For nine months, a council of rabbis discusses whether it would be permissible for Gimpel to return to Elka after accusing her of adultery. In the meantime, Elka gives birth to a daughter. The town mocks Gimpel even more, but Gimpel decides to believe his wife on the logic that if today you don’t believe your wife, perhaps tomorrow it will be God whom you don’t believe.
Gimpel articulates here his sense of the close relationship between faith in others and faith in God. Gimpel fears that if he gets in the habit of doubting people, it won’t be long before he starts to doubt God. Thus, his decision to trust his wife is also a reaffirmation of his religious faith.
Because he is not allowed to go home, Gimpel has an apprentice at the bakery transport food to Elka and the children. Gimpel initially disliked the apprentice, who liked to tease him, but now that they have started spending more time together, Gimpel decides that he may have misjudged the man, who strikes him as being, on the whole, a kind and helpful person.
Gimpel is able to set aside his original negative feelings toward the apprentice upon closer acquaintance, deciding that the man’s positive qualities should outweigh any previous unpleasant behavior. This reassessment once again reflects Gimpel’s inclination to forgive other people, and to try to find and enjoy the good in them, rather than focus on the bad.
Finally, at the end of the nine months, one of the rabbi’s on the council stumbles upon a little-known passage by Maimonides (an important Jewish scholar scholar) which leads him to believe that if Gimpel is absolutely confident he had been mistaken about seeing a man in Elka’s bed, it would be acceptable for him to return to her. Gimpel affirms his certainty that he had imagined the whole thing and is overjoyed when the Frampol Rabbi informs him that, in that case, he is welcome to go home. When he finishes his workday, he excitedly races there. He feels like singing—although he decides not to for fear of attracting the attention of dangerous spirits. Once he makes it to the house, he is surprised to realize how hard his heart is pounding. Curiously, he feels like “a criminal.”
Most people in Frampol find Gimpel’s belief in his wife’s innocence ridiculous, as he witnessed her betrayal with his own eyes. Yet the rabbis take Gimpel’s scruples seriously. Like Gimpel, they are committed to considering the implications of even the most improbable scenarios, and also like Gimpel, see a genuine ethical dilemma in the possibility of Elka’s betrayal having been a hallucination. The fact that there is even a passage by Maimonides, one of the most important Jewish scholars, that supports Gimpel’s view of the situation, suggests that rather than being foolish, his concerns are wise, shared by the most respected Jewish thinkers. Meanwhile, Gimpel’s ability to declare himself totally confident about his version of the story shows how fully he has willed himself to believe his wife. All the same, the details the story includes about his emotions on the way home paint a mixed picture of his state of mind. He reports being thrilled, and yet he also apparently feels a certain fearfulness or uneasiness, sensing evil spirits in the air. He even experiences a sensation of guilt—an odd thing for him to feel, which may reflect a number of conflicting, probably subconscious anxieties. He is rushing back to his home at an unexpected hour (and without Elka knowing he has been allowed by the rabbis to return), and the last time he came home unexpectedly he “hallucinated” Elka in the act of infidelity. Perhaps somewhere in his conscience he stills feels lingering doubts about Elka and there is even part of him that expects to see the same horrible sight he found last time. He may feel like a criminal because it seems to him like such a wrong thing to think badly of her. Or maybe, strangely enough, if he does find her like that, he would feel like a criminal because of the embarrassment such exposure would cause her, the crime of bringing shame to another person.
When Gimpel gets inside the house, his first stop is to look at the new baby, asleep in her cradle. Even though he has never met her before, he “instantly” adores her, “each tiny bone.” His happiness doesn’t last long, unfortunately. Once home, Gimpel discovers his wife yet again sleeping beside another man, and this time it is none other than the apprentice.
