R. Hutnerӳ Dramatic Reversals

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau


By Rav Yitzchak Blau


The previous installments in this series can be accessed at:




Lecture #40: R. Hutner’s Dramatic Reversals



Those who attended R. Hutner’s presentations testify to his flair for the dramatic. His students would eagerly await their master’s arrival, and the presentation was a command performance.  I believe that a similar love of drama attracted R. Hutner to a particular style of interpretation in which his theories reverse conventional understanding. In situations where a simple understanding suggests itself, R. Hutner cleverly shows how arguing the reverse actually leads to a more profound conception.


When Rav asks R. Yehuda Hanassi a question regarding the laws of Shabbat, R. Hiyya admonishes Rav, saying that one should not ask a rebbe about a tractate other than the one the rebbe is currently studying because he might not know the answer.  Had R. Yehuda not been a great man, he might have given a poor answer and become embarrassed (Shabbat 3a). 


Most readers of this gemara assume that R. Hiyya’s directive addresses the limitations of rabbis, limitations which prevent them from maintaining fluency in many topics simultaneously. However, R, Hutner contends that close reading of the Rishonim indicates the opposite – R. Hiyya’s point reflects the greatness of rabbis. Scholars dedicated to Torah become so immersed in the topic currently under study that they can not possible relate to a different topic. Not asking a teacher about a different topic reflects the intensity of the teacher’s focus, rather than the boundaries of his knowledge.


We model Torah study for all generations upon the revelation at Sinai. The gemara says that each divine word at Sinai filled the entire universe. Due to the overwhelming presence of the first word, the second word had no place to enter until God released a word from His storehouse that blew away the first word (Shabbat 88b).  For R. Hutner, this aggada conveys the idea of passionate concentration on each word of Torah; every word fills the world, as it were. Rabbis emulating this virtue find it difficult to answer a question from extraneous topics.[1]


In the above example, R. Hutner reverses a standard reading and the reversal leads to a significant message. A similar procedure enables R. Hutner to clarify the nature of prayer and petition. His analysis begins with a verse we recite in Hallel:  “I love God because He has heard the sound of my supplication, for He has inclined His ear to me” (Tehillim 116:1-2). R. Hutner reasonably assumes that “hearing the sound of supplication” means fulfilling the requested petition.  This crates an oddity in the verse’s sequence.  Usually, inclining the ear precedes fulfilling the request, yet our verse lists them in the opposite order!


When the Jewish People were standing before the Red Sea and the Egyptians were approaching, God told Moshe: “Why do you cry out to Me?  Speak to the children of Israel and they will go forward” (Shemot 14:15).  According to Rashi, God told Moshe not to engage in prolonged prayer when Am Yisrael was in danger.  Maharal explains in Gur Aryeh that God would not save them until Moshe completed his prayer; God therefore told Moshe to stop so that the salvation could begin. Why would God function this way?


R. Hutner cites a midrash comparing God to a king who wants bandits to attack so that the princess will call out for his help (Shemot Rabba 21:3).  When the Jews were under Egyptian servitude, they cried out to their Creator to alleviate their distress. Having escaped from bondage, they ceased praying. In response, God sent the Egyptians after them because He desired to hear their prayers. This midrash indicates a causal reversal. We normally assume that distress brings about supplication; according to the midrash, divine desire for supplication motivates the distress! We now understand why God would not save the Jewish People until Moshe stopped praying. If the whole point of the Egyptian chase was to generate prayer, the pursuit cannot end until the prayer does.


Deeper reflection on this point reveals a significant idea about prayer.  Forging a relationship with God and maintaining a dialogue with Him are more important than whether or not people receive what they ask for. This leads R. Hutner to an even more innovative reversal. Most people assume that we want God to incline His ear to us so that He will fulfill our petitions. In truth, however, we want God to fulfill our requests so that we will know He was listening. The verse from Tehillim thus attains new clarity:  “I love God because He has heard the sound of my supplication, for He has inclined His ear to me.”  This verse’s order reflects means and ends, not chronological sequence. The means of God responding indicates the desired end - He listens.[2]


This idea changes our entire conception of petitionary prayer.  We should evaluate a good prayer not by whether God granted us our desires but by whether the prayer furthered our relationship with God.  The act of a child in pain turning to a parent has value even if the parent cannot remove the cause of pain.  This is similarly true regarding our turning to God.  


Two discussions relevant to Purim provide less drama but also include a surprising twist. Megillat Esther first says that the Jews established days of “simcha u-mishteh ve-yom tov” (Esther 9:19), but then says that they made days of “mishteh ve-simcha” (9:22).  The gemara (Megilla 5b) explicates the shift: at first they wanted to observe Purim as a “yom tov,” with an issur melakha (prohibition of labor), but this proposal was not accepted and the “yom tov” aspect fell away.


We can understand that the people establishing Purim did not want to give the new festival the elevated status of the biblical holidays and therefore did not create a work prohibition. R. Hutner reverses this understanding, claiming that this decision furthers the authentic nature of Purim and does not reflect a lowering of its status. R. Hutner frequently cites the Vilna Gaon, and he was particularly fond of the Gaon’s idea that Purim bears a reciprocal relationship with Yom Kippurim.[3]  The Gra explains that holidays usually include an aspect of la-shem and an aspect of lakhem (“half to you, half to God”).  Since we do not eat or drink on Yom Kippur, the lakhem aspect only finds expression on Purim.  Conversely, Purim needs to be completely lakhem; it cannot incorporate a work prohibition.  Dropping the “yom tov” fits the overall theme of Purim and does not indicate diminished status.[4]


R. Hutner develops the comparison and contrast between Yom Kippur and Purim in his volume on Purim. Both days represent salvation from the possibility of hashmada - from the nefarious plan of Haman on Purim and from divine wrath after the golden calf on Yom Kippur. The former occurred on our mundane plane of existence, whereas the latter took place in a heavenly dialogue between Hashem and Moshe. As a result, Yom Kippur took on the wholly heavenly dimension of la-shem while Puirm adopted the fully earthly lakhem.


