• What is the Pilpul methodology? (Examples demonstrating application of this methodology would be appreciated.)
  • Who utilizes this methodology? (Which yeshivot learn this way?)
  • Where did this methodology originate? (Who started it?)

2 Answers 2


Pilpul is not so much a method of learning as it is a method of applying one's learning. It is thought to have started with R' Yaakov Pollak in the 15-16th century, and involves the linking together of disparate texts on the basis of lexical and thematic similarities. It has its detractors, but chiefly because it has been taken to illogical extremes by those who would use it to demonstrate their learning, rather than to apply it.

Its most frequent application is in the realm of drash. Rabbonim who have employed it include R' Yonasan Eybeschütz and the Beis haLevi, among others. The extent to which it can be employed in the development of halakha lema'aseh has long been the subject of some controversy. In fact, R' Mordekhai Yoffe (the Levush) writes in his introduction that he had once subscribed to this method but that he now rejects it wholeheartedly. Other famous opponents to pilpul include the Maharal of Prague, the Vilna Gaon and the Netziv.

Sources for the above:

Menachem Elon, Jewish Law: History, Sources, Principles (4 vols; trans. Bernard Auerbach and Melvin Sykes; JPS, 1994), III:1345ff;

Gil S. Perl, The Pillar of Volozhin: Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin and the World of Nineteenth-Century Lithuanian Torah Scholarship (Academic Studies Press, 2012);

Allan Nadler, The Faith of the Mithnagdim: Rabbinic Responses to Hasidic Rapture (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 127ff;

Shaul Stampfer, Lithuanian Yeshivas of the Nineteenth Century: Creating a Tradition of Learning (trans. Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz; Littman Library of Jewish Learning, 2012), 44-45 and 106-107.

For further reading, see also:

Erica S. Brown, "Orthodoxy and the Search for Spirituality in Jewish Adult Education", Jewish Spirituality and Divine Law (ed. Adam Mintz and Lawrence Schiffman; Yeshiva University Press, 2005), 271-295 (288 n32).

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    It really isn't so simple- the term pilpul is used in the Talmud already (Berachot 33b 64a Kiddusin 66b Bava Metsia 85b Zevachim 13a, Sanhedrin 17a) and discussed by Orhot Tzaddikim in Shaar HaTorah (27). More pointed sources than the ones given: N.S. Grinspan, Pilpula shel Torah (1935); H.H. Ben-Sasson, Hagut ve-Hanhagah (1959); Louis Jacobs, "Studies in Talmudic Logic and Methodology" (1961); Mordechai Breuer in ספר זכרון לרב יחיאל יעקב ווינברג; Yehudah (Leo) Levy's "Torah Study", ch. 3, and just about any book that discusses 19th and 20th century rabbis... Commented May 19, 2014 at 2:44
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    And the positions of particular rabbis is very hard to determine, precisely because they use the terms differenly. Shelah, for example often sounds like an opponent of pilpul, though the methodology he himself often employs sounds no different than the subjects of his criticism. The Netziv on the other hand, who you mention, discusses pilpul as necessary for talmud torah in his beautiful intro to Sheiltos, but his own style seems far removed from it. Commented May 19, 2014 at 2:49
  • Thank you, @Matt! Your familiarity with a broad array of literature is most impressive, and I appreciate you sharing these references (as I likewise appreciated you sharing some on another of my answers a little while back). Regarding the Netziv, could you please tell me which of the introductions to Sheiltot you are referring to? I have a version open in front of me, and I see one titled קדמת העמק and another titled פתח העמק. My guess is that you're referring to the former, but I'm not sure.
    – Shimon bM
    Commented May 19, 2014 at 3:16
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    There is a sefer m'leches machsheves by Rav Grynspan where he analyzes all the different kinds of pilpul. They each had a German town name for them and are called that by the maharsha.
    – preferred
    Commented May 19, 2014 at 5:33
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    – preferred
    Commented May 19, 2014 at 5:37

To add to Shimon's answer, a prime example of Pilpul is any sefer written by R' Yosef Engel. His entire way of learning is collecting various sugyos and basically smashing them together to prove his point. Often, he starts off with a חקירה, a theoretical/conceptual inquisition, which has two possible answers. He then collects all the sugyos that he can find (which are usually very numerous) to show that the Tanaim/Amoraim hold one way or another, or that his חקירה is really a מחלוקת between them.

R' Yosef Engel does not avoid the problem of bizarre outcomes. He will sometimes take his חקירה to it's logical extreme, with strange results. (For example, in סימן כד of ספר אתוון דאורייתא, he concludes that a זר should be חייב מיתה בידי שמים for destroying תרומה. This is a basically unheard-of חומרה with no proof whatsoever, other than the fact that it is the product of R' Yosef Engel's assumptions.)

This derech halimud is basically out of style. Those who are not learning for in-depth analyzation will not be learning anything at all like this. For those who are looking for in-depth analyzation, the derech of R' Chaim Soloveichik has basically taken over many Yeshivos, and he had a totally different way of learning, usually not involving smashing several sugyos together but taking one sugya/concept and breaking it down into its theoretical components.

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    What does "smashing [sugyos] together mean"? And how is it distinguished from breaking a Sugya up into its theoretical components, if those components ultimately have to match the other sugyos?
    – Yishai
    Commented May 19, 2014 at 18:05
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    +1, but also +1 to Yishai's comment. Your example seems very similar to the "Brisker" method of analysing חקירות.
    – Shmuel
    Commented May 19, 2014 at 19:54
  • Yishai: in pilpul, each sugya usually represents one concept. Several sugyos are then compiled that either agree with each other or do not. This is what I mean by "smashing"; it is like ורמינהו on a large scale.
    – moses
    Commented May 19, 2014 at 20:35
  • i thought that i posted this, but it didn't go up. shmuel: the way to describe the difference between Brisker and Pilpul lomdus is the following: Briskers will break down one concept into it's componests and say that one part is inherent (חפצא) and another is not (גברא). a student of pilpul will say that two tanaim/amoraim are arguing in a certain concept is inherent or not.
    – moses
    Commented May 20, 2014 at 16:00
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    @moses, and yet in the other answer it puts Brisker and Pilpul in one category. Clearly the lack of rigorous definition here is making the answers assertions more than anything that can be logically analyzed.
    – Yishai
    Commented May 21, 2014 at 14:26

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