Gimpel’s instant warmth for the child illustrates how generous he is with his heart. It is significant that he speaks of loving “each tiny bone,” which seems to speak to his overall commitment to loving the whole person, whatever flaws they may possess. It is very challenging, however, to Gimpel’s generous nature to find Elka again in the act of betraying him, after he has gone to such lengths to trust in her. It only makes it worse that the man with whom she is sleeping is the apprentice, whose more annoying personality traits Gimpel had just recently managed to forgive (also the apprentice’s affair with Gimpel’s wife puts the apprentice’s previous kind words about Elka in a new light). Gimpel’s earnest faith is painfully confronted here by an ugly reality that seems to prove these two people totally unworthy of the faith he had so generously extended to them.
Elka wakes up and is shocked to see Gimpel. But instead of addressing the situation, she tells him that their nanny-goat has been unwell, and he must urgently check on her. Gimpel, who loves the goat dearly, is instantly concerned and dashes to the shed to investigate. Yet after a thorough inspection, Gimpel cannot find anything wrong with the goat, so he decides to go back and confront Elka. When he returns to his wife, the apprentice is gone. Gimpel asks her where the man is, to which Elka replies angrily that she has no idea what he is talking about. She begins screaming and cursing him, insisting that he is out of his mind. Meanwhile, Yechiel springs from behind the oven and strikes Gimpel on the head. Gimpel is bewildered by the whole incident and feels that “something about [him] was deeply wrong.” This feeling is only amplified the next day when he confronts the apprentice about sleeping with his wife. The apprentice, like Elka, behaves as if Gimpel is crazy and recommends that he see a doctor.
Elka does not express any shame or apologetic feelings toward Gimpel. Instead, she showcases her considerable manipulative ability, sending Gimpel on a meaningless errand to make time for the apprentice to escape. When he returns and confronts Elka about her behavior, she questions his sanity, cleverly taking advantage of Gimpel’s growing distrust of his own senses, his fear that he will confuse the real with the imaginary. The apprentice takes this same approach the following day. Together, they are gas-lighting Gimpel, severely destabilizing his sense of reality. Perhaps Yechiel’s blow to Gimpel’s is meant to symbolize Elka and the apprentice’s assault to his mind.
Confused and embarrassed, Gimpel simply resolves to believe Elka and the apprentice, and, in addition, never again to doubt what he is told. And for the next two decades, this is exactly what he does. He finds new happiness, passionately loving Elka and the several additional children she gives birth to over the years.
Unable to determine what really happened, Gimpel reverts to his impulse to simply believe his wife’s story and everything else she says from then on. This allows him to stay with Elka and continue to love her, which is ultimately what he really desires, far more than holding her accountable for any misconduct.
Twenty years after the incident with the apprentice, Elka becomes gravely ill from a breast tumor, much to Gimpel’s dismay. He spends whatever is necessary to try to save her, but all of the doctors’ efforts come to nothing. On her deathbed, Elka begs her husband for forgiveness so she can “go clean to my Maker.” She reveals to him that, during their marriage, she had more affairs than she could count, and Gimpel is not the biological father of any of the children. This confession is deeply shocking and painful for Gimpel. Elka dies with a smile on her face, and Gimpel thinks it looks as if she is saying, “I deceived Gimpel. That was the meaning of my brief life.”
This moment of revelation is the most painful moment for Gimpel in the whole story. He has managed for twenty years to preserve his faith in his wife only to find out it was totally misplaced. What’s worse, the smile on Elka’s dead face seems to suggest that she is pleased, or at the very least amused, that she has so thoroughly tricked her husband. Looking at her, it appears to Gimpel that, for Elka, this was the whole meaning of her life, to be cruel and deceitful. Yet there are signs here that Elka does feel remorse. She begs for Gimpel’s forgiveness and expresses the wish to somehow cleanse herself of her sins, to “go clean to her maker.” While it is unclear how sincere she is, or whether she has any chance at earning the forgiveness she claims to desire, the suggestion that she repents is definitely there. Perhaps the tumor can be taken as symbolic of the evil that has become lodged in her and that she wishes she could remove from herself. And her smile, regardless of how Gimpel perceives it, can be read as indicating her joy at having repented.