Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 569

“A Whole Loaf” is perhaps the most frequently cited of Shmuel Yosef Agnon’s Sefer hama’asim (1932; book of deeds), an anthology of short stories characterized by unreal, dreamlike situations and categorized as materialistic stories—namely, tales, or episodes within larger works, whose connotational import is in a higher (timeless) sphere than the denotational plot.

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The key to this story’s meaning has been identified by scholars as its title, with particular emphasis on the possible connotations of the term “loaf.” There are a number of possible interpretations of what the loaf and the narrator’s hunger for one represent, ranging from a yearning for spiritual, religious nourishment to one for selfish, material rewards, all the way to a desire by the hero to practice idolatry.

The difficulty with explaining the meaning of the term “loaf” may be skirted by focusing on the title’s adjective. Thus, one may say that the protagonist’s insistence on having a loaf (whatever it may mean) that is whole constitutes the crux of the difficulty in providing him with one, thereby leaving him hungry physically, but even more so existentially, for an unattainable wholeness.

The story focuses on the hero’s state of loneliness and his inability to commit himself to a specific set of values. He is of two minds about issues such as Dr. Ne’eman’s book, his desire to eat or carry out the promise to mail the letters, and his inability to take steps to reunite the family. These, and others, are all encapsulated in the narrator’s opening statement about being unprepared for the Sabbath (or for anything else), thereby having to bear the consequences of not enjoying the rewards of prior preparation. The penalty for his inaction is also an emotional one, represented by the hellish existence in his room, where flames of fire appear to torment him (an expression of his sense of guilt) on the Sabbath day.

The character of Yekutiel Ne’eman has been said to represent Moses or some Mosaic figure on the evidence of his name, both the first and last parts of which have been attributed by Jewish lore to Moses, and of his influential and controversial book. The letters, then, would compose that which was handed down by Moses—the commandments or the healing, spiritual, and ethical values contained in the Five Books—ostensibly recorded by Dr. Ne’eman as spoken by Lord, namely God (who is referred to in the story with four dots that stand for the tetragrammaton YHWH, God’s unique four-letter name).

In respecting Dr. Ne’eman’s claims regarding the book’s authorship and by agreeing to mail the letters, the hero would be identified as a man of faith, eager and willing to pass the tradition on to others and into the future. His ambivalence about his ways in life, though, makes his mission to the post office dubious. His sense of responsibility to two distinct missions—the collective, religious one represented by Dr. Ne’eman and the selfish, individualistic view indicated via the restaurant and Mr. Gressler—leaves him caught in the middle, experiencing a spiritual starvation, as of the proverbial ass dying of hunger between two bales of hay because he cannot decide of which of the two to eat. Thus torn between two impulses, the hero remains perpetually in a state of imperfection, unable to have his whole loaf.

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