By Rav Yitzchak
Please include Gilad
Hillel ben Bracha Mirel in your tefillot.
Lecture #42: R.
Hutner’s Sensitivity to Language
Lichtenstein once described R.
Hutner as “punctilious but not pedantic;”
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.”
He praises both the content and the style of his correspondents.
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
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
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.
Since the words we employ convey values and ideals, it behooves us to use them
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.
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. 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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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
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.
 Letters, Jewish
Action, Summer 2002.
 Pachad Yitzchak
Iggerot U-Ketavim, no. 19, p. 30.
 Ibid., no. 94, p. 184.
 Ibid., no. 50, p.
 Pachad Yitzchak
Pesach, no. 41.
 Pachad Yitzchak
Pesach, no. 54.
 Pesach Yitzchak
Shabbat, no. 2.
 Pachad Yitzchak
Pesach, no. 30.
 Hilkhot Yesodei
 Pachad Yitzchak
 Pachad Yitzchak Rosh
Hashana, no. 28; Pachad Yitzchak Yom Ha-Kippurim, no. 14.
 Pachad Yitzchak
Shabbat, Kunteres Reshimot, no. 3.