Rav Hutner (3): Master of Parables

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau


By Rav Yitzchak Blau


The previous installments in this series can be accessed at:




Lecture #39: Rav Hutner (3): Master of Parables



We have already noted R. Hutner’s talent for crafting parables.  For example, we saw one in which he differentiated between a person dwelling in a house with many rooms and a person dwelling in both a home and a hotel to distinguish between a “broad life” and a “double life.” We also saw his parable distinguishing between a nursing mother and a cook, which conveys the notion of teachers giving of their essence.  Our analysis of devar reshut discussed the mashal of Shir Ha-Shirim as an example of using the mundane for a holy purpose, something that Shlomo Ha-Melekh’s era excelled at.  R. Hutner described this kind of endeavor as a central method of sanctifying the mundane.  We sleep in order to gain energy for mitzvot, but we also utilize sleep and awakening as a metaphor for the resurrection at the end of days.  That discussion explicitly grants religious value to the use of metaphors.


Additional instructive examples illustrate R. Hunter’s ability in this area.  A midrash says that in the messianic era, we will celebrate Purim but none of the other holidays (Midrash Mishlei 9).  The midrash derives this idea from Esther 9:24: “And their memory [of the Purim holiday] shall not pass away from their descendants.”  Why does Purim merit eternal celebration while Pesach and Shavuot do not?


R. Hutner paints a portrait of two people who must learn how to function in the dark.  One lights a candle and can instantly recognize others.  The second fellow learns how to distinguish voices and to identify people even without a source of light.  Each has an advantage over his colleague.  The person with a candle obviously identifies his surroundings with far greater clarity.  On the other hand, only the second fellow acquires a new ability.  When dawn arrives, the first fellow’s candle serves no purpose, while the second retains his newly acquired quality.


Both Pesach and Purim are described with a key verse beginning with the word “anokhi.”  God uses this term when He introduces himself at the beginning of the asseret ha-dibrot as the God who took Israel out of Egypt.  Regarding Purim, the gemara in Chullin (139b) associates Esther with the verse “anokhi hastir astir panai” (Devarim 31:18).  The gemara intends not only a word association but a conceptual linkage as well.  The Purim episode represents a time when the divine presence is not overtly manifest; no miracles change the natural order in the Purim story and God’s name does not appear in the entire work.  Indeed, the many overt miracles of Pesach provide a sharp contrast.


If so, our recognition of God in the Pesach story mirrors the person with a candle, whereas our recognition of God in Purim parallels the fellow who learned how to recognize voices.  In the messianic era, we will perceive God with a great clarity resembling the overwhelming strength of the rising sun.  At that point, we will discard the candle of the Pesach story, but the new character trait acquired during Purim will remain.  A biblical verse, “When I sit in the darkness, God illuminates for me” (Mikha 7:8), captures the illumination of Purim.[1]  


R. Hutner’s citing of this verse may indicate the influence of R. Tzadok Ha-Kohen of Lublin.  R. Tzadok says that Pesach represents total salvation, in which we leave the darkness behind, while Purim symbolizes the ability to survive and sometimes even thrive in the darkness.  At the end of the Purim story, the Jews remain under the government of a capricious and cruel tyrant, with Esther trapped in marriage to him.  As the gemara explains, we do not recite Hallel on Purim because “we are still servants of Achashverosh” (Megilla 14a).  Yet we still celebrate this type of salvation as well.[2]  Note how both R. Tzadok and R. Hutner depict Purim as a time when we find a light in the darkness.


This particular instance does not prove direct influence.  After all, many rabbinic writers focus on Purim as a time of hester panim and this common imagery could have occurred to both of these rabbinic giants independently.  On the other hand, Yaakov Elman has argued for R. Tzadok’s influence on R. Hutner, and this case could serve as a potential example. 


Another insightful parable explains a different Purim conundrum.  We normally oppose excessively wild celebrations in Judaism.  Rambam even contends that the Jewish authorities would circulate policemen on the holidays to ensure that the revelry did not get out of hand (Hilkhot Yom Tov 6:21).  The joy of Yom Tov is regulated by measures such as a ke-zayit of meat and a revi’it of wine.  These measures convey limitation and restraint.  Purim, surprisingly, knows no such limitation.  According to some authorities, Jews have an obligation to drink on Purim until they are tipsy.  Many dress up in costumes and some perform Purim shpiels or plays poking fun at the local rabbis, among others.  What explains the wilder quality of Purim joy?


R. Hutner crafts a parable of two people who were both ill, then they recovered and threw a party.  One had a physical ailment, while the other recovered from depression.  The party celebrating the recovery of the first is measured, since the extent of the party reflects the degree of illness.  Someone recovering from cancer celebrates differently than someone who got over the flu.  In contrast, the party for the person who overcame depression does not lend itself to exact measure, since that party reflects more than gratitude for the cure but constitutes part of the cure itself.  The ability to celebrate means conquering depression; we will not simply match the joy of the party to the degree of the illness.  Increasing the celebration means extending the cure. 


In line with many previous writers, R. Hutner views Purim as a clash with Amalek, represented by Haman the Aggagi.  When recounting our first encounter with Amalek, the Torah says, “asher korkha ba-derekh” (Devarim 24:18).  R. Hutner does not connect the word “kar” to “mikreh,” meaning “happened upon,” but to “kar,” “coldness.”  Amalek represents a cold absence of enthusiasm for mitzvot.  Perhaps this explains why the Jews of Persia went to the king’s party.  Not finding joy within religious observance, they looked for it elsewhere. 


