Young men posing studying the Talmud for a studio portrait, Złoczew, Poland (Yid., Zlotshev; now Zolochiv, Ukr.), 1930s. (YIVO)

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Talmud Study

The Talmud was a central focus of the education of males from the beginning of Jewish settlement in Europe. Boys generally began studying Talmud somewhere between the ages of 8 and 10 (occasionally earlier), after completing an elementary course in the study of the Torah, generally lasting three years. While most students completed their studies around the age of 14, the most promising students, if they had sufficient financial wherewithal, would go on to study in a yeshiva, sometimes for an extended period. As Jews began to move east in large numbers (starting at the end of the fifteenth century and extending into the early sixteenth), they brought with them the same commitment to the study of the Talmud; it was the central focus of all educational efforts, from the most elementary to the most advanced.

How Talmud was studied in Eastern Europe depended to a considerable degree on where—that is, at what level—it was studied. As one would expect, methods in the elementary school differed significantly from those implemented in the yeshiva. Our information regarding ways in which Talmud was approached in the elementary school, or heder, is drawn from limited sources, such as ideal curricular statements (among them the minutes from 1551 of the society for Talmud Torah in Kraków), critics of the Jewish schooling system throughout the generations, and the memoirs of often disaffected adults, mostly dating from the nineteenth century.

Despite these limited and to varying degrees problematic sources, the following generalizations seem justified. Students of Talmud in heder were generally divided into three groups. The first was the beginner’s group, and they generally were exposed to what were considered the basics of the text; the second group consisted of those who also studied the commentary of Rashi; and the third group also studied the Tosafot. Generally, students began with material drawn from the order of Nezikin and would then move on to the order of Mo‘ed. (The guiding principle was clearly something other than developmental sequencing, as the material from Nezikin is not noticeably easier than that of Mo‘ed.) One memoirist explained that the studies of the third group were arranged in weekly units. At the beginning of the week, the teacher outlined the portion of the Talmud to be studied. The students would complete much of the reviewing by themselves, and at the end of the week would present aloud what they had learned. It would seem that in heder the primary concern was a basic mastery of the Talmudic text and its most important commentators.

As with so much else pertaining to religious life in Eastern Europe, the roots of Talmud study are found in German lands. Throughout the High Middle Ages, the Tosafist schools dominated the world of Talmud study in yeshivas, where Talmud was studied far more intensively than in heder, and mostly by the intellectual elites. The goal, noted frequently in the literature, of such study was “to resolve the matter under discussion according to halakhah”—and, indeed, determining the halakhah was a central concern of such learning. But because the Tosafists and their followers demanded a consistent halakhah, they often needed to introduce very fine distinctions into the Talmudic text. If two sources stood in apparent conflict, one of them might be identified as lav davka—that is, in some sense imprecise or nonspecific. Or one might be identified as an exception to a general rule; the need for such an exception would then be identified. Many additional techniques involving similar distinctions could be enumerated. What is critical is that even in the Tosafist period, ostensibly devoted to determining the halakhah, bringing discordant opinions into agreement led to a method of learning in which the actual wording and most apparent meaning of the text often took a back seat to other considerations. This, in turn, led to methods of Talmud study in which the focus of the learning moved away from elucidating the text and toward using the text as a stepping stone for theoretical questions of various kinds, some designed primarily as intellectual exercises intended to sharpen the minds of the students.

In particular, at the end of the fifteenth century in a number of Bavarian towns, new methods of study that came to be known as pilpul emerged. While the term is found in the Talmud itself, denoting incisive argument, the new methods went beyond the types of incisive argument found in the Talmud to an entirely new way of analyzing and thinking about the Talmud. (These methods will be described in their Polish guises below.) In truth, pilpul came to refer to two related but ultimately distinct phenomena: pilpul as a method underlying Talmudic commentary, and pilpul as a focus of Talmudic instruction in yeshivas. Both make use of new, and overlapping, methods, but instruction in the yeshivas was the less disciplined and perhaps more controversial form of pilpul, as it frequently displaced more conventional methods of studying Talmud. Published commentaries utilizing pilpul, while eliciting criticism to be sure, could be studied or ignored as one saw fit; they could not claim a captive audience in the way that curricular pilpul could.

