In S. Y. Agnon's short story "Two Pairs", in part 10, the narrator experiences several odd dreams involving his tefillin, and a couple strange instances with them, and then his house burns down, including burning his old Rabbi Elimelech pair of tefillin.

The next day I discovered that the wings were spread like the wings of a dove who wants to fly from its nest. A short time later my house burned down, and the tefillin burned with it. I don't know if I was a victim of the evil eye or one of those judgement decrees that comes upon a man suddenly. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.
"Two Pairs", part 10 (translated by Walter Dubler)

The story ends in the next section with the narrator replacing his tefillin, experiencing the sympathy of his peers, and being "...reminded of how I used to touch my old tefillin".

However, after the end, I'm left feeling as if I'm missing something. The story spends nine parts building up the significance of the Rabbi Elimelech pair of tefillin, and then in one swift section they're burned and then replaced, and that's the end. What we have we learned from this? What is the message conveyed by this method of suddenly removing and replacing the main focus of the story?

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    I haven’t read the story so I don’t know if there is more context, but the dove wings calls to mind the story in the Talmud involving tefillin and dove wings: R. Jannai said: Tefillin demand a pure body, like Elisha, the man of wings. What does this mean?-Abaye said: That one must not pass wind while wearing them; Raba said: That one must not sleep in them. And why is he called the man of wings’? Because the wicked Roman government once proclaimed a decree against Israel that whoever donned tefillin should have his brains pierced through; yet Elisha put them on and went out into the streets.
    – Alex
    May 30, 2023 at 1:38
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    [When] a quaestor saw him, he fled before him, whereupon he gave pursuit. As he overtook him he [Elisha] removed them from his head and held them in his hand. ‘What is that in your hand?’ he demanded. ‘The wings of a dove,’ was his reply. He stretched out his hand and lo! they were the wings of a dove. Therefore he is called ‘Elisha the man of the wings’. And why the wings of a dove rather than that of other birds? Because the Congregation of Israel is likened to a dove, as it is said, as the wings of a dove covered with silver: just as a dove is protected by its wings, so is Israel
    – Alex
    May 30, 2023 at 1:39
  • protected by the precepts.
    – Alex
    May 30, 2023 at 1:39

1 Answer 1


Agnon frequently uses talmudic and midrashic imagery as inspiration for his stories, so it wouldn't be surprising if the above story is relevant to Two Pairs. The character clearly idealizes the past, and the destruction of the first pair of tefillin symbolizes the world he is living in now, where "the taste for performing the commandments has been lost." Also, Agnon personally experienced such a trauma in his real life: his home burned down and everything in it destroyed (being an observant Jew presumably this included his tefillin.)

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