At that hour I had not prepared myself for Yom Kippur; rather, on the afternoon before Yom Kippur, towards evening, I went to the synagogue in my neighborhood, unlike every other year when I was accustomed to pray in the city. The Holy One blessed be He fills the whole world with His glory; wherever a man prays, his prayer is desired. How much more so in the synagogue, and how much more so in Jerusalem, which is wholly sanctified for prayer? It’s true that the synagogues in town are full of pious and perfect Jews who know how to appease their Creator with prayer and prayer leaders who pray with special intention. But, I said to myself, who am I that I should seek special intents? It’s enough for a man such as myself to pray that which is written in the machzor.
The synagogue was jam-packed. Even people who do not attend all year long came and stood, with tallit around their necks and machzor in hand, and the reflection of the holiness of the day shone in their faces. Standing next to them were their sons and daughters. The hearts of the children were still pure—this thing we see, what is it? Pleasant or unpleasant?
The chazzan approached the prayer stand, drew a breath, and paused. The gabbai opened the Holy Ark and searched in the assembled crowd for those who would be honored by standing to the right and left of the chazzan. The chazzan instructed that the windows be closed, so he wouldn’t be struck with a chill, and he began reciting Kol Nidre—“Al da’at haMakom … ” The congregation assisted him, some with tunes without words, others with words without tune. At the end they returned the Torah scrolls to the ark and prayed. They sang much, but prayed very little.
The gabbai honored whomever he chose to honor with opening the ark before the beginning of each pizmon (prayer). The honorees screwed up their faces with a look of self-importance and walked up to the Holy Ark. The shoes on their feet shone like their clean-shaven chins. Their little sons and daughters stood in awe as they gazed at their fathers, who quickly opened the ark that others had just closed. When most of the congregation had gone out, but one pizmon remained in the machzor, the gabbai honored even me with the opening of the ark.
After the prayer I returned to my home. It was not yet 7 o’clock, and 12 hours or more remained until the morning service. What would I do with these hours, how would I spend them? I thought it over and went out onto the roof of my house.
In one direction rests the City of God, and in another direction lies the Dead Sea. The moon stood in the middle of the heavens, and all the mountains that surround the Wilderness Sea were covered by the light until the desert thorns could be seen. The most sublime silence rested upon everything.
Silently I strolled along the roof of my house, gazing now at the mountains, now at the City of God. At that moment when I stood on my rooftop all of Israel in the city was reciting the Song of Unity and the Psalms. I consoled myself by saying: A man of Israel on Yom Kippur, even if he is alone in the desert, can dedicate his heart to his Master. I recited the Shema and went to bed.
I hadn’t intended to sleep so long, but nevertheless I arrived late to the synagogue. A man isn’t in control of things. The night before, I wanted to extend the prayers, and in the morning when the time for prayer arrived I was late in showing up.
The synagogue was practically empty. Perhaps there were 10 men present, perhaps more, but no more than a minyan and a half. Where were all those who had been present last night? Ours is a suburban neighborhood, whose inhabitants aren’t careful to be among the first 10 to arrive. Boredom rose from the empty pews; if only they had mouths they might yawn. The ark stood open, the chazan stretched forth his neck, raised high his head, and cried, “Forgive this Holy Nation on this Holy and Exalted Day!”
I hung my hat on the peg in the wall, put on my small yarmulke, wrapped myself in my tallit, and sat in my seat. I opened the machzor and thumbed around in it, not knowing where to begin—with Hodu or with Barukh She’amar. Before I could decide, I became preoccupied with something else.
The chazan stood praying like those who are paid for their prayer, and yet like a proper person who doesn’t cheat at his task he elaborated and elongated. I remained watching the door like a host who’d prepared for guests who hadn’t arrived. In truth I was nothing more than a guest myself, but at that moment I made myself like the host.
While I was looking at the door, it seemed to me that I was asking to take leave. I removed my tallit and yarmulke and left.
The day was pleasant and the air clean and clear. A pure breeze wafted throughout the world, and a scent of dew rose from each tree and each blade of grass. The sun was not too strong and didn’t injure the earth, all of its heat having been spent in the great heat wave that stretched from the day after Rosh HaShanah until the day before Yom Kippur. This is God’s kindness with Jerusalem, that He removes the heat wave on Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur, and the sun is pleasant to His creatures.
