Shmuel Yosef Agnon

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Shmuel Yosef Agnon (Hebrew: שמואל יוסף עגנון; born Shmuel Yosef Czaczkes) (July 17, 1888February 17, 1970) was the first Hebrew writer to win the Nobel Prize in literature (1966). He won the prize jointly with author Nelly Sachs.

One of the central figures in modern Hebrew fiction, Agnon was born in Galicia, later immigrated as a Zionist to Palestine, and died in Israeli Jerusalem. His works deal with the conflict between the traditional Jewish life and language and the modern world. They also attempt to recapture the fading traditions of the European shtetl (townlet). In a wider context, he also contributed to the narrator's character in modern literature.



He was born as Shmuel Yosef Czaczkes in Buczacz in Austrian Galicia, in what is now Ukraine. Although his birthdate on the Hebrew calendar is given as 18 Av 5648 (July 26) by some sources [1] (, he himself was known to state his birthdate as the ninth, the Tisha B'Av commemoration. His father, Shalom Mordechai Halevy, was ordained as a rabbi, but dealt in the fur trade. Young Shmuel did not go to school. He was educated by his parents. When he was eight he began to write in Hebrew and Yiddish, and read extensively in the writers of the Jewish enlightenment, the Haskalah. At the age of fifteen he produced his first creative work, a poem in Yiddish about the Kabbalist Joseph della Reina. He continued to produce poems and stories in Hebrew and Yiddish in manuscripts that were published in Galicia.

In 1908 he immigrated to Jaffa, which was then an Ottoman port. By doing so, he reached the land of Israel with the Zionists of the Second Aliyah. There he abandoned the Jewish religious way of life for a time, but came back to the religion and adhered to it for the rest of his life. The first work that he released there was "Forsaken Wives" (agunot), published in the journal Ha`omer in 1908. He signed it with the pen name "Agnon," derived from the name of the story. It became his literary name, and in 1924, his official surname.

In 1910 his story "Forsaken Wives" was translated into German. Since then, his works have been translated into many languages.

In 1912, at the initiative of Yosef Haim Brenner, he published the novella And the Crooked Shall Be Made Straight.

In 1913 he moved to Germany, where he married Esther Marx in 1920. In Germany he met the businessman Salman Schocken, who became his publisher, freeing him from financial worries. From that time on, all of his works were published by Schocken companies. His short stories regularly appeared in the newspaper Haaretz, also owned by the Schocken family. In Germany he wrote several stories. He also worked to collect Hasidic stories, together with Martin Buber, that influenced Neo Hasidism.

In 1924 a fire broke out in his home, destroying all of his manuscripts. This traumatic event appears occasionally in his stories. Later that year, he returned to Jerusalem permanently, establishing himself in the Talpiot neighborhood. In 1929 his library was destroyed again, in Arab riots.

In 1931 the novel The Bridal Canopy was published, making Agnon a central figure in Hebrew literature. In 1935 the novella A Simple Story was published, set in Buczacz at the end of the 19th century.

In 1945 Yesteryear was published, a novel set in the Land of Israel at the beginning of the 20th century.

Agnon won the Bialik Prize twice (1934 and 1950) and the Israel Prize twice (1954 and 1958). In 1966 he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. This award came with a degree of disappointment when, after the announcement of his award, it became clear that it was joint with the Jewish poet Nelly Sachs. Thus "half" of the world's adulation was taken from him. The awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to two winners is a rare occurrence, taking place only four times in the 20th century.

In his speech at the award ceremony, Agnon introduced himself in Hebrew: "As a result of the historic catastrophe in which Titus of Rome destroyed Jerusalem and Israel was exiled from its land, I was born in one of the cities of the Exile. But always I regarded myself as one who was born in Jerusalem." (Frenz 1969)

The following story shows how greatly Agnon, the author and the man, was revered. He complained that the traffic on the street next to his house, in the Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem, disturbed his writing activity. In response the city closed the street to vehicular traffic and posted a sign saying, "No entry to all vehicles, writer at work!"

S.Y. Agnon passed away in Jerusalem on February 17, 1970. After his death his daughter, Emmuna Yaron, continued to work to publish writings from his legacy. More of his books were published after his death than during his life.

Agnon's archive was transferred by his family to the National Library in Jerusalem. His house became property of the city of Jerusalem. It is open to visitors. Agnon is considered the most researched author in Hebrew literature. A substantial number of books and articles dealing with his works have been published. Among his most outstanding scholars are Baruch Kurzweil, Dov Seden, and Dan Laor.

Agnon is depicted on the two designs for fifty-shekel notes that first appeared in 1985 and 1998.