Each Purim, we reaffirm our joy in performing the commandments.  Since we resemble the depressed person throwing a party and overcoming depression, the celebration does not come with limitations and measures.  The other festivals resemble a person overcoming a sickness; therefore, they do not engender the same lack of restraint.[3]


An analogous parable helps explain a discrepancy between Chanuka and Purim regarding the berakha of she-asa nissim.  On Purim, only someone who fulfills the mitzva of keriat ha-megilla makes that blessing; on Chanuka, someone who merely sees Chanuka lights recites the blessing, even though he himself did not light.  I will skip most of R. Hutner’s complex web of analysis and jump to the parable at the essay’s conclusion.


R. Hutner distinguishes between a person who was deathly ill and recovered and a person who had temporary muteness and got better.  Both would like to recount the story of their salvation.  In the former situation, the recounting is external to the salvation; in the latter scenario, the recounting itself forms the salvation.  According to R. Hunter, the salvation of Chanuka included a return to an earlier state in which historically significant events inspire new festivals passed on through the generations.  On Purim, telling the story stands outside the salvation; on Chanuka, the telling is itself part of the salvation.  Therefore, noting the miracle has greater prominence on Chanuka.[4] 


A letter to a community commemorating their rabbi’s tenth year in the synagogue also uses a clever parable.  The letter mentions two explanations for why towns usually place the town clock in a very high location.  Obviously, greater height enables more people to see the time.  A deeper explanation notes that this affects the townspeople’s approach to the town clock.  When the clock is low and within reach, people will adjust it based on their own watches.  Conversely, placing the town clock out of reach encourages people to adjust their own time to match that of the town clock.  R. Hutner instructs the community to place their rabbi on a high pedestal, thereby enabling the rabbi to set the tone rather than being subject to the whims of each individual congregant.[5]


Kavod ha-Rav was an important value for R. Hutner, and students testify to a strong authoritarianism in his interaction with them.  This letter coheres with those tendencies, although its message could certainly be accepted by a reader with a less authoritarian conception of leadership.


One oddity of this letter pertains to the date in the printed volume.  R. Simcha Krauss informs me that he received this letter verbatim when he was a community rabbi in Saint Louis in 1975.  Yet the printed version dates the letter to 1963.  I do not know if this is a mistake or an attempt to help prevent identification of the recipient.


One final citation may also indicate R. Hutner’s affinity for parables.  The gemara warns against adding our own praises for God, since we invariably fail to do Him justice (Berkahot 33b).  R. Hutner approvingly cites the Vilna Gaon, who argues that this problem does not apply to parables.  If we describe God with plain adjectives, we may be employing silver vessels when gold is required.  However, when we refer to God as “sitting in heaven” to convey exaltedness or compare Him to a lion to convey his strength, the silver vessels stem from the limitations of the corporeal imagery available to us and not from a limitation in our praise for God.  Therefore, we can employ such parables without concern.[6]


I must admit to having some difficulty with the Gra’s idea.  Could we not equally say that the inherent limitations of human language mean that our less than stellar praise is not a limitation of our acknowledgement of God?  If so, the argument for parables also justifies plain description.  Be that as it may, R. Hutner’s endorsement of the Gaon reveals his love of parables and the religious avenues they open up.


Rabbinic Authority


As we have mentioned in passing R. Hutner’s authoritarianism, it behooves us to briefly explore this topic.  R. Aharon Lichtenstein, a former student of R. Hunter, writes:


In a related vein, he sought, and largely attained, spiritual control.  From talmidim, in particular, he brooked no challenge.  On one occasion, when a talmid, by then well established in the Torah world as a rav, disagreed with him with respect to a communal halachic issue, he concluded the discussion by remonstrating that he had long since concluded that he had no mortgage over the latter’s mind; and he then told a confidant who had been privy to the interchange that the day had been, for him, a mini–Tisha B’av.[7]


Hillel Goldberg description echoes this portrait.   


Rabbi Hutner was not to be addressed except in the third person (“the Rosh Yeshiva”), not to be taken leave of by turning one’s back and leaving but by walking backwards out the office door (so as not to turn one’s back on Torah), and, most important, not to be challenged once he had reached a decision on matters of communal policy, of yeshiva administration, of personal guidance, of intellectual formulation.[8] 


Goldberg sees both personal and contextual factors as motivating this approach.  As a response to rapidly assimilating American Jews rejecting kavod ha-Torah, R. Hutner felt a need to emphasize honoring the Torah, including honoring people who embody Torah through their knowledge and ideals.  At the same time, this policy reflects a personal predilection as well.     

[1] Pachad Yitzchak Purim, no. 34.

[2] R.  Tzadok Ha-Kohen, Divrei Soferim, no. 32.

[3] Pachad Yitzhak Purim, no. 30.

[4] Pachad Yitzhak Chanuka, no. 16.

[5] Pachad Yitzchak Iggerot U-Ketavim, p. 223. 

[6] Pahad Yitzchak Pesach, no. 61

[7] See the letters section, Jewish Action (Summer 2002). 

[8] Hillel Goldberg, “Rabbi Isaac Hutner: A Synoptic Interpretive Biography,” Tradition 22:4 (Winter 1987), p. 28.