One by one people started appearing, taking slow, small steps like those who think being on the way is as good as arriving. Having left their houses, they’ve fulfilled their obligation to the synagogue. In truth, what’s the need to rush? Yom Kippur is a long day, and even if you walk at your leisure, you’ll arrive at synagogue ere the prayers are through. When they arrived at the synagogue gates, some went in and some remained outside. It’s not every day that you run into your neighbor, and, having met him, you must ask after his welfare.
From inside the synagogue one could hear the chazan’s melodies, those melodies that do not penetrate one’s heart. Maybe the chazan’s voice is lovely, and his tunes are like those of all the other chazanim, but the heart isn’t receptive to them—neither the chazan’s heart nor mine.
I said to myself, Perhaps Yom Kippur has not yet arrived. If so, why is the chazan standing in there praying? Perhaps just to practice the prayers, and those assembled are merely listening to the tunes. This must be so, since most of the congregants were wearing shoes, but not kittels. I know that Jerusalemites aren’t accustomed to wear kittels on Yom Kippur, but I was trying to find an excuse. Had I found a different excuse I would have used it.
The sun rose to the midpoint in the sky. The pine trees perfumed the hot air, letting off a unique scent. Between them stood the tall, erect cypresses, enveloped in their shady sorrow. This is the shady sorrow of creatures that God has lifted yet not raised up entirely to the Heavens.
I strolled among the trees, telling myself that Yom Kippur had not yet arrived but was on the way, and I must prepare myself for the awesome and holy day.
Before I could prepare myself, the evening of Yom Kippur overtook me. Not this year’s, not last, nor the previous year’s, but the Yom Kippur from the days when I was 7 or 8 years old.
Countless large candles, one for each worshipper, were standing and burning, and the smell of wax and honey filled the synagogue and mixed with the smell of straw covering the floor, and a new light sparkled from the candles. Wrapped in his tallit, Father stood among the other worshippers, with a large, radiant tallit-crown of silver over his head. Frightened and flustered I stood gazing at Father and the doubly radiant light shining from his forehead.
How I loved the night of Yom Kippur! The Gates of Heaven are open and God Himself, as it were, bows down to hear the prayers of Israel. He needn’t bow, since He knows the heart of every man, but out of affection for the Jewish people, He bows down, like a father who inclines his ear to his little boy. At that moment I saw that my father and all the other folk in the synagogue, whom I had thought were all adults, were in fact as small as I and my friends, except that my father and his friends knew how to recite the piyutim with ease and were wrapped in tallitot, while my friends and I knew only a few prayers and how to answer ”Amen.” But when I grow up I too will wear a tallit and pray all that is written in the machzor.
After thinking back to the days of my youth, I recalled many other things: Each and every one of them that I remembered was about Yom Kippur, as if all other days had been erased, leaving only the memories of Yom Kippur. Like a holy chain of memories, each Yom Kippur was linked with the next. It’s in this way that Yom Kippur appears in a man’s dream in order that he repent.
Once again I found myself standing in the synagogue on Yom Kippur night. And again all the thoughts of Yom Kippur from my childhood arose in my mind. There are times and seasons of the year that are appointed for the repetition of certain acts, and even one’s thoughts of mind and heart return and repeat at the same moment and time, as if we and our actions and our thoughts are annexed to time itself. This is especially true on Yom Kippur, the day of the Holy One Blessed be He, when a man’s soul—that piece of God in man—wishes to cleave to Him so that the man becomes indistinguishable from God. Wherever man should wander, his thoughts travel with him.
I don’t recall how I wound up in that particular German city, but I remember it was the eve of Yom Kippur. I entered a certain synagogue to pray Mincha and recite Kaddish. I saw they were rolling the Torah scrolls to the correct place for the Yom Kippur reading but were doing so upside down—with the words facing down and the parchment’s back facing up. I was disturbed that they were treating the Torah with disrespect, yet I kept my quiet since I was a guest. When I finished my prayer I went to eat the final meal. I forgot to take the trolley and walked on foot. By the time I reached my room it was time to return to synagogue. But since I had arrived, I went in. A small oil lamp burned in the room. The landlady knew that the Jews’ big day was tomorrow, and since her tenant was a Jew she did me a favor by lighting the lamp. She had placed a clay pot next to the lamp so that, if I chose, I could cover the lamp so its light wouldn’t disturb my sleep. That old Adventist, who spent all her days reading Holy Scripture, sometimes thought about the nation they spoke of in the Prophets.
