Brisk and Telz

(Published in the December 2010 issue of Kol Hamevaser, “The Jewish Thought Magazine of the Yeshiva University Student Body”. The issue’s topic: “Derekh Ha-Limmud”. (Two additions not in the published version are added in this sans-serif font.)

At some point during my time in Yeshiva University, I chose not to follow the more popular “track,” leading to R. Hershel Schachter’s and R. J. B. Soloveitchik’s shi’urim. Instead, upon my return from Israel for my junior year, I joined R. Dovid Lifshitz’s shi’ur, where I remained until my graduation from Yeshiva. A large part of my motivation was that my great-grandfather, R. Shlomo Zalmen Birger, had a kloyz, a small beit midrash, in Suvalk, and Rav Dovid, the Suvalker Rav, knew him and remembered my family. However, the primary impetus of that decision was my sense that something inherent in the Brisker derekh did not speak to me, whereas Rav Dovid’s derekh ha-limmud was that of his rebbe, R. Shimon Shkop, a variant of the Telzer derekh, which was a methodology that did speak to me. I do not claim that I could have articulated this clearly at the time, but I have given a good deal of thought to the matter since and hope to explain it now, as well.

First, what is the Brisker derekh? Perhaps a good place to start, not in the least because it is somewhat humorous and therefore memorable, in addition to still being pretty accurate, is with R. Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer’s essay comparing how various darkhei ha-limmud would try to answer the question, “What makes tea sweet – is it the sugar or the spoon stirring?”

The Brisker answer:

“There are two (tzvei) dinim in sweetening tea: The cheftza (substance), i.e., the sugar; and the pe’ula (activity), i.e., the stirring with the spoon. Everyone knows that Lipton is the ‘Brisk’ tea bacause [sic] it has a double (tzvei dinim) tea bag.”[1]

This is typical of the Brisker derekh, which seeks distinctions, hakirot. One therefore contrasts multiple cases, or multiple opinions within a single mahaloket (dispute), to see how they differ. The explanations involve ideas like heftsa vs. pe’ullah, heftsa vs. gavra (is it that the object must have something done to it [heftsa], or that a given person has a duty to do something [gavra]?), pe’ullah vs. halot (the time or location of the action [pe’ullah], vs. the time or location of the change of halakhic state [halot]), etc. This allows the Brisker to fit the specific positions under discussion into overarching halakhic categories.

In a sense, the Brisker derekh is a scientific endeavor. In an experiment, one compares the experimental set with the control set, trying to find two cases that only differ in one point so that the scientists can determine which point is the cause of the phenomenon. Then, the phenomenon is fit into a larger pattern in order to derive or generate a single formula that fits a wider variety of cases. The goal is to find the hakirah and use it to tie the case into a broader principle.

In contrast, the following is R. Bechhofer’s response to the question about tea in the style of R. Shimon Shkop: “It is the Hitztarfus (Fusion) of tea molecules and sugar molecules that makes the tea sweet.”[2] The point here is that R. Shimon often goes beyond the limits of Halakhah to appeal to the reality or experience it generates in his answer to a question. These first principles, givens that are self-evident before entering the halakhic system, allow R. Shimon to discuss the lessons the Halakhah was intended to impress on the one following it.

In the same issue of Kol Hamevaser, Rabbi Aryeh Klapper has an article titled “Can Retson Hashem matter in Lomdus?: Mitsvah ha-Ba’ah ba-Aveirah and the Limitations of Formalism[*]. It is worth perusing in this context. I think Rabbi Klapper intentionally limited his discussion to Brisker lomdus in particular, due to its overwhelming popularity. As he opens: “We live in the universe Brisk hath wrought, and I do not propose to begin Cartesian-style from first principles.”

The answer I’m effectively offering here is that the limitations aren’t of formalism, but of Brisker derekh and its “scientific” approach in particular. And there are other methodologies already developed, one needn’t begin anew to utilize a different methodology.

I would like to give a real example, but first, let me apologize for its complexity. By the very nature of the topic of derekh ha-limmud, it is difficult to find simple examples that are illustrative. If the topic were straightforward, the lines of reasoning would be short and probably not be made explicitly. As a side note, side-by-side comparisons of darkhei ha-limmud are also difficult to find. Before even looking at the differences in answers created by the differences in learning styles, one must realize that the types of questions that each derekh considers significant and worth exploring also differ. I am therefore choosing a question actually discussed by R. Shimon Shkop that is more “Brisker” in tone than some others.[3]

Let us look at how the two darkhei ha-limmud would understand the mechanics of bittul hamets, of nullifying one’s hamets (leaven) before Pesah. In reality, Halakhah does not recognize real ownership of the hamets, since ownership means rights to use, and one may not use hamets on Pesah. The “ownership” one is nullifying is that created by a special biblical decree. The Gemara (Pesahim 6b) compares this to a pit dug in public property. You are culpable for any harm that comes from stumbling on “your” pit, even though it is in the public domain and your ownership of the pit is not real.  Rabbeinu Nissim (Ran, ad loc.)  explains that this “non-ownership” is why bittul hamets is effective; since the whole problem is caused by non-ownership, simply making a statement of nullification is enough to eliminate it. However, no one would claim that one could declare that he or she no longer has an attachment to the pit and thereby avoid payment! Why shouldn’t we draw this conclusion, though, if the Gemara itself compares these two forms of pseudo-ownership?