Pilpul in Eastern Europe

As a rabbinic elite took root in Poland in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, concern for practical halakhah, while never entirely absent, receded into a background concern for the professional teachers and students of Talmud in the yeshivas. It would recede still further as a focus of the yeshiva curriculum after the publication—and frequent reprinting with ever more commentaries—of the Shulḥan ‘arukh together with the glosses of Mosheh Isserles. In its stead, the curriculum of the yeshiva increasingly focused on the cultivation of the techniques pioneered in Germany in the fifteenth century (and even earlier in Spain) and ultimately perfected in Poland in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries. These techniques were generally called ḥiluk (from the root for separating or distinguishing; the word sometimes appears in the plural, ḥilukim) or pilpul. The published ḥidushim (novellae) of the rabbinic elite of that period likewise reflect a powerful attraction to the world of ḥiluk and pilpul. But pilpul, both as the focus of the yeshiva curriculum and as the basis for published works of novellae, had powerful critics.

The methods of pilpul and ḥiluk were introduced into Poland by Ya‘akov ben Yosef Pollak (ca. 1460–after 1532), the first notable Polish halakhic authority, who studied in Regensburg (in Bavaria) and, after serving as a rabbi in Prague, moved to Kraków, where he opened the first yeshiva in Poland. He was followed by his disciple Shalom Shakhnah ben Yosef (ca. 1495–1558), who founded a yeshiva in Lublin. From this beginning in these two great centers of Jewish learning the methods spread, with variations, all over Eastern Europe.

The characteristics of pilpul were described by one of its practitioners, Zelig Margolies (Prague, late seventeenth century), as follows:

We, five people in all, were intensely studying together. . . . We said, let us walk on the path of study of the great rabbi . . . Ya‘akov, the rabbi of the holy congregation of Lublin, as his father received it from the great Rabbi Shelomoh Luria . . . and this was our course of study: To study the Talmudic passage first, and then the commentaries of Rashi and the Tosafot with great vigor. And we never raised difficulties from other parts of the Talmud; rather all [our efforts to generate] novel interpretations drew from the halakhah under discussion, but [we resolved] never to raise difficulties or challenge what was said on this spot in order to build elsewhere [i.e., the intent was never to illuminate another part of the Talmud based on what was said about the passage in question] . . . and even never to raise difficulties in this very chapter of the Talmud from this halakhah until we had learned it in all its details.

From this description, we learn three important things. The first is the centrality of studying together, or in ḥevruta (with [usually] one colleague or [sometimes] more); while this practice did not originate with the embrace of pilpul in European yeshivas, it became de rigueur there. Second, this method of learning rests on an independent approach to the text. One first struggled to understand the text without recourse to the standard commentaries of Rashi and Tosafot, and these were the only commentaries that were consulted. Third, pilpul limited itself to the passage or sugyah (referred to as halakhah in the cited passage) under discussion, with no concern for any other part of the Talmud.

The point of this independent approach was to produce novel interpretations that went beyond that which was offered by Rashi and the Tosafot. But given that one could not draw on any data other than that provided by the sugyah under discussion, one had to analyze, and perhaps overanalyze, every detail and linguistic feature in the passage, sometimes calling attention to what was allegedly missing or out of sequence—or (seemingly) superfluous. Thus, one might ask why a particular phrase was included, when the passage worked well without it. Or one might ask, regarding the apparent prolixity of a passage, why the speaker did not express himself more briefly. The response might be that a more abbreviated form of expression could have led to a misunderstanding (which is identified), thus demonstrating that not only was the thought essential, but its specific formulation was as well. Overall, the method of pilpul was analytical in the literal sense, involving breaking down the passage into ever smaller units and, furthermore, treating them all as equally worthy of attention and comment. While at times this resulted in brilliant insights into the Talmudic text, it often led to forced interpretations that rested on imagined textual problems or peculiarities.