I asked myself if I wanted to eat the final meal. I found no morsel of food in my room, and I didn’t wish to eat their bread on Yom Kippur eve. I took my machzor and my canvas shoes and left.
A few goyim sat on the stoop in front of the house, with their short clay pipes in their mouths, and a child—buttered slice of bread in hand—was spinning on his heels singing a Jewish tune. Together with the neighbors he made fun of himself, like the goyim who make fun of us. Or perhaps they were just playing.
I entered the synagogue and showed the sexton a ticket that I had paid for my seat. I went over and sat in my place. The synagogue was full of distinguished people. Many lamps were lit, and a type of longing and anticipation filled the air. Someone put on his tallit, reciting the blessing out loud so that others might merit by answering “Amen.” After him came a second and then a third and then the whole congregation, except for one old man who did not put on a tallit. He said to me, “I am old and about to die and I’m saving my tallit to be buried in.”
The chazan approached the prayer stand, backed by a choir. Their voices were pleasant, and they were nicely dressed; their faces showed years of plenty, like folks who lack nothing and come to synagogue to give pleasure to their Creator. As they started praying, a sigh went up from the chazan’s heart, along with his choir, and then with them, most of the congregation.
After Kol Nidre the rabbi sermonized about the sanctity of the day, repair of the soul, and God having dispersed the Jews around the world to serve as a light unto the nations. Following the sermon they stood and prayed the evening service. In the midst of praying, the people’s size seemed reduced, they stood small and low, just like my father and the other men had in our synagogue on Yom Kippur nights. And it seems to me that even the Holy One, may He be Blessed, crouched down to hear their prayers, as it were, like a father who crouches down toward his little child. As this came into my mind, I remembered that I had already thought those thoughts once, twice, and three times before. There are seasons and times each and every year when a man’s thoughts come back and repeat themselves.
Like a flower bud plucked from the ground and planted in a pot, so I stood in front of the synagogue, remembering days gone by. The chazan’s voice rose up and entered my ears. Coming back to myself, I remembered it was time to enter. My legs were heavy and did not move. When a person’s heart is heavy his legs grow heavy as well. At a little distance from me stood people talking about the affairs of the neighborhood. Someone who has a plot of land has sold it, and anyone who’s purchased one waits to sell it at a profit. In the meantime Syrians come from Syria and surround us with big houses, separating us from the city. And the buses come less often and stop coming on time. Because of that, it’s hard to get to the city.
But I ignored those conversations about the plot owners who do not build and those who can’t get to work on time, and I thought instead about the dream I once had—until the dream was as real as if I were awake.
That morning was neither hot nor cold. In a half-dark room sat a few of my acquaintances eating and drinking like any other day. Two or three times I asked myself how it was possible to eat and drink on that day, since it was Yom Kippur. Most of all I was astounded by the presence of the Judge’s son. I had thought him to be counted among the pious, even though he disparaged various customs—and now in the end he was eating and drinking on Yom Kippur. I said nothing to him. What could I say that wasn’t already stated in the Torah? I turned my back to the assembled men and picked at my teeth, like someone with a bit of food stuck in there who wants to remove it. My hand grew weary and my eyes grew sleepy. I jumped up from my chair to shake off the sleep. I saw all the synagogues and study halls open and all of Israel standing in those holy places wrapped in their tallitot, lifting their hands to their Father in heaven. I too stood up to go and join the rest of Israel. But my feet were lazy, as was the rest of my body. Children came out of the synagogue and told of a spring of tears found under the ark, and how a white dove had come and fluttered by the hands of the chazan as he beat his breast in penitential prayer. I had heard a lot about that one-eyed chazan, and I wanted to listen to him praying.
The assembled men ate and drank until their foreheads shone from the power of food and drink. One man, with a round yarmulke atop his head, was so buried in his bowl that his face looked like an orange. Because his face was so far inside the bowl his shoulders stood out even more.