This question is more typical of Brisker analysis, using a distinction to find the borders of an idea. A Brisker answer to such a question focuses on the difference between a prohibition related to an object (heftsa) and, in this case, the responsibility for an event that occurred due to someone’s action (pe’ullah). The prohibition is not to eat hamets, an object. However, the financial obligation to make restitution for someone’s injured or lost property that fell into a pit dug in public land is due to the event of that property falling into the hole, an action. Therefore, one needs more than a simple declaration to eliminate one’s ties to the pit.

Rav Shimon (Sha’arei Yosher 5:23) gives a different answer. He says that the validity of bittul hamets rests on the fact that it is the Halakhah that generates the non-reality of the ownership. Had the Torah not prohibited the use of hamets, the person would remain the full owner. Therefore, he has the authority to renounce what remains of the ownership (which Ran tells us is slight and can therefore be eliminated by a simple formula). In the case of the pit, the “ownership” is itself the verse’s decree – the property in question is public property. Since one does not have inherent ownership of the pit, one cannot distance oneself from it. Within Rav Shimon’s worldview, the question is whether one’s “ownership” of the object is inherent or scriptural, and from that point the discussion moves on to what this notion of inherent (perhaps I should say “pre-halakhic”?) ownership means and how it impacts bittul and related matters.

To Brisk, the problem is collapsed into the object vs. action distinction made in the Gemara elsewhere with respect to oaths and vows. To Rav Shimon, though, it is an instance of a basic principle about the philosophy of ownership, a return to first principles.

Telz’s first rosh yeshivah was R. Eliezer Gordon, a student of R. Yisrael Salanter. Although it had a strong Musar (ethical improvement) program, its approach was far too intellectual to qualify as a genuine “Musar yeshivah.” Rather than the emotional Musar shmues (ethical discourse), the Telzer approach focused on shi’urei da’at, classes on thought and attitude. One attended a shmues not so much to learn information he did not yet know, but to be moved by the experience of the presentation. In a “shi’ur da’at,” one would reach for the same goal of spiritual wholeness as in the Musar yeshivot, but via an intellectual path. Without the experiential focus of Musar and its shmuesn (talks), its exercises and unique practices, its more emotional approach to internalizing texts, Telz still fit within the main Lithuanian yeshivah mold.

Rav Dovid Lifshitz was a strong believer in the use of the shmues and emotion. For example, shmuesn usually included singing a song, and the first shi’ur of a semester was among the occasions that were always marked with a shmues and a song. Once, we sang the song “Ve-taher libbenu,” a song containing a total of four words, over and over for more than twenty minutes, asking for Hashem’s aid to “purify our hearts” for the start of the zeman, the term. And this was typical.

Still, the Musar elements of Telz meant that the notion that Halakhah as a whole has a purpose was a given. This was further enforced by the claim that the purpose of Halakhah is shelemut ha-adam, completion and perfection of the self. Therefore, while Brisk sought the explanation of individual laws in terms of halakhic principles, Telz looked for a purposive explanation. And while Brisk looked at multiple opinions of a single case, or multiple cases, Telz focused on the singular. Even when looking at multiple opinions, its purpose was to find what they shared in common, not to find contrast. What do these approaches say about what is essential about the meaning, purpose and role of the mitsvah?

Fundamental to Brisker philosophy is the idea that Halakhah has no first principles. It can only be understood on its own terms. As R. Soloveitchik describes in Halakhic Man, it is only through Halakhah that man finds a balance between his religious need for redemption and his creative, constructive self. As the book opens,

“Halakhic man reflects two opposing selves; two disparate images are embodied within his soul and spirit. On the one hand he is as far removed from homo religiosus as east is from west and is identical, in many respects, to prosaic, cognitive man; on the other hand he is a man of God, possessor of an ontological approach that is devoted to God and of a world view saturated with the radiance of the Divine Presence.”[4]

This notion is a major theme running through the work, if not its primary thesis.

(Ironically, a true Halakhic Man would never explore the questions addressed by Halakhic Man! R. Soloveitchik’s loyalty to Brisk, while true in terms of derekh ha-limmud, style of studying Gemara, and the shi’ur he gave in Furst Hall, was also compromised on the perspective level by his interest in philosophy – as heard in his public discourses.)

A telling statement about the Brisker mindset is this bafflement expressed by Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik:

I have always been troubled by the role and position of the prophet. On the one hand, we rule that a navi is prohibited from introducing innovation in halakhah, from adding or detracting “even the serif of a yud“; on the other hand, Hashem communicated with the nevi’im, they prophesied, and their prophecy was written for all future generations. What purpose did their prophecy serve, given that they could introduce no halakhic chiddush? True, they rebuked the nation, and to give rebuke is certainly one of the reasons prophets were sent. But still, I am troubled by the notion that their message should be completely devoid of halakhic content.[**]

This instinct that for something to have religious content it must be phrased in terms of halakhah, that messages of Jewish thought or of fundamental values are inherently suspect is not one a Telzher, or most non-Briskers, would share.