The method of ḥiluk, by contrast, was built on a series of “pilpulistic” inquiries. That is, an exercise in identifying a difficulty and resolving it was called pilpul; a series of such difficulties and resolutions that together delved deeply into a Talmudic passage and presented a novel picture of the passage as a whole was called ḥiluk.Pilpulim could be, and often were, generated by students in the yeshiva, whereas a ḥiluk would (with exceptions) be offered by the head of the yeshiva. This is well described by Natan Note Hannover in his elegy for Polish Jewry after the Khmel’nyts’kyi uprising (gzeyres takh vetat), Yeven metsulah (1653):

This was the order of study in Poland: Each day they learned a halakhah; that is, one page of Gemara with the commentary of Rashi and the Tosafot was called a halakhah. All the sages and students would go to the yeshiva . . . and develop pilpulim one with another until the rosh yeshivah arrived. Everyone would present the difficulties they had discerned in the halakhah, and he would respond to each one. After that, they all fell silent, and the rosh yeshivah would offer his novel insights. After he offered . . . his . . . insights the rosh yeshivah offered a ḥiluk, in which he raised difficult questions regarding . . . [the presence or absence of] abbreviated formulations, or contradictions [between] the Gemara, Rashi, and the Tosafot, and resolve them. But the resolutions also contradicted one another, and thus he would offer a second resolution to a difficulty . . . until the halakhah stood in its clarity.   (Israel Halpern, ed., 1944/45, pp. 83–84)

This account from the 1650s is echoed in that by Shemu’el Landau some 150 years later. From these descriptions, and the (relatively few) published collections of novellae rooted in the pilpul–ḥiluk methods, it emerges that the ḥiluk is essentially a synthesis of multiple insights into a passage—many first developed through the analytical tools of pilpul—into a coherent picture of the passage in its entirety. Even more than via pilpul, it was through ḥiluk that a mature scholar could display ingenuity. But as with pilpul, ḥiluk focused completely on the passage at hand (supplemented by Rashi and the Tosafot), without recourse to any other material from the massive library of rabbinic literature. And as with pilpul, that often led to forced interpretations of passages that seemed to flout the norms of language and syntax.

While presenting and developing ḥilukim was primarily the responsibility of the rosh yeshivah, it also became part of the training of the students. As Hannover writes, “and several weeks before the 15th of [the month of] Av or the 15th of Shevat, the rosh yeshivah would honor his students individually, allowing them to offer ḥilukim in the yeshiva in his stead . . . so as to sharpen [the minds of] the students. . . .”

As part of the process of training students to develop their own pilpulim or ḥilukim, the heads of the yeshiva would sometimes develop entirely imaginary cases and problems or halakhic riddles of one kind or another; these required the most painstaking forms of casuistry to resolve. Students who could demonstrate distinction in these exercises would be considered among the best students.

Opposition to Pilpul

As forms of Talmud study, pilpul and ḥiluk were different from what preceded them, and as might be expected, they generated considerable opposition. Some of the opposition was to the methods themselves (though opponents tended to refer to both the analytic and synthetic approaches described above as pilpul), and some to the considerable amount of time devoted to them. The leading early proponent of the second criticism was Shelomoh Luria of Lublin (ca. 1510–1573); his criticism would be reiterated throughout the generations. Luria and those who followed him criticized not only the amount of time devoted to pilpul, but also the fact that the head of the yeshiva no longer regarded it as necessary to impart basic skills; rather, teaching the basics of the text, if it was done at all, was done by the students themselves, without the guidance of the leading scholar of the yeshiva—who saw his role as, and achieved his reputation by, putting together intricate ḥilukim that emphasized what Luria considered the “unnecessary” over the “necessary.”

With respect to the amount of time devoted to pilpul in the yeshiva, Hannover relates that throughout the summer students were not devoting an occasional hour to such study, but instead were engaged in pilpul until well into the afternoon. Thus, Luria’s objection—but the objection was not to pilpul per se. It had its place, so long as it was undertaken by the right people (i.e., those who had already mastered the basics of the texts) for the right amount of time. Still, Luria’s was a powerful voice calling for a return to greater focus on the actual text of the Talmud and the traditional commentaries—all in their larger contexts, with the goal of understanding the text and the halakhah clearly.