The day was passing. Surely they had already finished the Mussaf prayer and were about to start the afternoon service. If I hurried I might still make it for the concluding Neilah prayer.
I told my two children, “Children, shine my shoes.” Since I was anxious to leave I hurried them and told them each to shine one shoe so as not to delay me much.
They took my shoes and began cleaning them. It was clear that their hearts weren’t in the work.
I was sad yet not sad. Sad because the children didn’t seem glad to fulfill the will of their father; and not sad because they didn’t abandon the task.
While the shoes were still in their hands I recalled that today was Yom Kippur, when we are forbidden from wearing leather shoes. Yet I waited for them to finish. When they were done I put on my shoes and walked to synagogue. My legs suddenly regained their strength. And not only my legs, my whole body sprang up to the walk. When I approached the synagogue I heard the sound of closing doors and saw people wrapped in white clothing exiting in my direction, lit candles in hand. These were the flames left over from the yahrzeit lamps.
I noticed what was going on and told myself that I would enter the synagogue. Today is Yom Kippur, one day of the year. Even if God should grant me many more years, this day shall never return.
At this time, when I was about to go inside, the whole city peeked through the hills and the sun shone down on the city and its walls, bathing it in a glorious glow. Even greater was the shine of the green dome above the place of the Holy Temple, yet at the time when the Temple still stood the color would have been golden. Now it is destroyed and covered by a green dome—green being the sign of hope for God’s return and rebuilding.
Just below it stands the Western Wall, where I could always find multiple minyanim. At that moment I wasn’t at the Wall, and it appeared that neither was anyone else. The Holy One Blessed be He stood there asking about us, “What’s with them? Why haven’t they come?” The heavens stood silent, and a noiseless sound was heard from the firmament. This was the sound of the scales weighing out good deeds versus sins. Along with it came the sound of Jewish prayer from the city’s synagogues and study halls. Almost an hour’s walk separates the city from my neighborhood, and the city sounds can’t reach us here. Yet on that holiest of days, when the whole world is at rest, the city sounds could be heard. I inclined my ear and heard them reading the day’s Torah portion. And more than what could be heard from below was what could be heard from above—the earthly and heavenly Yom Kippur
I walked to the synagogue so I might pick up my tallit there and walk to town. I remembered that I was bareheaded. How? When I took off my tallit I had taken off my yarmulke and forgotten to place my hat on my head. What could be done? One cannot enter a holy place bareheaded.
I saw a child and told him to fetch my tallit and yarmulke. He sought but did not find them. I asked him, “Are there thieves here? Did someone else wrap himself in my tallit? You are lazy and neglected to ask.”
The child’s eyes filled with tears. I hid my face from him in shame and asked to borrow a yarmulke from someone else so that I might enter. But just as I cannot enter bareheaded, so too this man then was unable to stand bareheaded in front of the synagogue.
Someone removed a small package from his pocket and said, “Here’s a yarmulke for you.” I thought for a moment. Could it be that there’s a yarmulke in the package? I untied the knot and found paper wrapped in paper. Out fell a small, hole-riddled, knitted yarmulke, bigger than the size of my head.
That moment was the time of Yizkor, and the synagogue was full of relatives of the dead. People I knew, and those I didn’t, stood and cried. While I had been standing outside, they had arrived and entered, filling the whole synagogue. Even at my place stood someone I did not recognize. I drew near but didn’t find my belongings. It seems someone else had come and wrapped himself in my tallit. Or perhaps that man who was standing in my place was wrapped in my tallit. I feared looking at him and snuck outside.
The world was full of that same halting sound as before, filling the Heavens and circling in the air. I wanted to go after the sound before it ceased. But how could I go without my things?
I placed my hand on my heart and felt and saw that between each beat time was running out. Only in dreams can you see such things, yet imagination is useless.
The assistant gabbai saw me and asked, “Do you need a tallit? Here’s my tallit.” I took it and noticed that it was too small to wrap myself in. One who needs to travel at sea and sees the ship about to set sail just as he reaches the port and then sees his passport is expired will understand my anguish. I broke out in a cold sweat, and the heat that had previously cheered me suddenly abated and disappeared.
