possessed holy writings of an esoteric sort. And when the time came for Rabbi Adam to depart from this world, he hid the writings in a rock, upon which he cast a spell that it not open itself, so that no unfit person could study those writings and turn the world back to chaos and confusion.

As though in a vision I saw the rock and the writings inside it. I could discern every letter and word, every line, every page of writing, every leaf. Had these writings belonged to the root of my own soul, I would have read them, and out of them I would have fashioned worlds. But I didn't deserve to read them; I could only sit and look. My eyes would surround them like the metal settings in which precious stones are placed but which never combines with the stones themselves. Still, even if I didn't manage to read them, I can tell about them. If we come into this world to put in order those things that previous generation have left behind, I can claim a certain measure of success.

When I got around to writing the tale of the rock, I began to worry that I might be interrupted in the middle. Even though I dwelt cut off from the world, I suspected that once I got into this matter and began to write the tale itself, people would come and bother. That's the way it is with people. They're never there when you look for them, but just when you don't want them, they come around. I took all that I needed for writing — ink, pen and paper — and went to the forest near my town. I went in among the trees, and there I found a certain rock where I made myself a place. I laid my writings down on the rock, and there I sat and wrote. When I stopped my writing, I could see the trees, the birds, and the grass, as well as the river that flowed through their midst. My heart took great joy in hearing how the birds would speak their piece before their Father in Heaven, how each shrub in the field would speak up before the Ever-present, how all the trees of the forest would bow down before Him. The river's waters flowed gently, never raising themselves up too high. I did this for several days, until I had finished recording the tale of Rabbi Adam Baal Shem's writings on the theory and practice of Kabbalah. When the day of his death came, he was afraid that they might fall into the hands of improper folk, so he got up and went to a certain rock. He opened the rock, hid his writings there, and closed it up. No one knows where that rock is.

I wrote a lot about this matter, and I had still more to write. But on the day when I was going to finish the story, a man came by and asked me the way to town. I saw that he was elderly and walked with some difficulty. The path was strewn with rocks and the sun was close to setting. Fearing that he might not make it to town while there was still light, I left my writings and went to his aid. I walked along with him until we were close to town.

After taking leave of the old man I stood in astonishment. The holy Sabbath was coming and I was outside the permitted domain. Not only that, but something I had worked hard on all week long, I had now suddenly abandoned in the middle. Even worse, I had left it there, open to the wind, to bird or to beast. Even if I'd had to fulfill the commandment of honoring the elderly by walking with him, I could have picked up my writings and then walked into town. I could have fulfilled the commandment perfectly and still preserved my writings, and not have had to go back to the woods as night was falling on the Sabbath eve. It was not regret or distress that I felt, but just a sense of shock, like a person who is astonished at himself, but not distressed.

Just then the sun set. The day turned to silver and the Sabbath light began to break forth. I stood still, not knowing where to go first. If I went to town, I'd be abandoning all I had accomplished during the course of six days. If I went to the forest, the holy Sabbath would be coming in and I would not be accompanying her. While I was still weighing the alternatives in my mind, my legs began to walk into the forest on their own accord.

When I returned to the forest, I found my writings lying on the rock, just as I had left them. No wind had scattered them. No beast or bird had bothered them. Had it not been for that old man who had interrupted me and were it not for the darkness of this Sabbath eve, I would have gone over what I'd written and come away with a finished product. What a shame that I'd let the time slip away and left my affairs in such a state.

While I was thinking this, the rock opened up, pulled in my writings, and closed up again. I left the rock and went back to town.

In that hour the blessed Holy One brought the moon, stars and constellations out in the sky. The whole earth shone, and every rock that appeared before me along the way gave off light. I could see their every crack and crevice, their every vein. I took all those rocks into my sight, my eyes serving as the soil surrounded each one, the setting in which each rock was placed. I loved and took delight in each and every one. I said to myself: What difference is there between the rock that took in the writings and these rocks right here? They peered out at me, or at least they seemed to be peering. And perhaps they said the same thing I had just said, not in my language but in their own.


From: A Book that was Lost and other Stories by S.Y. Agnon, edited and introductions by Alan Mintz and Anne Golomb Hoffman. © Schocken Books, 1995. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher.

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....

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