'In the Heart of the Seas' is among Agnon's later works. It was published in Hebrew in 1935, after Agnon had settled in Jerusalem and had made a last visit (in 1930) to his native Buczacz in Eastern Europe. The date is significant, because although the story is set in an earlier day (estimated to be about 100 years earlier, based on historical cues), it appeared during the rise of the Third Reich in Europe and amid a massive influx of Jewish refugees to pre-State Eretz Israel.
The "seas" (plural) of the title may mean, specifically, the Black and Mediterranean seas that the characters must cross. But I can't help noticing that the plural form "yamim" [ימים] (singular, 'yam') is homonymous with the Hebrew word for "days" ('yom' [יום] in the singular). So perhaps it's not too much of a stretch to suppose that the title also hints at the long "days" of the Exile - about which more later.
The story is, not coincidentally, the tale of an aliyah, or journey to the Jewish homeland. It opens with a group of men planning to make such a journey; they are named as Rabbi Shlomo, R. Alter the shochet, R. Alter the teacher, R. Pesach, R. Yosef Meir, R. Moshe, R. Yehuda Mendel, "someone else whose name we have forgotten", Leibush the Butcher, and R. Shmuel Yosef (and yes, that's the author's name too). They are joined by the mysterious figure of Hananiah, who wishes to go with them on their journey - and, they observe happily, will also serve as the tenth man for their minyan (prayer quorum).
(One commentator suggests that Hananiah's character may be based on the real-life figure of Haim Nachman Bialik, citing the initial letters of his name - Chet-Nun - and certain biographical similarities.)
But wait a minute. There's something wrong with the math here. You might have noticed that they already had enough men for a minyan. (With Hanania, they've got enough men for a football team.) Jeffrey Saks notes that it is "a mystery planted by Agnon into the story".
The party of 11 men and seven women (forming a total of 18, "chai") make their way across land and sea. The Hebrew-language Wikipedia entry for the story includes a useful map showing the path of the journey to the Black Sea coast, from there to Istanbul, and from there to Yafo (Jaffa, adjoining present-day Tel Aviv). Along the way, Hanania becomes separated from the rest of the group, reappearing later floating on the sea on his mysteriously expansible kerchief - a favorite symbol of Agnon's. (I can't help being reminded of the bolt worn by the Avout in Neal Stephenson's Anathem. But I digress.)
But the real story - or at least, the story behind the story - is what happens to Hanania. A back-story involving Hanania and a gang of robbers, narrated in the story's opening pages, proves critical to understanding his mysterious disappearance at Istanbul, and his higher purpose on the journey.
The concept of the 'agunah' in Jewish law is essential to understanding this story. A woman whose husband had disappeared - as on a land or sea journey - was not free to remarry, in the absence of a body or other credible proof of his death. (Yes, it's sexist and patriarchal.) It's also important to understanding Agnon, whose pen name 'Agnon' is derived from the word.
The important thing to understand about 'In the Heart of the Seas' is that it has the form of a religious parable, but it references contemporary historical events.
Also, understand that "Zionism" until fairly recent times meant predominantly *secular* Zionism. In the early 20th-century Jewish world, the Orthodox and Zionist camps represented diametrically opposing approaches to an increasingly hostile and dangerous world.
There were a very few personalities who straddled this gap. Foremost among them was Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (who died in 1935, the year ITHOTS was published in Hebrew), today widely regarded as the founder of religious Zionism.
And S. Y. Agnon was another. You can listen to a podcast by Rabbi Jeffrey Saks (the same Jeffrey Saks who is the translator and editor of the edition I referenced above) on the relationship between Kook and Agnon. The men were close, and Saks recounts an anecdote where Agnon and Kook spent the night in a Chip and Dale routine, each urging the other to take the single comfortable chair.
Kook's influence on Agnon is enormous, though it is never explicitly acknowledged. ("In a riddle whose answer is 'chess', what one word may never be used?" - Borges) And Agnon, like Kook, was a man who lived in both worlds: raised religious, he went OTD for many years of his adult life, then returned to religious observance in his later years. (Rabbi Kook, though devoutly religious all his life, frequently attracted the wrath of the orthodox establishment for his close relationships with secular Jews.)
Saks writes of ITHOTS as being written on "dual frequencies" (preface, p. x) of the earthly journey of the travelers and the mystical journey of Hanania. It's the duality of a story with both earthly and heavenly dimensions, and of a nation with roots in both.
Now let's return to the riddle of the missing man - or is it the riddle of the extra man? What possible explanations are available?
Perhaps one of the ten men named at the beginning of the story is not real, but an apparition. (I'm thinking of the phantom astronaut in Ludek Pesek's disturbing novel The Earth Is Near.) Or maybe two of them are really the same man. Or perhaps one of them is disqualified from being counted in a minyan for some reason. But none of these theories will work, because all ten men are recorded as taking part in the Torah service in Chapter 13.
Then what can we conclude? I think the truth is simply that the ten travelers had their minyan all along, and never knew it. That is to say, it was not some kind of magic, but their own blindness, that prevented them from seeing the spiritual possibilities right in front of them. And yet, it was their mistaken belief that Hanania was indispensable to their prayer services, that motivated them to bring him along on their journey - and by doing so, they unwittingly allowed Hananiah to complete his own higher mission.
The ending of ITHOTS - like all of the story - is part fairytale and part modern. There is a "happily ever after" of sorts, but it is tempered with a good dose of harsh reality. (Much like that most ancient and most modern book of the Bible, Job.) Agnon's pilgrims, like their real-life counterparts in his day, might have envisioned a land flowing with milk and honey, but what they found was a harsh and unforgiving landscape. "Go," Agnon seems to be telling his readers, "but don't say you weren't warned."
In the darkest days of the Exile, the Jewish nation lived like a forsaken wife - adrift, cut off, depending on strangers for protection. With 'In the Heart of the Seas', Agnon shows the possibility of resolution and redemption.