What Is Pilpul , And Why On Earth Should I Care About It?
By David Shasha
For those who have any concern with the Middle East conflict or with
Judaism, what you know — or do not know — about pilpul is something upon
which your well-being could depend. Ignorance of pilpul is a very
dangerous thing, something that would allow your interlocutor to have
the upper hand in ways that you could not begin to even imagine.
Pilpul is the Talmudic term used to describe a rhetorical process that
the Sages used to formulate their legal decisions. The word is used as a
verb: one engages in the process of pilpul in order to formulate a
legal point. It marks the process of understanding legal ideas, texts,
and interpretations. It is a catch-all term that in English is
translated as “Casuistry.”
In order to better understand the term
pilpul as it functions today, we must define the way in which that term
has been understood in the classical Sephardic tradition and how that
understanding has been transformed by the Ashkenazi tradition.
I was taught by my Rabbi Jose Faur, the Sephardic tradition, emerging
out of the Babylonian academies and finding its definitive form in the
many legal works of Moses Maimonides, held the Talmudic texts to be oral
literature. Using mnemonics, technical terms, and other rhetorical
devices to aid memorization and transmission, Sephardim understood the
Talmud to be a colloquy of discussions that were drawn from the
proceedings of the great rabbinical Academies of Babylonia. The
Babylonian Talmud became the basis upon which the Jewish law would be
This was a process grounded, as it was in the Muslim
Hadith and Shari’a, in tradition and the chain of transmission. Laws
were transmitted in the name of rabbinical authorities. It was this
chain of tradition, known to Muslims by the Arabic term Isnad, that drew
clear lines between the formal authority of what has been passed down
to us and the process of codifying these laws. The ultimate purpose of
the legal process was to elevate the Law above personal and political
concerns so that members of the community would be completely equal and
not live at the whim of arbitrary judges.
In order to maintain
the distinction between the Written Torah — the Hebrew Bible — and the
Oral Law, the Talmudic Sages conceived of the idea of pilpul as a means
to join each Law to its Biblical prooftext. Rabbis would debate what in
legal terms would be the formal “title” of each law. Differences would
arise regarding these legal titles that a court must use in a criminal
The Talmudic formalism of Maimonides in his encyclopedic
legal compendium, the Mishneh Torah, was strongly contested by the
Ashkenazi rabbis of France and Germany. In the Mishneh Torah Maimonides
famously eliminated the rhetorical discussions of the Talmud and simply
presented the final ruling — a process that replicated the methodology
of Rabbi Isaac Alfasi, Maimonides’ precursor in Lucena.
Ashkenazi rabbis saw pilpul as a substantive debate over the content of
the Law rather than as a simple rhetorical matter. Their understanding
of Talmudic pilpul took the form of a radical reinterpretation of the
The scholar Haym Soloveitchik discusses this matter in his 1987 article “Religious Change: The Medieval Ashkenazic Example”:
Many have inferred, and reasonably so, that the Tosafists were not only
scholars but communal leaders ... like all true leaders they molded the
law to fit the needs of their people ... What legitimized, in the eyes
of the Tosafists, this radical reinterpretation?
is actually a misleading term. More accurately one should ask what led
them to read the Talmud, to perceive the Talmud, in a fashion which
could be construed as a justification of the status quo.
In this discussion we have the key that will unlock much of the content of contemporary Jewish discourse.
As Soloveitchik states, the Ashkenazi rabbis were less concerned with
promulgating the Law transmitted in the Talmud than they were with
molding it to suit their own needs. Pilpul was a means to justify
practices already fixed in the behaviors of the community by re-reading
the Talmud to justify those practices.
There were two ways in which the Ashkenazi rabbis effected this radical reinterpretation of the Talmud:
In Rashi’s Talmud commentary — a required text in every Jewish school
in the world — he uses the Aramaic term Hakhi Garsinan, meaning, “This
is how the text is to be read.” Whenever this term is used, it indicates
that Rashi has amended the text. His emendations were necessitated by
the need to bring actual practice in line with the text.
emendations are not a theoretical proposition; the actual editions of
the Talmud that we use today reflect the changes. The text of the Talmud
was forever remade according to the dictates of Rashi and his school.
As if this was not enough, the Tosafists instituted one more pilpul
principle into Talmudic discourse. This was called the Lav Davqa method.
In English we might call it the “Not Quite” way of reading a text. When
a text appeared to be saying one thing, the Tosafot — in order to
conform to the already-existing custom — would re-interpret it by saying
that what it seemed to mean is not what it really meant!
absolute contrast to the Ashkenazi method, the Sephardic tradition,
grounded in textual reality and scientific principles, carefully parsed
every term in the Talmud; a concern that often led the most prominent
scholars to look for the most accurate version of the Talmudic text.
Rashi’s method of emendation and the Tosafist reading based on the Lav
Davqa method completely transformed Judaism; the Ashkenazi tradition was
the one that ultimately triumphed.
What this means for
contemporary Jewish discourse is critical: Even though many contemporary
Jews are not observant, pilpul continues to be deployed. Pilpul occurs
any time the speaker is committed to “prove” his point regardless of the
evidence in front of him. The casuistic aspect of this hair-splitting
leads to a labyrinthine form of argument where the speaker blows enough
rhetorical smoke to make his interlocutor submit. Reason is not an issue
when pilpul takes over: what counts is the establishment of a fixed,
immutable point that can never truly be disputed.
context, the Law is not primary; it is the status of the jurist. Justice
is extra-legal, thus denying social equality under the rubric of a
horizontal system. Law is in the hands of the privileged rather than the
What is thought to be the Jewish “genius” is often a mark
of how pilpul is deployed. The rhetorical tricks of pilpul make true
rational discussion impossible; any “discussion” is about trying to
“prove” a point that has already been established. There is little use
trying to argue in this context, because any points being made will be
twisted and turned to validate the already-fixed position.
Pilpul is the rhetorical means to mark as “true” that which cannot ever be disputed by rational means.
The contentiousness of the Middle East conflict is intimately informed
by pilpul. Whether it is Alan Dershowitz or Noam Chomsky, both of them
Ashkenazim who had traditional Jewish educations, the terms of the
debate are consistently framed by pilpul. What is most unfortunate about
pilpul — and this is something that will be familiar to anyone who has
followed the controversies involving Israel and Palestine — is that,
since the rational has been removed from the process, all that is left
is yelling, irrational emotionalism, and, ultimately, the threat of
It is this agitation that continues to mar a political
process that has long abandoned the rational understanding of the issues
involved in its construction.
Director, Center for Sephardic Heritage