The wellspring of Agnon's works is Judaism in all of its aspects, such as customs, faith, and language. Agnon gives them his own touch and a unique commentary. They are all expressed in his works, which are unique in their content and language.

Agnon was also influenced by German literature and culture specifically and European literature in general, which he read in German translation. The budding Hebrew literature also influenced his works. Some of his protagonists are Zionists of the Second Aliyah.

The communities he passed through in his life are reflected in his works:

  • Galicia: in the books The Bridal Canopy, A City and the Fullness Thereof, and A Guest for the Night.
  • Germany: in the stories "Fernheim", "Thus Far", and "Between Two Cities".
  • Jaffa: in the stories "Oath of Allegiance", "Yesteryear", and "The Dune".
  • Jerusalem: "Prayer", "Yesteryear", "Ido ve-Inam", and "Shira".

Agnon's substantial selection of stories have been published in various collections. Some of his works, such as The Bridal Canopy, And the Crooked Shall Be Made Straight, and The Doctor and His Ex-Wife, have been adapted for theater and performed in Israeli theaters. Some of them have aired on Israeli television.

Writings published during his life

The following stories and passages were first published in various manuscripts, and afterward were collected in eight volumes.

  • The Bridal Canopy (1931), an epic describing Galician Judaism at the start of the 19th century.
  • Of Such and Of Such, a collection of stories, including "And the Crooked Shall Be Made Straight", "Forsaken Wives", and "In the Heart of Seas".
  • At the Handles of the Lock (1923), a collection of love stories, including "In the Prime of Her Life", "A Simple Story", and "The Dune".
  • A Guest for the Night (1938), a novel.
  • Yesteryear (1945), a novel.
  • Near and Apparent, a collection of stories, including "The Two Sages Who Were In Our City", "Between Two Cities", "The Lady and the Peddler", the collection "The Book of Deeds", the satire "Chapters of the National Manual", and "Introduction to the Kaddish: After the Funerals of Those Murdered in the Land of Israel".
  • Thus Far, a collection of stories, including "Thus Far", "Prayer", "Oath of Allegiance", "The Garment", "Fernheim", and "Ido ve-Inam".
  • The Fire and the Wood, a collection of Hasidic stories.

Anthologies edited

  • Days of Awe (1938), a book of customs, interpretations, and legends for the Jewish days of mercy and forgiveness: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the days between.
  • Present at Sinai: The Giving of the Law (1959), an anthology for the festival of Shavuot.

Writings published posthumously

  • Shira (1971), a novel set in Jerusalem in the 1930s and 1940s.
  • A City and the Fullness Thereof (1973), a collection of stories and legends about Buczacz, the town of Agnon's youth.
  • In Mr. Lublin's Shop (1974), set in Germany of the First World War.
  • Within the Wall (1975), a collection of four stories.
  • From Myself to Myself (1976), a collection of essays and speeches.
  • Introductions (1977), stories.
  • Book, Writer and Story (1978), stories about writers and books from the Jewish sources.
  • The Beams of Our House (1979), two stories, the first about a Jewish family in Galicia, the second about the history of Agnon's family.
  • Dear Esther: Letters 1924-1931 (1983), letters from Agnon to his wife.
  • A Shroud of Stories (1985).
  • The Correspondence between S.Y. Agnon and Z. Schocken (1991), letters between Agnon and his publisher.

In 1977 the Hebrew University published Yiddish Works, a collection of stories and poems that Agnon wrote in Yiddish in the years 1903-1906.

His special language

Agnon's Hebrew language is based on, among other sources, the books of Moses and the Prophets, Midrashic literature, the Mishnah, and rabbinic legends. Agnon's unique style is noticeable from the very first sentence. Examples:

  • bet kahava for modern bet kafe (coffee house)
  • batei yadayim (lit. "hand-houses") for modern "kfafot" (gloves)
  • yatzta for modern yatz'a ("she went out")

Bar-Ilan University went so far as to make a computerized concordance of his works in order to study his language.


  • שמואל יוסף עגנון ( (Shmuel Yosef Agnon) in the Hebrew-language Wikipedia. Retrieved January 5, 2005.
  • Jewish Agency for Israel. Agnon, Shmuel Yosef ( Retrieved January 12, 2005.
  • Horst Frenz, ed. Nobel Lectures, Literature 1901-1967. Amsterdam: Elsevier Publishing Company, 1969. Cited in "Samuel Agnon Banquet Speech (" (, retrieved January 17, 2005.

he:שמואל יוסף עגנון it:Shmuel Yosef Agnon ja:シュムエル・ヨセフ・アグノン nl:Shmuel Yosef Agnon pl:Samuel Agnon pt:Shmuel Yosef Agnon ru:Агнон, Шмуэль fi:Samuel Josef Agnon sv:Samuel Agnon


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