The Hebrew term pilpul (Hebrew: פלפול, from "pepper," loosely meaning "sharp analysis") refers to a method of studying the Talmud through intense textual analysis in attempts to either explain conceptual differences between various halakhic rulings or to reconcile any apparent contradictions presented from various readings of different texts. Pilpul has entered English as a colloquialism used by some to indicate extreme disputation or casuistic hairsplitting.
A person is obligated to divide his study time in three: one third should be devoted to the Written Law; one third to the Oral Law; and one third to understanding and conceptualizing the ultimate derivation of a concept from its roots, inferring one concept from another and comparing concepts, understanding [the Torah] based on the principles of Torah exegesis, until one appreciates the essence of those principles and how the prohibitions and the other decisions which one received according to the oral tradition can be derived using them....
In the narrower sense, pilpul refers to a method of conceptual extrapolation from texts in efforts to reconcile various texts or to explain fundamental differences of approach between various earlier authorities, which became popular in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries: its founders are generally considered to be Jacob Pollak and Shalom Shachna. Pilpul was defined by Heinrich Graetz as "the astonishing facility of ingenious disquisition on the basis of the Talmud."
Many leading rabbinic authorities have harshly criticized this method as being unreliable and a waste of time, and it is regarded by some as having been discredited by the time of the Vilna Gaon. A common criticism is that those who used this method were often motivated by the prospect of impressing others with the sophistication of their analysis, rather than by a disinterested pursuit of truth; such students, it was held, did not apply appropriate standards of proof in obtaining their conclusions (if any), and frequently presupposed conclusions that necessitated unlikely readings (interpretations) of "proof-texts". As such, pilpul has been derogatorily called bilbul, Hebrew for "confusion".
The Maharal of Prague, in a famous polemic against pilpul, wrote: "It would be better to learn carpentry or another trade, or to sharpen the mind by playing chess. At least they would not engage in falsehood, which then spills over from theory and into practice..."
In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, pilpul in this narrow sense was largely superseded by the analytic methods pioneered by the Lithuanian school, in particular the Brisker derech. However, many people consider these methods too to be a form of pilpul, though the practitioners of the analytic method generally reject the term. Before World War II, both the old and the new kinds of pilpul were popular among Lithuanian and Polish Jews. Since then, they have become prominent in most Ashkenazi and many Chassidic yeshivas.
- 2000 years of Jewish history: p170 Chaim Schloss - 2002 "Jews in Eastern Europe (Part II) The word pilpul comes from the Hebrew word for "pepper"; "
- Yad HaChazakah, Sefer Madda, Laws of Torah Study, 1:11
- Pirkei Avot 6:6
- Shabbat 31a
- Rashi to Kiddushin 30a, s.v. "Talmud"
- Heinrich Graetz, History of the Jews: from the Rise of the Kabbala (1270 CE) to the Permanent Settlement of the Marranos in Holland (1618) (ed. Bella Löwy), vol. iv, New York 2009, p. 418. ISBN 978-1-60520-947-0
- Baruch Erlich, HaPilpul - Yesod Limud HaTorah SheBeAl-Peh VeHishtalshuto Bemeshech HaDorot, Morashteinu, 3:189 (1989)
- Tiferet Yisroel, pg. 168, quoted in Chess in Jewish theology and practice, Ishim veShittos blog (Wolf2191), 17 March 2009.