Berl and Berlcha live simply, guided by their religious faith. They also live close to nature and in harmony with it. Human and natural worlds interpenetrate, almost like paradise described in the book of Genesis in the Bible, before the fall of man. In the winter, the chickens and the goat live inside Berl and Berlcha’s hut for protection from the cold. There is a kind of primordial oneness about the old people and their environment, with no rupture between the human, animal, and spiritual realms. In summer, the two old people rise with the sun and retire ‘‘with the chickens.’’ When Samuel arrives, the goat follows him into the house like a member of the family. She sits near the oven, gazing at the newly arrived stranger with as much surprise as Berl and Berlcha display. As Samuel listens to the sounds of the village at the end of the story, the spiritual and the natural mingle together, suggesting that at all levels of life in this quiet village, harmony prevails: ‘‘This village in the hinterland needed nothing. From the synagogue one could hear hoarse chanting. The cricket, silent all day, started again its chirping.’’ The alliteration (repetition of initial consonants) in the words ‘‘chanting’’ and ‘‘chirping’’ reinforces this effect of harmony.
The action of the story takes place on the day before the Sabbath and on the Sabbath itself. It also centers around the rituals that are performed on the Sabbath. This is a very effective way of presenting the contrast between the religious and secular worlds (the latter represented at least in part by Samuel) and suggesting that for these villagers, every action they perform is in some way connected to an understanding of the divine and the responsibilities of being human.
The Sabbath (also written Shabbat ) is a weekly day of rest observed by Jews. The Sabbath begins at sunset on Friday and continues until Saturday night when three stars are visible in the sky. Jews are not permitted to work on the Sabbath, which is a time for getting together with family and friends. Also, religious services are held at the synagogue on the Sabbath. The Sabbath begins with the lighting of candles (in the story, Berlcha always buys three candles for the Sabbath) and includes three festive meals.
The piety of the Jews is therefore at the heart of the story, which mentions several aspects of Jewish faith and practice. The Jews in the village are likely Hasidic Jews. Singer himself was born into a Hasidic family, and Hasidism, founded by Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, was an important movement in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Eastern European Jewry.
Another reference to Jewish religious life in the story is to Kaddish . Kaddish is a prayer about the greatness of God that is recited at every prayer service. It is also a mourning prayer. For much of Jewish history, only men were permitted to say Kaddish. Among Eastern European Jews, it was considered a blessing for parents to have a son rather than a daughter in part because a son would be able to recite Kaddish after their deaths. This is what Berlcha refers to when she says excitedly that Samuel is her son who will say Kaddish for her.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 30, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Published by Gale Group, 2010