A much more fundamental objection to pilpul emerged from the circle of disciples around Yehudah Leib ben Betsal’el of Prague (known as Maharal)—including such well-known figures as Efrayim Shelomoh ben Aharon of Luntshits and Yesha‘yahu Horowitz—and from other rabbinic figures as well. They saw in pilpul the culmination of a larger process that had produced educational shortcomings in the Ashkenazic Jewish community; pilpul, they argued, represented an abandonment of all proper method in the study of Talmud. To these critics, pilpul contrasted with derekh ha-yashar, “the straight path” in study, which they believed yielded a proper understanding of the text. They had no patience for the notion that the path of pilpul, despite deflecting the mind from the truth, was acceptable as a means of sharpening the minds of students. The appeal of such sharpening exercises was too great; virtually everywhere in Poland and beyond the exercises came to be the central focus of the curriculum, while proper learning—presumably what one was sharpening the mind for—became secondary, if not altogether derogated. Thus, for these critics the only hope was to eradicate the presence of pilpul altogether.

Eradicating pilpul from all aspects of Talmud study was impossible, however, if only because it was ultimately impossible to define pilpul as it became manifest in the published works of the scholars of the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries. One person’s pilpul (in the critical, negative sense) was another person’s brilliant set of insights. Easier to define was the pilpul of the yeshiva, described above, which was easily distinguished from other curricular focuses, as it was always devoted to a single passage; always raised a series of analytical questions, generated mostly through study in ḥevruta; and always sought to achieve a synthetic resolution to all the problems of the text, generally through the efforts of the rosh yeshivah. But while easily enough identified, this form of instruction generated much enthusiasm among students, and it would resist most efforts to eradicate it.

Those who might be called pilpulists—some of whom actually embraced the title—continued to achieve prominence right through the eighteenth and into the nineteenth centuries. Most famous of the pilpulists of this period was Yeḥezkel Landau (1713–1793), who became rabbi of Prague and Bohemia in 1754. His Talmud commentary, Tsiyun le-nefesh ḥayah, provides an excellent window into the world of Polish pilpul in the eighteenth century.

Despite the continued success of the pilpul method, during the eighteenth century competing models of Talmud study emerged that enjoyed greater success than in earlier times. From the middle of the century on, many medieval commentaries—especially the Ḥidushim of Naḥmanides—began to be published in Europe, for the first time since the sixteenth century. Students of Talmud needed to take these works into account; even as Naḥmanides’ novellae were modeled on the methods of the Tosafists, he brought his own distinct synthetic skills to the elucidation of the Talmud, and the impact of his work was felt throughout Europe. Furthermore, one can discern among some of the elite scholars of Europe a marked increase in interest in the Talmud Yerushalmi, and in other largely neglected works, such as the so-called midreshe halakhah and the Tosefta’. This could not help but stimulate interest in understanding the Babylonian Talmud in new ways.

Most prominent in calling for—and reportedly implementing—new methods in Talmud study was Eliyahu ben Shelomoh Zalman (1720–1797), known as the Gaon of Vilna. The Gaon followed earlier critics of Polish Talmudic scholarship in calling for a more systematic approach to Jewish learning, beginning with the study of Bible and grammar, moving on to the study of the Mishnah and other early texts, and only then embarking on study of the two Talmuds, with special attention devoted to establishing correct texts. For the Gaon, the goal of Talmud study was always both local—to establish the best possible text and to understand the passage under discussion as fully as possible—and global: to see the passage as part of the larger document in which it was embedded, and perhaps even more, to see how it fit into the seamless world of oral Torah in its entirety. Such an approach could never be satisfied with the wholly local approach of the pilpulists, nor could it accept the limited range of texts (parts of the orders of Nezikin and Nashim in the Babylonian Talmud) that made up the standard curriculum of Polish yeshivas (and of most yeshivas throughout the Jewish world since early medieval times).

Also critical in transforming Talmud study in the eighteenth century was Aryeh Leib Gintsburg (1695/96–1785) of Minsk, Volozhin, and, later, Metz. Although in his yeshiva he frequently engaged in pilpul with the students, when he came to write his classic work, Sha’agat Aryeh, he explained that he did not include any of his pilpulim because “it is all vanity and of evil spirit.” In his published work, he embraced a more global method of studying Talmud, in which it was deemed unacceptable to try to understand any given passage without recourse to all relevant material, wherever it was to be found.

