R. Hutnerӳ Sensitivity to Language

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau


By Rav Yitzchak Blau


Please include Gilad Hillel ben Bracha Mirel in your tefillot.


Lecture #42: R. Hutner’s Sensitivity to Language



R. Aharon Lichtenstein once described R. Hutner as “punctilious but not pedantic;”[1] in particular, R. Hutner’s attention to detail manifests itself in great sensitivity to language. Few rabbinic authors match his poetic style, and he explicitly grants value to modes of expression. One letter cites the adage, “The style [or the mode of expression] is the man.”[2] He praises both the content and the style of his correspondents.[3] It is hard to imagine many other acharonim commenting on the style of the people writing to them.


In the conclusion of one letter, R. Hutner expresses concern that his poetry and style may have obscured more important matters. 


It a true shame that, against my will and despite my desire, a letter which rings of literature (“tzitlzul shel sifrut”) emerged from my hand. I did not intend to create literature or to express pretty words. I would be happy to throw away the nice shell of this letter and to show you the inner core with clarity and plainness.[4]


Admittedly, this letter conveys that content has priority over style, but it also reveals that R. Hutner wrote with poetry even against a desire to remain in plain prose. His care for language and the craft of writing could not be suppressed.


Care for language also means objecting to imprecision and noticing troubling resonance in word choice. One correspondent wrote, “After Pesach, I was busy (”metupal ani”) giving shiurim.” R. Hutner criticizes this formulation, arguing that associating “tipul” with giving a shiur indicates a degradation of the endeavor.[5] Since the words we employ convey values and ideals, it behooves us to use them with care.


R. Hutner often notes why a specific term was chosen, differentiates between seemingly parallel terms, and explains why a given word fits its context. In an earlier shiur, we discussed his emphasis on R. Chaim of Volozhin’s decision to describe his students as “bnei ha-yeshiva” instead of “talmidei ha-yeshiva.”  The same focus on the precision of words animates many pieces of Pachad Yitzchak.   


Rashi, citing the midrash, twice notes how Chumash conveys unity by employing the singular form to describe the actions of an entire people. But the phraseology does not remain consistent: the Jewish People camp at Sinai “ke-ish echad be-lev echad;” the Egyptians chase the fleeing Jews “be-lev echad ke-ish echad” (Shemot 19:2, 14:10).  R. Hutner explains the shift in sequence. The Jewish People have an organic unity, which enables them to function with a unified purpose. Their standing as one enables them to act with one heart. The Egyptians, on the other hand, lack this unity. Only when a joint desire to chase Israel unifies them does a common purpose (be-lev echad) create national unity.[6]


R. Hutner notes that we frequently speak of yirat Shamayim, but never of ahavat Shamayim. When discussing the commandment to love God, we always refer to ahavat Hashem. In the context of his explanation, he mentions the Ramban’s idea that love motivates fulfillment of positive commandments, whereas fear prompts restraint from violating prohibitions.[7]  The Ramban cannot be referring to intellectual motivation, since fear can certainly motivate performance and love can also generate restraint. His point relates to movements of the soul rather than to intellectual motivation. According to R. Hutner, love involves a movement of expansion and fear entails a gesture of constriction. Thus, love relates to action and fear to inaction. 


This divide explains the terminological discrepancy. The movement of fear is concerned about casually referring to God, and prefers to substitute the term “fear of Heaven.”  The very term indicates a trepidation regarding approaching God too closely, trepidation that itself reflects fear of heaven. In contrast, love relishes mentioning the object of love; it would be odd to refer to the one we love with a euphemism. In this example, a subtle point of language reflects theological significance.[8]


Shabbat transcends this divide between fear and love. After six days of creation, God restricted Himself and stopped creating, thereby bringing the sanctity of Shabbat into the world. This divine act, simultaneously holding back and creating, merged movements of expansion and contraction. The idea that “zakhor” and “shamor” were said in a single utterance echoes Shabbat’s integration of these two gestures. R. Hutner contends that our experience bolsters this analysis. Those who worship God profoundly feel love in the Shabbat prohibitions and fear in the positive commandments.[9]


The above analysis enhances R. Hutner’s contention that all positive human traits involve an element of imitating the Divine. Someone who published an edition of Tomer Devora wrote that imitatio Dei does not apply to fear of Heaven.  After all, what could God fear?  According to R. Hutner, fear of heaven is also rooted in emulating God since fear consists of a movement of contraction. God engages in tzimtzum, and we model ourselves after Him.  


Sensitivity to language also includes a historical component when we notice a shift in language over time. The Torah describes the festivals as chagim and as mikra’ei kodesh, but never as yom tov, a term prominent in the Talmud. R. Hutner suggests that the simple reading of Chumash excludes the days of Chol Ha-Moed from the term “mikra’ei kodesh.”  However, the gemara says that Vayikra 23:4, a verse that includes the term mikra’ei kodesh, teaches that work prohibitions apply on Chol Ha-Moed (Chagiga 18a). This implicitly places the intermediate festival days within the category of mikra’ei kodesh. Chazal thus needed a new phrase to refer specifically to the full festival days, and they created the term yom tov.[10]


Noticing such terminology shifts demands careful reading. A gemara recounts how three thousand halakhot were forgotten during the mourning period for Moshe Rabbenu. The people wanted various prophets to use their abilities to reclaim these lost laws. Yehoshua refused because “the Torah is not in heaven.” Shmuel also gave a negative response because “a prophet is no longer allowed to innovate laws” (Temura 16a). A reader of this Talmudic account might easily think that Yehoshua and Shmuel made the identical point in different words.  R. Hutner does not agree.