The same distinction finds expression in the interpersonal sphere. On Purim, we give the very corporeal gift of food items to friends.  On Yom Kippur, we relate to the immaterial human spirit and ask our peers for forgiveness.  These two holidays provide a constant balance between heaven and earth.[5]


An alternative exists to the Vilna Gaon’s approach. Perhaps both Yom Kippur and Purim independently have the combination of la-shem and lakhem, since we fast on erev Purim and have a mitzva to eat on erev Yom Kippur.  Nevertheless, R. Hutner certainly employs the Gaon’s approach to great effect.


Another Purim discussion also explains how an apparent anomaly actually fits the essential themes of Purim.  The gemara explains that we do not recite Hallel on Purim because the miracle occurred outside of the Land of Israel, we are still in servitude to Achashverosh at the story’s conclusion, and the Megilla serves as the Hallel (Megilla 14a).  In theory, the various reasons lead to different halakhic conclusions. According to the first two approaches, we never recite Hallel on Purim; according to the third, we might say Hallel if we lacked the ability to read Megillat Esther. Indeed, the Meiri rules that a person without a Megilla should recite Hallel on Purim.


R. Hunter notes that the classic poskim do not cite the Meiri’s position.[6]  He explains this with another twist. The gemara does not mean that the Megilla can stand in as the replacement for a regular Hallel, but that the only way to express an appropriate Hallel on Purim is through the avenue of reading the Megilla.  The essence of Purim consists of the ability to see the divine presence even in the absence of overt miracles.  It requires the ability to read between the lines. The corresponding Hallel also is one that demands looking beyond the externals to perceive a Hallel hiding within. Therefore, even lacking a Megilla, one still does not recite Hallel.  The anomalous mode of Hallel on Puirm does not reflect some kind of second rate substitution; rather, it coheres with the essential qualities of the holiday.[7]


A theme we have discussed before, “bitulo zehu kiyumo,” fits in with these types of interpretations. Those with insight perceive that what seems to be a diminishing of Torah actually represents an increase in Torah.  R. Hutner also uses this idea in a Chanuka context. He identifies galut Yavan with our forgetting of Torah, in accordance with the text of Al Ha-Nissim, which mentions that the Greeks wanted “le-hashkicham toratekha.”  Yossi ben Yoezer and Yossi ben Yochanan lived at the time of the conflict with the Greeks and they were also part of the generation in which halakhic debate began (Rashi, Chagiga 16a).  Forgetting of Torah led to halakhic arguments and actually generated a flowering of Torah.


The gemara says that three hundred halakhot were forgotten during the morning period for Moshe, until Otniel ben Kenaz restored them with his reasoning (Temura 16a).  R. Hutner points out that the forgetting enabled Otniel’s pilpul to become part of Torah. What appears to lessen Torah really increases Torah.   


Talmudic debates in the wake of forgetting Torah also represent growth and productivity. Each opinion becomes part of the Talmudic corpus and a later generation may overturn an earlier decision, thereby restoring a rejected position to prominence. Debates manifest the greatness and depth of the Oral Law more than unanimity. 


One final reversal completes the picture. The gemara says that Talmudic disputants despise each other during the debate, but do not rise from the discussion until they renew loving friendship (Kiddushin 30b). One might say that even though the study partners argue heatedly, they manage to restore good feelings. In contrast, R. Hutner contends that it is the very vehicle of heated debate that forges the loving relationship. Scholars appreciate the expansion of Torah generated by debate, and they love the fact that their disputants help them cultivate the growth of Torah.  Two scholars engaged in Talmudic debate are partners in creation.[8]      


All of the above reversals surely add drama to the presentations. At the same time, I am not suggesting that R. Hutner only presented these ideas to add flair.  He deemed these ideas true, and we can all vouch for the profundity of his analysis.


One supplementary note on last week’s shiur: I noted a dating discrepancy regarding a letter using the parable of a town clock to describe the ideal standing of a community rabbi. It was pointed out to me that R. Hutner might have simply sent the same basic letter to two recipients. Someone feeling strongly about an idea might express it identically in two different situations.  This may be a more likely explanation than what I suggested last week.


[1]Pachad Yitzchak Shavuot, no. 9.  I am unsure where R. Hutner saw the roots of his interpretation in the Rishonim. 

[2] Pachad Yitzchak, Pesach, No. 14.

[3] In addition to the other sources cited below, see Pachad Yitzchak Purim, no. 8.

[4] Pachad Yitzchak, Iggerot U-Ketavim, p. 61. 

[5] Pachad Yitzchak, Purim, no. 21.

[6] For an exception, see Sha’arei Teshuva 693:1.

[7] Pachad Yitzchak, Purim, no. 33.

[8] Pachad Yitzchak, Chanuka, no. 3. See also Pachad Yitzchak, Iggerot U-Ketavim, p. 50, where R. Hutner responds to a questioner contending that, according to the Rambam, halakhic debate was not caused by a forgetting of Torah.