Talmud Study after 1800

New methods of Talmud study would be pioneered, and the most significant challenge to classical pilpul would see the light of day, in the new kinds of yeshivas that emerged in greater Lithuania throughout the nineteenth century. Starting with Yeshiva ‘Ets Ḥayim in Volozhin, which opened its doors in 1803, the Talmud would come to be studied more systematically, and with greater concern for its straightforward meaning. Gone were the exercises in mind sharpening; gone were the efforts to generate theoretical problems and riddles; and gone were the attempts to explain every rhetorical peculiarity of a commentator, an exercise that emerged as a by-product of the pilpul method (e.g., the attempt to impose a single interpretive purpose on all the appearances of the word kelomar [“that is to say”] in Rashi). Instead, the founder of the yeshiva, Ḥayim of Volozhin (1749–1821), followed in the footsteps of the Gaon of Vilna in insisting that “straightforward understanding” of the passage was the primary, preliminary goal of study—even if this meant disagreeing with classical commentaries or with the Shulḥan ‘arukh.

Devising a forced interpretation that would dissolve the disagreement was seen as intellectually dishonest; disagreement with earlier commentators was not resisted in Volozhin (in marked contrast to the approach that prevailed in the Hungarian yeshivas of the same period, where the earlier authorities, and especially the Shulḥan ‘arukh, were granted a near-sacred status). From this “straightforward understanding” one could go on to generate novel interpretations of passages by drawing on one’s own mind and on other parts of the Talmud; disagreement within the Talmud itself was resisted wherever possible. Thus, if a “straightforward” interpretation of a given passage contradicted another passage, one of them would require either emendation (a common enough technique of the Gaon) or a less straightforward interpretation. Talmud study in Volozhin was also distinct from what came before in that in Volozhin all parts of the Talmud—not just Nezikin and Nashim—were studied, starting with the first tractate and ending with the last. In this practice, the yeshiva gave voice to the ideology that all Torah was equally worthy of study, and that focusing only on those parts that had some practical significance was an affront to the religious significance of study.

The full effect of the Gaon of Vilna’s revolutionary approach was realized in the work of the fourth head of the yeshiva in Volozhin, Naftali Tsevi Yehudah Berlin (Netsiv; 1816–1893), who assumed the reins of leadership in 1853 and remained head of the yeshiva until its close in 1892. Though Berlin’s teaching in the yeshiva showed little innovation, and his commentary on the Babylonian Talmud is undistinguished, his writings on other texts in the rabbinic corpus set a new standard in the study of rabbinic literature in Eastern Europe. He focused on many of the neglected texts of the rabbinic and Gaonic corpus, composing important commentaries on the midreshe halakhah and on what is usually considered the first post-Talmudic text, the She’iltot of Aḥai Gaon; he also focused in an unprecedented way on the work of the geonim of Babylonia (8th to 11th centuries). Berlin realized that these texts contained many clues useful in determining the correct text of the Babylonian Talmud, and also yielded important halakhic data as well as new ways of understanding rabbinic literature.

Unlike the handful of others who had dealt with these texts, including the Gaon of Vilna, Berlin did not automatically adopt a harmonizing hermeneutic, which sought to resolve any problems these texts might present to established readings and norms. Rather, he came to emphasize the legitimacy of different paths in the understanding of Torah, especially pointing up the distinction between the centers of rabbinic Judaism in Babylonia and Palestine. Many of the leading lights from among the rabbinic elite in Lithuania followed him in his concern for the entire corpus of rabbinic literature, with a number of commentaries emerging on the Talmud Yerushalmi, the Tosefta’, and the midreshe halakhah. Although many returned to the harmonizing methods of old, some followed Berlin’s bold efforts to let the different voices of the rabbinic corpus speak without interpreting or emending them out of existence.

