Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 408

Shmuel Yosef Agnon, who was born in Galicia, then called Austria-Hungary, in this story celebrates some of the most endearing of traditional Jewish values, especially the sacredness of the family and its implied reflection of the love between God and his children. Seeing this idyllic vision through the eyes of a child allows the writer to present it simply and reverently, without any tinge of whatever frustration or disillusionment adult experience might bring. In his later stories, Agnon is just as adept, with a Kafka-like awareness of disorder, doubt, and alienation that seems, perhaps, more typical of modern Jewish experience. The confusion and ambiguity of such stories as “A Whole Loaf” stand in stark contrast to this more transcendent vision of wholeness and spiritual integrity, rooted in family devotion and compassion for those who suffer.

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According to Hebrew legend, the Redeemer awaits the time of his coming by sitting among the beggars at the gates of Rome, binding his wounds. In his dream, the child first imagines the deliverance of the Israelites as the receiving of gifts, like the delightful return of his father with toys for all the children. However, when he gains enough courage to tie himself to the great overshadowing bird that dims that vision, he is taken to the gates of Rome and confronted with the suffering Redeemer as beggar. He is, at that point, unequal to this confrontation and turns away to the ominous mountain, which probably represents the inherited burden of human guilt that makes redemption necessary. His father rescues him in his dream from a situation he is not yet mature enough to bear.

When, on the day of his Bar Mitzvah—an appropriate time to accept moral responsibility—the boy comes face-to-face with the despised beggar, he accepts him as the Redeemer of his dream, and this time he does not turn away. Transfixed with mingled compassion and joy, he offers the most valuable thing he has: his mother’s kerchief, a symbol of the sacredness of the home.

Only later, when he must account for its absence to his mother, does he realize that he has incurred some debt of guilt for giving away her property. The fact that the mother accepts his action confirms the idea, demonstrated elsewhere in the story when the father’s gifts are broken or wear out, that material things are only temporary, but the spirit of the giving lives on in the heart.

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