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PILPUL (Heb. פִּלְפּוּל), a collective term denoting various methods of talmudic study and exposition, especially by the use of subtle legal, conceptual, and casuistic differentiation. The word is derived from pilpel ("pepper"), indicating that these methods were employed in talmudic disputations by the more sharp-witted among the scholars (cf. palpelan – TJ, Hor. 3:7, 48c; ba'al-pilpul – BB 145b). In the talmudic period the term pilpul was applied to the logical distinctions through which apparent contradictions and textual difficulties were straightened out by means of reasoning (sevarah), leading to a more penetrating understanding and conceptual analysis. This method was distinguished from a mere cursory knowledge of the texts (girsah) and the oral traditions and teachings of the scholars of the past. The masters of pilpul would advance arguments and opinions of their own, though always based on the authority of tradition, while those strictly adhering to the texts and their traditional exegesis would reject the ways of the pilpulists, whose daring originality would sometimes lead them astray from plain reason and truth (cf. Er. 90a). Scholars hotly debated the question as to whose merits for the dissemination and advancement of Torah study were greater: sinai, i.e., he who faithfully preserved the established texts and traditions, or oker harim, i.e., he who "uproots mountains" in his intellectual struggle for clarity and logical harmony (cf. Ber. 64a). Nevertheless, it was generally agreed that pilpul was of vital necessity for establishing hermeneutical links between the Oral and the Written Torah, thus keeping tradition from error and oblivion (cf. Kid. 66b; BM 85b; Zev. 13a; Tem. 16a). It was also valued as a didactic method to sharpen the intellect of students (Avot 6:6; Ber. 33b; Er. 13a). Members of the high court (Sanhedrin) were required to be masters of pilpul (cf. Sanh. 17a). Babylonian scholars were especially noted for their subtle ways of pilpul and their acrimonious disputations, contrasting with the moderation of the Palestinian schools (cf. Pes. 34b; BM 85a).

The talmudic pilpul was thus suited to meet three principal needs. The first was to safeguard the unity of the Oral and Written Torah and to harmonize between the apparently differing opinions of the sages. This was based on the religious principle that both parts of the Torah tradition flowed from one single divine revelation and that consequently what appeared to be contradictory, repetitive, or redundant appeared so only because of the intellectual limitations of the students. The second was to keep up the vitality and relevance of the Oral and Written Torah in its traditionally fixed form in the face of changing times and circumstances. Finally, it made Torah study a permanent challenge to the intellectual powers of masters and students and kept it safe from routine and perfunctoriness. Pilpul enabled the gifted student to bring new elements into Torah study, and these were themselves considered part of the divine revelation (cf. Ned. 38a; Meg. 19b; TJ, Pe'ah 2:6; 17a; for examples of talmudic pilpul see JE, vol. 10, p.40.).

The Babylonian scholars of the geonic period continuedto employ the methods of pilpul, though they were chiefly occupied with arranging, editing, and explaining the text of the Talmud, as did the early school of Ashkenazi commentators up to Rashi's generation. A new wave of pilpul rose in the tosafist schools of France and Germany, as well as in the Spanish schools of the 13th and 14th centuries. The same methods as had previously been applied in the Talmud, now served to harmonize apparently differing talmudic passages and opinions. This new vogue gave rise to adverse criticism among the Ashkenazi Ḥasidim who deplored the over-cleverness of sharp-witted scholars who substituted originality for truth and preferred the study of tosafot to that of the Talmud itself (cf. Sefer Ḥasidim ed. by J. Wistinetzki (19242), nos. 648, 1049, 1375, 1707, 1816, 1838).

The close of the tosafist era in the 14th century was followed by a short period during which scholars occupied themselves chiefly with the study and recording of the traditional laws and customs (minhagim) that had accumulated until then. However, the intrinsic dynamics of Torah study called for new intellectual challenges to be put to the restlessly searching minds of scholars and students. The traditional modes of study and disputation had become exhausted, and scholars strove to devise new modes in which they could distinguish themselves. In addition, yeshivah teachers became increasingly conscious of didactics and method in the education of rabbinical scholars. The prevailing spirit of humanism influenced scholars to seek intellectual independence while remaining faithful to the traditional sources. Thus the 15th and 16th centuries witnessed an unprecedented intensification of casuistic disputation. A clear distinction began to be made between lessons devoted to cursory study of the talmudic text and those given to intensive disputation. This was led by the head of the yeshivah and was of an essentially oral character, which accounts for the fact that very little of its content was recorded and preserved in manuscripts.