Other individuals among the rabbinic elite of Lithuania, Hungary, Galicia, and Posen (Poznań) developed new techniques of Talmudic scholarship, but as was Berlin they tended to be idiosyncratic, with each making limited inroads into the broader world of Talmudic learning and the curricula of the yeshivas. Interest in the Yerushalmi and other texts was cultivated by elite scholars outside the boundaries of the curriculum, but would never become a focus of formal yeshiva study. Thus, throughout most of the nineteenth century there was no dominant paradigm or method, as there had been in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries. This would change at the end of the nineteenth century with the emergence of the Brisker derekh—the path of Ḥayim Soloveichik (1853–1918) of Brisk (Brest Litovsk)—and its numerous permutations, as Soloveichik’s new methods quickly came to dominate Talmud study in the yeshivas of Lithuania and Belorussia.

There have been attempts to associate Soloveichik’s methods with a Jewish counter-Enlightenment, but these are unconvincing. His methods are better understood as an adaptation and more direct application to Talmud study of the methods of halakhic analysis (previously only indirectly applied to the Talmud) pioneered by the Galician scholars Aryeh Leib Heller (1745–1813), author of Ketsot ha-ḥoshen; Ya‘akov ben Ya‘akov Mosheh Lorbeerbaum of Lissa (1770–1832), author of Netivot ha-mishpat; and Yosef ben Mosheh Babad (1801–1874), author of Minḥat ḥinukh. (The first two works are commentaries on the Shulḥan ‘arukh; the last is ostensibly a commentary on the medieval classic Sefer ha-ḥinukh.)

The Brisker method begins with a (merely rhetorical) rejection of the notion of originality: that is, in contradistinction to virtually all approaches to Talmud study over the generations, which saw generating novel interpretations as a primary goal, the Brisker method purports to merely illuminate what is there in the text. In reality, of course, the method was highly original. Still, the rhetorical rejection of originality was crucial, as according to the Brisker school, disagreement with the rishonim (early commentators) was totally unacceptable, and this had an enormous impact on the method of study. The Brisker school believed that it had been the job of the rishonim to understand the Talmud; the task of the nineteenth century, as Soloveichik identified it, was to understand the rishonim (especially Maimonides). The purpose of Talmud study, then, was not to adjudicate disputes among early authorities, or even to understand the rishonim per se; rather, the goal was to try to understand how each understood the relevant Talmudic passage(s), and to demonstrate the inherent rationality of each position, even when some of these positions were in seeming conflict. In the end, both the Talmudic passage and the understanding(s) of that passage on the part of the rishonim would be illuminated.

In its attempt to illuminate the Talmud and the early commentators, Soloveichik’s method is characterized by the frequent application of the idea of shene dinim—literally, two laws. This refers to Soloveichik’s predilection for identifying conceptual contrasts located within Talmudic discussions, and applying them to resolve apparent inconsistencies. Soloveichik would distinguish between subject and object, between action and being acted upon, and, most famously if infrequently used, between ḥeftsa’ and gavra’, person and thing. By drawing attention to these contrasts, he and his followers could show that aspects of the laws that might appear to be inconsistently applied are in fact properly applied, as elements assumed to be comparable are shown to be disparate. Thus, because one law applies to a person and the other, to which the former is being compared, applies to a thing (for example, a ritual object), there can be no basis for analogy, and different legal results follow quite naturally.

Although there is some overlap with the earlier methods of pilpul, the Brisker method rests on very different foundations. Whereas the practitioners of classical pilpul were interested in each line of a Talmudic passage, the practitioners of the Brisker method focused almost entirely on the halakhic conclusions of the passage, and showed little interest in the argumentation that produced those conclusions. Halakhic conclusions that stood in apparent tension with one another were grist for the mill of the Brisker method. Hence, the focus on the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides, a work of near-total apodictic statements of law that could readily serve as points of departure for a Brisker investigation.

At the heart of the Brisker method is the ḥakirah, or investigation. A ḥakirah is an investigation into whether one can draw appropriate conceptual distinctions between the objects of analysis. Frequently drawn distinctions, beyond those noted above, are between positive and negative (applied to the legal status of an action), cause and effect, de facto and de jure, essential and accidental, general and particular, actual and potential, and intrinsic and derivative (involving whether its legal status is intrinsic to a thing, or derives from its—sometimes alleged—similarity to something else). All of these pairs feature prominently in the work of the Brisker school; applying these distinctions to Talmudic passages and/or the discussions of the rishonim, especially Maimonides, became the stock in trade of this school of Talmudic analysis.

