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The Joy of Torah Study according to R. Hutner

Rav Yitzchak Blau



Last week, we discussed R. Hutner’s focus on the inner religious world of ideas and emotions. This week, we will explore another of his common themes relating to this type of halakhic category. Ideal Torah learning includes a powerful sense of joy beyond the act of study. He cites a Talmudic argument illustrating the special role that enjoyment plays in the world of learning.[1] The gemara says that a person should learn what his heart desires (Avoda Zara 19a), and R. Hutner understands this as a halakhic principle unique to talmud Torah. A person deciding which of two sick individuals to visit might also rely on personal preference to make a choice, but such a choice reflects a voluntary decision rather than a legal principle. Regarding Torah study, selecting the topic or work based on personal attachment fulfills a legal principle. Halakha itself instructs a person to pursue those aspects of learning to which he feels drawn.

All senses achieve their purpose through some mode of attachment and connection. The sense of touch works through physical contact, sight works via rays of light, and hearing works through sound waves.  The human intellect works no differently; it connects to the idea apprehended through the joy of comprehension. Therefore, added enjoyment in study actually increases understanding. 

The wording of the birkhot ha-Torah reveals a special linkage between joy and study. We request, “ve-ha’arev na et divrei Toratkha be-finu,” that God should make Torah study sweet for us. No parallel exists regarding other mitzvot; we do not beseech God to sweeten our sitting in a sukka or our blowing of the shofar. R. Hutner explains that while enjoying other mitzvot adds something positive to the mitzva, relishing Torah study reflects an essential component of the commandment. 

Irrespective of the varied speculations regarding the extent of R. Hutner’s knowledge of secular studies, he clearly draws a sharp divide between Torah learning and other intellectual pursuits. He asserts that the joy of involvement in the means can not compare to the joy in direct pursuit of the ends. The joy of dwelling in a building far surpasses the joy of building it. Thus, we should enjoy Torah study, an intrinsic end, far more than other academic interests, which are simply a means. 

The initiative to translate Torah into Greek reflects an attempt to undermine the distinction between Torah and other forms of wisdom. For R. Hutner, this idea becomes part of the deeper conflict of the Chanuka story. We now understand why the Rambam says that the commandment of Chanuka candles is a “very beloved mitzva.”[2] Since our victory on Chanuka relates to finding a special joy in Torah that we do not find elsewhere, the candles represent something dear and precious to us. 

In the section discussed above, R. Hutner writes of the cognitive faculty connecting to new ideas through enjoyment. A related discussion in the Shavuot volume begins with the differences between the first two paragraphs of shema.  Both talk about internalizing God’s word in our hearts, but one uses the verb “ve-hayu” while the other utilizes “ve-samtem.” As we have noted, R. Hutner had great sensitivity to language and this verb shift intrigues him. 

We are enjoined not to forget the Torah, and experience teaches us two ways to avoid forgetfulness. We could review the material several times.  Alternatively, we could deepen our initial reception of the idea until it becomes difficult to forget. The two verbs express these two approaches. “Ve-samtem” conveys an active movement on our part, which in this case refers to review and repetition.  Ve-hayu” indicates a state of being more than an action. This alludes to an inscription on the heart that happens immediately and does not depend on later review. 

Once again, R. Hutner contends that the depth of the original entry of Torah depends on the degree of joy in Torah study. The Rambam writes that contemplation of Hashem’s mitzvot leads to love of God.[3] The joy that a person finds in study of the divine word constitutes a fulfillment of loving God. Recall that the first paragraph of shema includes the command to love God. The very same paragraph includes the verb “ve-hayu” because that verb conveys the joyous intake of Torah that prevents forgetfulness.[4] 

A letter sent to a student in camp enhances this theme. The student wrote to R. Hutner that he was “mishta’ashea” (playing) with words of Torah. R. Hutner likes the phrase chosen by this student and analyzes Torah playfulness. He notes that the verses in Mishlei 8:21-31, understood by Chazal as referring to Torah’s existence before the created order (Pesachim 54a), also use the term “sha’ashuim.” This leads to the conclusion that the playful aspect of Torah relates to Torah as it existed before the universe as we know it.  

R. Hutner writes that while we undertake most activities with a particular goal in mind, the very essence of playful activity is that it serves no goal beyond itself. Torah study obviously has a practical element; we study in order to know how to fulfill God’s directives. However, the Torah that preceded creation had no practical outlet and was purely playful. Even after the practical aspects of Torah were activated, the playful component remained part of Torah study. Torah study constitutes both work and play, including seriousness of purpose along with delight.[5] 

An important piece discusses a parallel dialectic of Torah study as combining necessity and luxury.[6] R. Hutner points out that we feel the pain of lacking necessities much more than lacking luxuries. On the other hand, we enjoy the luxuries far more than the necessities. We suffer from lack of bread to eat or clothes to wear much more than we enjoy having these basic items.  Conversely, we enjoy kingly honor far more than we are pained by its absence. 

Where does Torah fit in to the above dichotomy?