The temperature changed, and the trees’ shadows grew long. The sun was getting ready to set. How much longer would it stay light? If I didn’t hurry I wouldn’t make it for Neilah. But how could I go to town and how might I enter the synagogue of the Hasidim with a tallit so small that it would betray me as a simpleton?
I raised my eyes in prayer and beseeching. I remembered that I had a tallit at home. Not only one tallit, but two tallitot: one I used to wear when I lived in the city and would pray within the walls, and another that was wrapped around a Torah scroll sent to me from Germany. Once I remembered my two tallitot I ran home and threw open my closet to take one out. I told myself how fortunate I was to have two tallitot besides the one I left in the synagogue. I looked at the two tallitot in my closet, folded and wrapped together.
I hadn’t worn them yet that year. If I had worn one of these tallitot here in our local synagogue I would have stood out. I stood looking at them, like one who encounters a beautiful object after having forgotten about it. Since my heart was confused, I tried to organize my thoughts.
How did that tallit that came with the Torah get to me? My father-in-law, may he rest in peace, had written a Torah scroll for each of his sons and daughters. While my father-in-law was alive the Torahs remained in his house of study. When he died, each of the sons and daughters took their scrolls, and my wife’s was sent here, wrapped in a beautiful tallit. I had bought the other tallit when I moved to Jerusalem and prayed among the Hasidim and distinguished men. Lovely were those days in which I lived in town and prayed with the Hasidim and distinguished men! This suburb that I live in now is good and I love it, but the suburbs of Jerusalem are not like Jerusalem itself.
Out of love for Jerusalem I stood recounting all that had occurred to me there. I examined all the things that occurred to me and bundled them together with everything they inspired.
I measured out everything that had happened and everything that should happen. I weighed it in my mind like a pharmacist who measures out medicines for a patient and then is informed the patient has already died.
I shook off all the thoughts of the moment and stared straight ahead. The walls of my house grew dark and the windows shadowy. I saw that it was too late to walk to town, for the time to pass the verdict had arrived. I told myself that I’d return to the neighborhood synagogue before the gates closed.
I stretched forth my hand and thought, whichever tallit I grab first, that’s the one I’ll take. Since the tallitot were wound together, I separated them and took whichever one I took. Meanwhile the day had passed, the sun set, and the whole world fell silent. I held my breath and didn’t move a muscle, so as to not to disturb the silence at the moment of judgment, when the multitudes above and below are awaiting their verdict, whether for life or for death. Suddenly I heard the shofar blast following Yom Kippur, and I knew that Yom Kippur had passed.
Yom Kippur passed, but I did not budge from my place. I was neither hungry nor thirsty, nor did I wish to eat or drink, even though I had been fasting since the preceding day.
The room filled with darkness, and I couldn’t even see a few feet ahead, except for the white switch to turn on the light. Even though Yom Kippur was over I feared to touch it.
I told myself that downstairs in the dining room was a candle that had been burning since the eve of Yom Kippur. I would go down and enjoy its light. Yet I felt ashamed to be seen by its light and stayed where I was.
At that moment my room was illuminated by the moonlight, and I knew that all of Israel was standing to recite the blessing on the new moon. I raised my voice and called out, “Shalom Aleikhem!” but no one answered, “Aleikhem Shalom,” and I knew that I stood alone and so was prevented from fulfilling that mitzvah.
And since I stood alone and undisturbed I thought of the day of mercy gone by, in which the whole world was blessed except for me. One thought brings another. I recalled having heard of Hasidim and distinguished men who observe Yom Kippur for two days
I went to my books and took out the Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim to check what to do about prayer and havdalah. The moon disappeared behind the clouds. While the Jewish people needed the moonlight to enable them to perform one more mitzvah, the moon shone forth. Having fulfilled the mitzvah for them, the moon hid, and my room filled with darkness. I took the book and went downstairs. The candle was about to go out, yet it still gave forth light. I leaned the book toward the light and read about two days of Yom Kippur and learned that those who are stringent in observing two days of Yom Kippur must take care to avoid all forms of prohibited labor, as well as all the Yom Kippur restrictions. They do recite the weekday prayers, etc., but are allowed to say the special poems and penitential prayers, etc.
