The Methodology of Brisk

Rabbi Hayim of Brisk revolutionized Talmud study--and his method remains dominant today.

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Although Rabbi Hayim was not the first to use this type of conceptual analysis, he was unique in that he constructed a new terminology for these concepts and categories. This terminology was rooted exclusively in the sources of halakhah (Jewish law); Rabbi Hayim strongly opposed borrowing concepts from the world outside halakhah. The new terminology enabled Rabbi Hayim to transmit his methodology to numerous students.

For example, he developed the distinction between "heftsa" (object) and "gavra" (subject/person), which is now widely used in the yeshivaworld. This distinction, like many others that Rabbi Hayim used, gives students the tools to conceptualize the topic they are studying. When studying an unfamiliar commandment, the student can use this familiar distinction to better understand that commandment. Does the commandment focus primarily on the person's decision, which relates to the object (i.e. the individual cannot eat hametz, leavened bread, on Passover), or on the situation of the object, to which the person must relate (i.e. no benefit can be derived from the hametz)? Using the distinction of "heftza" and "gavra," along with other distinctions,gives Rabbi Hayim's students a common language to help them understand and transmit his method.

Rabbi Hayim shifted the focus of Talmud study from the give and take--called shakla ve-tarya--of the gemara, to the positions that arise from that discussion. He therefore devoted a large portion of his study to Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, the great medieval legal code. Maimonides took out the shakla ve-tarya from the gemara and only recorded the conclusion of a discussion. For this reason, his work was ideal material for Brisker analysis.

Rabbi Hayim also shifted the orientation of Talmud study from practical to theoretical. He did not study in order to produce practical legal rulings. Rather, he saw halakhah as an ideal, a priori system, and he was not primarily concerned with how that system plays out in reality.

According to Rabbi Hayim, halakhah is a parallel universe where the laws relate only to themselves and are not fundamentally shaped by their interaction with reality. While Rabbi Hayim analyzed the various positions that arise from the talmudic discussion, he did so in order to arrive at the conceptual principles that underlie them, not to choose which position to follow in practice. He focused on Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, not in order to determine whether to act in accordance with Maimonides' rulings, but in order to conceptualize those rulings.

Lastly, Rabbi Hayim emphasized the "what" questions of talmudic study rather than the "why" questions. He did not ask "why" halakhah is a certain way, because we cannot understand God's reasoning. Rather, he strived to explain how the law works, to describe "what" exactly is happening, to categorize and conceptualize.

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Rachael Gelfman Schultz

Rachael Gelfman Schultz holds a B.A. in religion from Harvard University, and completed her M.A. in Jewish Civilization at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is a Jewish educator in Karmiel, Israel.