Whoever merited knowing the inner lives of true servants of God knows quite well that their relationship to their Torah and their service bore a double quality of necessity and luxury bound and mixed together. The pain of absence was as if they were dealing with the most basic necessities; the joy and delight in their comprehension was as if they were dealing with the most exquisite luxuries and delights.[7]

R. Hutner differentiates between the comparison between the poor and the rich and that between an adult and a child. The rich person does not actually have more needs than the poor; he simply can afford more. In contrast, the adult needs more sustenance than the child. A desire for more can reflect wanting more luxury or an increased necessity. A person ascending the ladder of wisdom resembles the child turning into an adult in that the more knowledge a person acquires, the more he feels a necessity to expand that knowledge. 

We send a rabbinic teacher guilty of negligent homicide to a city of refuge and we send his yeshiva along with him.[8] Halakha considers the continued ability to teach his students as a basic necessity of his life. Of course, this rabbi would continue learning even without his yeshiva following him. Nonetheless, the presence of his students would enhance his study, raising it to a higher level. For the true lover of wisdom, losing that additional level creates the feeling that “his life is not life.” R. Hutner cleverly uses this halakha to illustrate how a sage perceives greater wisdom as a necessity rather than as a luxury. 

In the course of this analysis, R. Hutner complains about our using the same terminology in holy and mundane contexts, arguing that such language overlap invariably leads to confusion of concepts. Our usage of the term “shteigen” in both mundane and sanctified contexts obscures an important distinction. Those who “shteig” for material benefit strive to achieve much more than they truly need. When we then hear the same term about those who “shteig” in Torah study, we think that Torah scholars also work towards extra knowledge beyond what they truly require. Yet this reflects a profound misunderstanding. As explained, sages experience the quest for wisdom as the pursuit of a necessity. 

Note R. Hutner’s characteristic strengths manifest in this analysis. His sense of language leads him to complain about a lack of care implicit in using the same word in two such different contexts. He clarifies his point through insightful use of parables. The difference between the poor/rich and the child/adult distinctions perfectly conveys his point. 

Even though sages experience wisdom as necessity, they continue to experience it as a delightful luxury as well. What enables this unique combination? The entire distinction between luxuries and necessities only applies to the various needs and desires of life, but not to life itself; the desire for life rises above all concern about luxuries and necessities. A person saved from drowning does not measure the salvation in categories of necessities and luxuries. Having mortality brought close to home reminds a person of the joy of existence, which overwhelms all other joys. On this plane, the joy of having and the intense pain of lacking come together. When a religious individual comes to appreciate Torah and service of God as the essence of life, these items rise to the same plane where he can enjoy their presence as a luxury and decry their absence as a necessity. 

During the second blessing preceding shema at night, we say, “And we will rejoice in the words of your Torah and in your mitzvot forever because they are our lives and the length of our days.” According to R. Hutner’s analysis, these words take on added resonance. Appreciating Torah and mitzvot as the essence of life generates a special joy in religious observance akin to the feeling of escaping the jaws of a dangerous river. 

The same idea plays a role in an important theological discussion regarding fear of punishment. Someone asked R. Hutner how the Rambam could count fear of divine punishment as a biblical commandment[9] and also say that fear of punishment is fit only for minors and the weak-minded.[10] R. Hutner’s answer distinguishes between two modes of dreading punishment. The first approach does not involve any concern about violating the divine word; it simply reflects a natural reaction to a potential threat. From this vantage point, someone who knew the punishment for a given sin might still choose to violate the sin and receive the punishment. Here, all we have are pragmatic and utilitarian considerations. 

The other mode views fear of punishment as a religious obligation in and of itself.  Someone who fulfills this mitzva could not make a pragmatic calculation to accept the punishment in exchange for the ability to sin; the whole point of this commandment is to fear God’s punishment and not make such a decision. Fear of punishment rooted in divine command is a deeper phenomenon than the natural fear of danger and is not restricted to minors and the mentally feeble. 

The Rambam writes, “We are commanded to believe in God and to fear Him and to not be like the heretics who walk in anarchy.”[11] Does a person serving God out of love and reverence but lacking fear of punishment resemble a heretic? R. Hutner uses the analysis from Shavuot no. 4 to elucidate this Rambam. As long as a person enjoys religious observance, the danger exists that he will relate to religion as one of the luxuries of life, since luxuries prove more enjoyable. The only way to clarify that religion reflects a necessity of life is having a strong sense of pain when observance is lacking. Most religious character traits, including love and reverence, focus on the joy and delight of fulfilling Torah and mitzvot. Fear of punishment, on the other hand, focuses exclusively on the danger in not successfully meeting religious demands. This character trait generates the “pain of loss,” which clarifies that our experience of Torah observance is a necessity.[12]


[1] Pachad Yitzchak, Chanuka, no. 6.

[2] Hilkhot Chanuka 4:12.

[3] Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, mitzvat aseh 3. 

[4] Pachad Yitzchak, Shavuot, no. 30.

[5] Pachad Yitzchak Iggerot U-Ketavim, no. 2.

[6] Pachad Yitzchak, Shavuot, no. 4.

[7] Ibid., p. 51.

[8] Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Rotze’ach 7:1.

[9] Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, mitzvat aseh 4.

[10] Hilkhot Teshuva 10:1.

[11] See note 9.

[12] Pachad Yitzchak, Yom Ha-Kippurim, no. 18.


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