According to the Rambam, Moshe’s prophecy can never be superseded since prophets prove their status through an “ot,” whereas Moshe established his prophetic role via the unmediated encounter with divinity experienced by Am Yisrael at Sinai.[11]  The Rambam also states that we can rely on a new prophet even absent an “ot” if an established prophet vouches for him. In fact, Moshe vouched for Yehoshua.[12] This means that the unmediated encounter at Sinai also ultimately validates Yehoshua’s prophecy.  Based on this preface, R. Hutner suggests that the rule that “a prophet is no longer allowed to innovate laws” does not apply to Yehoshua, and the gemara has to give a different reason why Moshe’s disciple did not ask for a prophetic answer.[13] 


The verb “hariga” applies to killing any live animal, whereas “retzicha,” murder, applies only to ending the life of a human being. R. Hutner notes with some surprise that the term “shefichut damim” is also limited to the spilling of human blood. In characteristic fashion, R. Hutner bases his explanation on an idea of the Maharal.  Based on the Torah identifying blood with the soul (Devarim 12:23), the Maharal says that shefichut damim means the separation of soul and body. Thus, the term remains appropriate even for a type of murder where the victim loses no blood, since that victim still undergoes the break-up of body and soul.


Animal existence is purely bodily and corporeal; therefore, the idea of “spilling blood” does not apply to terminating animal life. Humanity, created in the image of God, has an existence beyond the physical; thus, “shefichut damim” applies exclusively to humanity. One of R. Hutner’s listeners pointed out that the Torah refers to “spilling blood” of animals in the context of the prohibition against slaughtering an offering outside the Temple (Vayikra 17:4). R. Hutner explains that only when talking about animal sacrifices and an act that defiles their sanctity does the application of this term to the animal kingdom make sense.  Here, we have a separation of form and matter, even when describing the death of an animal. In that context, we address something beyond the corporeal.[14]


A sicha for the Yomim Noraim distinguishes between two seemingly parallel phrases. Vayikra Rabba 29:4 says that the shofar sounds inspire Hashem to move from the seat of judgment to the seat of mercy. The Mekhilta (Shemot 15:6) says that when Israel fulfills God’s will, He switches his mode of functioning from the left to the right.  R. Hutner contends that the term “kisei” (seat) refers specifically to modes of kingship.  The shofar moves God from a generic form of kingship to a kingship based on an eternal covenant with Am Yisrael.  This is not the same as a switch from judgment to mercy unconnected to monarchy.[15]   


One chapter in the volume on Shabbat reveals tremendous sensitivity to word sequence and choice of language. On the fifth day of creation, Hashem sees that the birds and fish He created are good; He then blesses the fish. Evaluation of goodness precedes the blessing. The sixth day of creation reverses the order: God first blesses Adam and then surveys the entire created order and pronounces it very good.  Why the switch in sequence? R. Hutner also wonders why the expanded version of the first berakha of keriat shema on Shabbat adds several themes not found on weekdays but leaves out the phrase “ma rabbu ma’asekha Hashem.”


On the first five days of creation, God passed judgment on individual aspects of the created order, whereas His evaluation on the sixth day refers to the totality of the creation rather than to particular creations. This comprehensive evaluation depends upon an entity unifying all the disparate elements of our world. When God charges humanity with the mission to “subdue the earth and conquer it,” this mission unifies every aspect of creation and directs it towards a common goal. Only at that point could Hashem pronounce that the cohesive created order very good.


This idea also explains the Shabbat liturgy. “Rabbu” refers to a multitude of creation and, by definition, multitude means disparate parts. Since Shabbat stands for the oneness of creation, we replace the “rabbu” theme with the idea of the greatness of creation. R. Hutner, master of meshalim, offers a helpful parable. If we see many dots on a page, we speak of a multitude. Once those dots combine to form a line, we no longer speak of a multitude but about a long or large line. This reflects the theme of Shabbat. Indeed, we say “ma gadlu ma’asekha Hashem” each Shabbat.


Although English was probably his fourth or fifth language, R. Hutner manages to use its words with precision. He contends that preparation for Shabbat differs from preparation for all other mitzvot. Getting ready for any commandment certainly has religious value, but Shabbat preparation adds another dimension. Shabbat represents a harbinger of the World-to-Come, and various sources indicate that we must aspire to the ultimate salvation (“tzipita li-yeshua”). Along the same lines, we aspire to the miniature salvation of Shabbat through active preparation. R. Hutner says that Shabbat preparation consist not of “readiness,” but of “expectation.” The clever usage of these English words beautifully conveys the essential distinction.[16]

[1] Letters, Jewish Action, Summer 2002.

[2] Pachad Yitzchak Iggerot U-Ketavim, no. 19, p. 30.

[3] Ibid., no. 94, p. 184.

[4] Ibid., p. 193.

[5] Ibid., no. 50, p. 81.

[6] Pachad Yitzchak Pesach, no. 41.

[7] Ramban, Shemot 20:7.

[8] Pachad Yitzchak Pesach, no. 54.

[9] Pesach Yitzchak Shabbat, no. 2.

[10] Pachad Yitzchak Pesach, no. 30.

[11] Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah 8:1.

[12] Ibid., 10:5.

[13] Pachad Yitzchak Sukkot, no.  8

[14] Ibid.

[15] Pachad Yitzchak Rosh Hashana, no. 28; Pachad Yitzchak Yom Ha-Kippurim, no. 14.

[16] Pachad Yitzchak Shabbat, Kunteres Reshimot, no.  3.