Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Pilpul and Chumrot: are they meaningful goals for a Jew?

Rambam wrote many letters both as responsa to Halachik questions and general correspondence on issues that were brought to him. In one of these letters (Sheilat edition page257) he writes as follows: (paraphrasing)

I already enjoined you to know the whole Sefer (Mishne Torah) and make it your own, teaching it to everyone. The goal of the writing of the Talmud and other such books is attained with the Mishne Torah. The goal of the Lamdanim which is wasting time in the Talmudic give and take is only to become expert in argumentation, not more than that. This expertise was not the goal of the Talmudic give and take but resulted accidentally when a saying had more than one interpretation and there was the need to find the correct one. The main purpose of the Talmud though was to teach what one must do or what one must not do. That is clear to someone like you. (The letter is addressed to a R. Yosef, apparently a learned man). That is the purpose of my book, to help memorize the rules which are lost in the argumentation of the Talmud allowing for people to devote their time in the ultimate goal, dealing with the “great” things…

R. Sheilat explains the last sentence as a veiled reference to the Gemara which considers the discussions of Abaye and Rava as “small” things and metaphysics as “great” things.

The letter is interesting as it gives us a glimpse into the thinking of the greatest Halachist of all times. All the learning has only one goal to help us find God, the “great” thing. We learn the halachot which teach us how to live our lives in a way that makes us think about HKBH and the existential issues. It is not an exercise in sophistry and argumentation. Rambam saw his Mishne Torah as the ultimate synopsis of all the rulings in the two Talmudim. (see his introduction to Mishne Torah and Ra'avad comment ad locum).

Nor are chumrot a goal in Judaism. In a letter to Rabbi Yosef ben Yehudah, the pupil he dedicated the Moreh to, he discusses his response to the Baghdad Rosh Yeshiva, R. Samuel ben Eli regarding traveling on river boats on Shabbat. He asks him not to react against the RY by insulting him. He explains that by supporting Rambam he has diminished the RY’s authority and that is the reason for his strong attacks against R. Yosef. He then goes on to write: (Sheilat Edition page 308)

There is no purpose in your asking: “where is Yra’at Shamayim (fear of Heaven)?” for he (the RY) and similar people who are greater than he, even those from earlier generations, their whole Yra’at Shamayim consists of following Chumrot (verbatim: refraining from Chumrot) as it is with the general populace. However a moral obligation to them (verbatim: Chovot hamidot hatovot) is not considered Yra’at Shamayim. They are also not careful with their words as God fearing people should be. Most of these autocratic men of religion, when someone attacks their authority, their fear of God disappears. Do not expect all of them to be like Hanina ben Dossa or Pinchas ben Yair A”H. Not all who have not reached their level is necessarily devoid of Yra’at Shamayim.

Need I say more?


  1. I guess in 750 years not much has changed...

  2. One of the interesting things about the Rambam on the issue of pilpul is that he seems to understate his case to some degree. After all, study of the MT b'iyun reveals that he invested a tremendous amount of thought and sophistication in his halachic formulations, and that he takes great pains to demonstrate the conceptual structure of Torah Shebal Peh. There is a lot more to it than memorization - it is an integration of hashqafa, principles of halacha, and halachic application par excellence.

  3. Rabbi Maroof, i agree but i found that his approach is straightforward and far from the pilpulim. Every complicated pshat, (beit yossef has a propensity for them ) is ultimately shown to be incorrect. Rav Kaffah has done some excellent work in that area in his edition of mishne Torah. I ahve dedicated a lot of time to his halachik work in the last ten years and find that he is extremely straight. The big chidush is the full integration of philosophic concepts and halacha . see the article on Eruv in last Hakirah by Rabbi Buchman.

    We are working on Kilayim right now and it is a challenge. Slowly a pattern emerges and it all falls into place.

    Another point which he makes in another letter. The analysis of the hava amina's in the gemara is a complete waste of time unless it sheds light on the maskana. His eye is always on the halachik resolution.

  4. I agree with your conclusion, in principle. The Rambam's shittot, even the ones that are the most radical and apparently inexplicable, always end up being reasonable and completely understandable on their own terms, with proper consideration and without pilpulim.

    But I have also found repeatedly that the Rambam's formulations are quite powerful - they open up whole new worlds of insight into Torah Shebichtav as well as Talmud. So, whereas pilpul is most certainly a waste of time, deep reflection upon the Rambam's halachot - especially the structure of the Mishneh Torah, the structure of each book and its relationship to the others, etc. - pays back substantial dividends.

  5. Agreed. Especially the location of the different halachot, where it is placed gives us hints of its meaning. The organization of ech sefer, location of halchot in a sefer (eg Eivel in Shofetim) is very important in that understanding. Rav Tzair in his Toldot haposskim missed that.