Monday, August 1, 2016

Parsing Pilpul

In the world of academia, there is a constant pressure to “publish or perish,” which serves as motivation for scholars to look at their particular specialties in new and innovative ways. While there is no such imperative to publish among Torah scholars, there has always been a quest to look at every aspect of Jewish life and law from many different angles.

One of the best-known forms of traditional scholarship is called pilpul. It is defined (by Websters) as “penetrating investigation, disputation and drawing of conclusions, especially in Talmudic study” (Websters Revised Unabridged Dictionary, Published 1913 by C & G Merriam, Co.).

Pilpul is often used to reconcile different sources and view points in order to explain ideas that seem to contradict themselves within Jewish law and Jewish texts. These types of dialectics were reserved mostly for the highest level of Jewish scholarship. It is often considered a tool for those who are particularly sharp-witted. It is interesting to note that the word pilpul is connected to the Hebrew word pilpel, which refers to black pepper, hence sharp analysis.

Different generations and different communities have placed more or less emphasis on pilpul. The period of the Tosafists, scholars in France and Germany around the 14th century, is one era particularly noted for its use of pilpul. A century or two later, however, pilpul itself became the end, not the means, so that those engaged in pilpul were accused of improperly placing greater importance on the building of intricate arguments at the expense of the actual, essential points of law.

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