Some idea of the new modes of pilpul, which consisted mainly in the application of logical models and of increasingly sharper divisions and differentiations (ḥillukim), may be gained from treatises on talmudic methodology such as the Darkhei ha-Talmud by Isaac *Canpanton. Several new modes became known by the names of communities whose yeshivot specialized in them, e.g., Nuremberg and Regensburg. These methods are characterized by a penetrating inquiry into the minutest details of halakhic discussion as recorded in the Talmud. Each and every sentence is shown to convey some novel meaning of its own and no redundancy whatsoever is allowed. A problem set by one of the sages is not an indication of any doubt or ignorance but an attempt to test the knowledge and intelligence of his colleagues and students. Since all the sages are supposed to possess knowledge and intelligence of identical width and depth, the talmudic dialogue is shown to be an interplay of diverging attitudes and opinions rather than a series of questions and answers. Furthermore, the divergences are attributed to casuistic differentiations rather than to fundamental contradictions, and thus the basic unity and conformity of the spiritual world of the Talmud is preserved and safeguarded.

In the sphere of didactics diverse pilpulistic methods were innovated by which to heighten the students' powers of perception and imagination. Masters devised imaginary halakhic cases and problems and required their students to pass reasoned judgments. They also composed halakhic riddles, sometimes involving the most abstruse casuistry, which the students were required to solve. In the 16th and 17th centuries the ability to excel in pilpulistic disputation was the chief aim and mark of distinction of the yeshivah student. At a time when rabbinical learning had become widespread and rabbis as well as lay leaders were rivals for communal leadership, accomplished masters in the art of pilpul outshone less brilliant, if more conscientious, scholars and secured for themselves a paramount social status. In the spiritual sphere pilpul was reinforced by certain kabbalistic trends that glorified the contemplative, as against the pragmatic, attitude to study. The intuition of the scholars was seen as a form of divine inspiration. At the same time pilpul served a vital purpose in enabling rabbis to pass decisions on many new halakhic problems arising from the changing economic and political situation. Nevertheless, outstanding rabbis, such as *Judah Loew b. Bezalel (the Maharal), Isaiah *Horowitz, Ephraim *Luntschitz, and Jair Hayyim *Bacharach, severely criticized the universal "craze" for pilpul and ḥillukim. They had been preceded as early as the 15th century by the anonymous treatise on ethics known as Orḥot Ẓaddikim, which contained the first vigorous attack on the new ways of pilpul launched from within the circles of the Ashkenazi yeshivah. Though not opposed to pilpul as such, these rabbis resented the twisting of plain truth resulting out of the hairsplitting efforts of the most sharp-witted and argued that pilpul should serve the comprehension of the texts and not itself become an art. They also criticized the students' passion for personal honor and aggrandizement and questioned their authority to decide on halakhic matters, since their preoccupation with pilpul made them wholly dependent, in matters of religious practice, on the new codes such as R. Joseph Caro's Shulhan Arukh. Thus it is not surprising that the critics of pilpul often expressed concern about the publication of these codes. Criticism was much more lenient regarding the application of pilpul to the exposition of the Bible and homiletic literature, since this was considered irrelevant to a true understanding of halakhah. Consequently, popular preachers used to strain their imagination by adducing the most complicated talmudic passages and controversies in order to throw new light on a story from the Bible or the Midrash. When toward the end of the 18th century the methods of pilpul seemed to have been exhausted, new ways of Torah study were opened by the school of the Gaon of Vilna, Elijah b. Solomon Zalman.


Orḥot Ẓaddikim (Prague, 1581), ch. 27 (Sha'ar ha-Torah); J. Landau, Sefer ha-Ẓazon (appended to his Agur); Z. Margaliot, Ḥibburei Likkutim (Venice, 1715), preface; Alilot Devarim, in: Oẓar Neḥmad, 4 (1863), 177–214; A. Jellinek, in: Bikkurim, 1 (1864), 1–26; 2 (1865), 1–19; M. Reines, in: Keneset Yisrael, 3 (1888), 137–72; J.L. Fishman, Ha-Noten be-Yam Derekh (1903); H. Ehrentreu, in: JJLG, 3 (1905), 206–19; M. Tosfai, in: Ha-Shilo'ah, 19 (1908), 138–46, 248–58, 329–35; Assaf, Mekorot; N.S. Grinspan, Pilpula shel Torah (1935); idem, Melekhet Mahasḥevet (1955); Urbach, Tosafot; H.H. Ben-Sasson, Hagut ve-Hanhagah (1959), index S.V., L. Jacobs, Studies in Talmudic Logic and Methodology (1961); A.F. Kleinberger, Ha-Mahashavah ha-Pedagogit shel ha-Maharal mi-Prag (1962); M. Breuer, in: Sefer ha-Zikkaron le… ha-Rav Y.Y. Weinberg (1969).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.