A relatively simply example may be found in the Ḥidushe Rabenu Ḥayim ha-Levi ‘al ha-Rambam of Ḥayim Soloveichik. He begins by citing passages from Maimonides’ code Hilkhot tefilah 4:1 and 4:15, which combine to state that all prayer that is not accompanied by kavanat ha-lev—proper devotion—is not prayer. Accordingly, if one prayed without such devotion, one must repeat the prayer. Soloveichik understands this to mean that if one did not sustain a proper devotional state throughout the prayer, one has not fulfilled the obligation to pray. But at 10:1, Maimonides, while reiterating that devotion is necessary for prayer, adds that if one recited the first blessing (of the eighteen-blessing “silent prayer”) with devotion (that is, even if one did not sustain that state of devotion throughout the rest of the blessings), one need not go back and repeat the prayer.

While one might use 10:1 to demonstrate that 4:15 does not demand proper devotion throughout the prayer, Soloveichik goes in a different direction, insisting that there are two kinds of kavanah or devotion to prayer: one involving focusing on the words and their meaning, while the other requires that one be ever-conscious of standing before God. The latter form of kavanah constitutes the very essence of prayer, and without maintaining it throughout one cannot be said to have prayed at all. Hence the demand for repetition if one does not sustain (this kind of) kavanah. The former kind of kavanah, by contrast, does not get to the essence of prayer, but involves a requirement, of focusing on the words of prayer, that might reasonably be limited to only part of the service. Soloveichik then goes on to locate this distinction in the Talmud, and to show that a difference in Maimonides’ formulation of the two laws supports the introduction of this distinction to resolve what would otherwise be a contradiction. Even finer analyses follow in support of this claim.

In general, the Brisker method is characterized by an emphasis on ḥarifut or penetrating sharpness of mind, which is far more highly valued than beki’ut or comprehensive expertise. No doubt part of the success of the Brisker school is rooted in this fact. To study as Naftali Berlin did required many years of laborious examination of multiple texts; to study as Soloveichik did required conceptual brilliance. If one had it, the method could be mastered in a relatively short period of time. This is not to suggest that Soloveichik himself did not possess comprehensive expertise; but one of the attractions for students is that one did not need it.

Whatever the explanation, it is undeniable that the methods pioneered by Soloveichik quickly came to dominate the landscape of Talmud study in Eastern Europe, and continued to do so until the demise of the yeshivas under either Soviet or Nazi oppression. Led by such luminaries as Yitsḥak Ya‘akov Rabinovich of Ponevezh (1854–1919); Shim‘on Yehudah Shkop of Telz (and elsewhere; 1860–1939); Barukh Ber Leibowitz of Slobodka (1866–1939); and Elḥanan Wasserman of Baranovitsh (Baranowicz; 1875–1941), the Brisker method in one form or another took root in most of the major yeshivas of Lithuania–Belarus despite the opposition of such prominent figures as Avraham Yesha‘yahu Karelits (Ḥazon Ish; 1878–1953). This dominance extends to contemporary times, as the Brisker method or one of its offshoots prevails at most of the yeshivas in the United States, England, and Israel that are modeled on those of Eastern Europe.

Suggested Reading

Yosef Blau, ed., The Conceptual Approach to Jewish Learning (Jersey City, N.J., 2005); Ḥayim Zalman Dimitrovsky, “‘Al derekh ha-pilpul,” in Sefer ha-yovel li-khevod Shalom Ba’ron, pp. 111–182 (Jerusalem, 1975); Emanuel Gamoran, Changing Conceptions in Jewish Education (1924; rpt., New York, 1975); Elḥanan Rainer, “Temurot bi-yeshivot Polin ve-Ashkenaz be-me’ot ha-16–17 veha-vikuaḥ ‘al ha-pilpul,” in Ke-minhag Ashkenaz u-Polin, pp. 9–80 (Jerusalem, 1993); Norman Solomon, The Analytic Movement: Hayyim Soloveitchik and His Circle (Atlanta, 1993); Shaul Stampfer, Ha-Yeshivah ha-lita’it be-hithavutah (Jerusalem, 1995).