The Brisker derekh gave the post-Haskalah (Enlightenment) observant Jew a mental experience that compared to the thrills of scientific study. The Telzer derekh gave him the excitement of philosophical study and connected his learning and mitsvah observance to his quest to be a better Jew.

Loosely along similar lines, Rav Hayyim Soloveitchik, known as Rav Hayyim Brisker, rejected the argument in favor of accepting Radziner tekhelet (blue dye used in tsitsit) because it was a scientific one, not halakhic in basis. Accordingly, Halakhah is itself the primary basis – non-halakhic argument is irrelevant.

This distinction is also manifest in the two derakhim’s approaches to going beyond the letter of the law. The Brisker view on humra, stringency, is one where the person is “hoshesh le-shittat peloni almoni,” concerned for the position of so-and-so. It is the notion that while the baseline law is lenient, one may want to “cover all the bases” and satisfy all opinions. In Telz, a humra would be chosen based on a person’s plan for shelemut, an awareness of what personal flaws he is ready to address, and the identification of opinions that can be related to them.

R. Soloveitchik famously declared that “there is no ritual in Judaism;” he saw no reason for additional rituals. To quote one example:

“For instance, a recent booklet on the Sabbath stressed the importance of a white tablecloth. A woman recently told me that the Sabbath is wonderful, and that it enhances her spiritual joy when she places a snow-white tablecloth on her table. Such pamphlets also speak about a sparkling candelabra. Is this true Judaism? You cannot imbue real and basic Judaism by utilizing cheap sentimentalism and stressing empty ceremonies. Whoever attempts such an approach underestimates the intelligence of the American Jew. If you reduce Judaism to religious sentiments and ceremonies, then there is no role for rabbis to discharge. Religious sentiments and ceremonies are not solely possessed by Orthodox Jewry. All the branches of Judaism have ceremonies and rituals.”[5]

I was once asked by someone if wearing Rabbeinu Tam tefillin necessarily expressed a lack of certainty that Rashi’s opinion about the ordering of texts in the tefillah worn on the head was correct. I would say his question reflects a Brisker position — “Brisker humrot are about hashash, uncertainty in ruling. A typical explanation of such a humra would be: “We hold like Tosafot, but it pays to be stringent to be hoshesh for Rosh’s opinion.” In Telzer thought (and not uniquely Telzer – it is typical of the Hasidut and Musar movements, as well), one might do so because one found a kavvanah (intent) that better fits the order of parashiyyot in Rabbeinu Tam tefillin, and thus wishes to experience that in addition to fulfilling what he knows to be the accepted law.

To R. Soloveitchik, kavvanah and religious experience can only authentically come from following Halakhah. The notion of extra-halakhic spiritual experience does not fit the Halakhic Man’s framework.

In short, Brisk asks the scientist’s “Vos?” (What?), and Telz asks the philosopher’s “Far vos?” (Why?). In my own desperate search for a more meaningful avodat Hashem, worship of God, I found it much more easily in the latter.

R. Micha Berger is a graduate of YC and lives with his wife and ten children in Passaic, New Jersey. He is the founding president of The AishDas Society, an organization that “empowers Jews to utilize their observance in a process for building thoughtful and passionate relationships with their Creator, other people and themselves.” Professionally, he is a software developer with over twenty years of experience in the financial industry.


[1] Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer, “An Analysis of Darchei HaLimud (Methodologies of Talmud Study) Centering on a Cup of Tea,” available at: http://www.aishdas.org/rygb/derachim.htm. His complete survey is broader than these two examples, and includes some less humorous discussion as well.

[2] Ibid.

[*] Rabbi Aryeh Klapper, Kol Hamevaser December 2010, “Can Retson Hashem matter in Lomdus?: Mitsvah ha-Ba’ah ba-Aveirah and the Limitations of Formalism” (Retrieved Dec. 29, 2010)

[3] If you do not wish to slog through the example, skip ahead to the paragraph that begins, “Telz was founded by…”

[4] Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man, trans. Lawrence Kaplan (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1984),

[**] Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Shiurim leZeukher Abba Mori, vol II page 173; rough tr. by Rabbi Chaim Brown, Divrei Chaim Blog, Nov. 25, 2010, “The role of nevuah in the eyes of a Brisker” (Retrieved Dec. 29, 2010)

[5] Lecture, “The Role of the Rabbi,” given to the Yeshiva University Rabbinic Alumni, May 18, 1955 (Yiddish). Translation by Rabbi Aharon Rakeffet, The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, vol. 2, (Hoboken, N.J.: Ktav, 1999), p. 54.

6 thoughts on “Brisk and Telz

    • My point was that even having to pause to think, “What is the value of something that has no impact on halakhah?” is distinctly Brisker. It’s not like RYBS posed a question just for the purpose of answering it. He says, “I have always been troubled…” I would have though it was self-evident that Yahadus values mussar, machashavah, and other non-halakhah messages. Products of most derakhim would not have even paused at the idea, never mind being troubled over an extended period seeking an answer.

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