I didn’t overly celebrate, for those words were written only for those who act with special piety, and not one who was negligent about Yom Kippur itself. When I saw it written, “And it is not proper for one to observe two days because of the danger” I rejoiced at my own failure, like one who sees his enemy exert himself to no avail.
While the candle still burned I stood reciting the special poems and penitential prayers; when the candle went out I sat and recited by heart. When I finished saying whatever I knew by heart I went out onto my rooftop, as I had done the night before.
The moonlight returned and brightened. The Dead Sea glittered like a barrel of oil, sparks of light shot out from it illuminating the mountainsides, and among the mountains bonfires appeared. Because I was sad, I thought of things that make one even sadder.
When I finished the morning prayers I went back to reciting more of the Yom Kippur poems and petitionary prayers. I remembered that I needed to build a sukkah for the upcoming holiday. I put down my machzor and went to the window. The sun shone on the place for my sukkah, as if to check whether a sukkah was being built there.
That year Yom Kippur was on a Thursday, and my second day of Yom Kippur came out on erev Shabbat, and I didn’t do my work with alacrity, but was rather slow-footed and had not yet even hammered a single nail to build my sukkah.
In order to calm my mind I stood looking at the trees in the garden. A wind blew, asking the trees if a mitzvah had yet been performed with them. I opened my window to say, “Right after Shabbat I will take their branches to cover my sukkah!” The wind blew in my mouth and sprinkled me with dust. I went back to my machzor, reciting the poems and prayers until the darkness of erev Shabbat arrived. I didn’t know what to do about lighting candles. In the meantime Shabbat began.
I greeted Shabbat and set the table with the food that had been prepared for after Yom Kippur. After Yom Kippur a heavenly voice proclaims, “Go eat your bread with joy, for God approves all your deeds.” Happy is he whose deeds are approved by God and who eats his bread with joy. I did not merit such happiness.
Many years have passed since that Yom Kippur. Some like this, some like that. I neither complain nor am annoyed. God knows whether for good or for better.
Many years have passed since that Yom Kippur, and each year I leave early to get to town so that my prayers may be included with those of the God-fearing. Some years I return home on Yom Kippur night and arise for synagogue before dawn; some years I remain in synagogue throughout the whole night and day. Last year I was honored with the lifting of the Torah scroll, even though there were others present who were more worthy, in whose place I am not fit to stand. And yet, I am still restless because of that missing Yom Kippur that passed me by empty-handed.
A person lacks many things. As time passes, so do the things he lacks. But you cannot compare that to someone who is missing a day, and how much more so when the day is Yom Kippur. If only I hadn’t delayed and had taken one of the two tallitot, perhaps I wouldn’t be in this state of deficit.
Nevertheless, I love my two tallitot, the one that came with the Torah scroll and the one I bought in the Land of Israel. How beloved are they to me? Once I saw a poor man wearing a sheet with tzitzit, because he couldn’t afford a tallit. I said that I would give him a tallit. When he came, I gave him money to buy a tallit instead of giving him one of my own; so beloved were they that I couldn’t part with either one. Maybe I am saving my tallit like that old man in Germany, to be buried in it. But I live in Jerusalem where the dead aren’t buried in a tallit, and even if they were, I have two tallitot.
If a person has two of the same thing, while taking one he thinks of the other, while taking the other he thinks of the first, and his heart is split and his mind confused. But I, in His blessed mercy, when I wrap myself in one tallit, my mind is at peace. But sometimes it seems as if I am standing on Yom Kippur at nightfall, as the gates are closing and the day’s soul is about to depart, and a day that passes cannot be returned.
The End, but not of Heaven’s mercies! נשלם ולא נשלמו רחמי שמים
Translated from Hebrew by Jeffrey Saks. Saks is the founding director of ATID. This original translation is forthcoming in a new anthology of Agnon’s short stories, Forevermore: Stories of the Old World and the New, edited by Jeffrey Saks, to be published by the Toby Press in 2015 as part of its newly launched S.Y. Agnon Library, featuring the writing of the Nobel laureate in new and revised English translations. Saks’ courses given at the Agnon House in Jerusalem are broadcast at WebYeshiva.org/Agnon.
Shmuel Yosef Agnon shared the 1966 Nobel Prize in literature.