Sharp Discussion with Students - Middah Pipul HaTalmidim

Barbara Binder Kadden, RJE

About Mussar and Middot
The Hebrew word "mussar" means moral conduct, instruction, or discipline. The Mussar Movement arose in the 1800’s in Lithuania and encompasses a range of spiritual practices, focusing on the individual’s personal characteristics, traits, or virtues, which are called middot (in Hebrew, singular: a "middahMiddahמִדָּהcharacteristics, values, or virtues of Jewish life that focus on becoming a better and more fulfilled person; plural: middot ").

Pipul HaTalmidim is translated as "sharp discussion with students." The word "pilpul" is used to describe certain methods of Talmud study. The Hebrew root of the word is peh-lamed-peh-lamed. The word pilpul is derived from the Hebrew word meaning "pepper" (the spice). The Encyclopedia Judaica describes pilpul as, "methods employed in talmudic disputations by the more sharp-witted among the scholars." (p. 524) HaTalmidim literally means "the students." It comes from the Hebrew root lamed-mem-daled meaning "to learn."

"Rabbi Hama son of Rabbi Hanina said: What is implied by the verse 'Iron sharpens iron' (Proverbs 27:17) It tells you that just as one piece of iron sharpens another, so two scholars sharpen each other's mind by discussion of the Law." (Sefer Ha Aggadah - Legends of the Jews, 428:260)

Intense debate and discussion have a long history in Jewish tradition. As early as the book of Genesis we read of Abraham debating with God the destiny of the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah. It was through debate that Abraham learns that there are no righteous people in these cities and therefore they do not merit being saved.

The middah of pilpul hatalmidim teaches two values: the value of debate and the value of learning with others.

Debate sharpens one's mind and makes the subject under discussion clearer. As the Text asserts, "iron sharpens iron." Spirited and learned discussion elevates one's thinking. It pushes one to higher realms of learning, thinking, and understanding.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch taught,

"Isolation is incompatible with Jewish knowledge; it is only by association with living sages, in close communion with associates, and by the clarity of thought and judgment that can be attained by teaching it to disciples that the knowledge of Torah can be nurtured and allowed to flourish." (Chapters of the Fathers, Hirsch p.105)

Simply put, one must combine a relationship with sages, a closeness with colleagues, and sharp discussion with students in order to tap all the resources of Torah knowledge. (Pirkei Avos, ArtScroll, p. 415)

Rabbah bar Bar Hanah said:

"Why are words of Torah likened to fire, as in the verse, 'Is not My word like fire? says Adonai' (Jeremiah 23:29) To teach you that just as fire does not ignite itself, so words of Torah do not abide in one who studies alone."

To Talk About

  1. Are you comfortable or uncomfortable with sharp debate? Why or why not? Share and discuss the idea of sharp debate.
  2. Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba said: "Even father and son or teacher and disciple occupied with Torah in the same house of study become enemies as they dispute with each other, yet they do not stir from there until they come to love each other. (Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 30b) What do you think this means? In your own words how does one keep a debate from becoming an argument or expression of anger?
  3. Has a debate or discussion ever changed your mind about an issue? Have you ever changed someone's mind about an issue after a debate? Identify the issue and describe the debate.
  4. In the Commentary section Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch teaches that one must combine a relationship with sages, a closeness with colleagues, and sharp discussion with students in order to tap all the resources of Torah knowledge. In your studies have you combined all three of these elements? If so, how? Which of these elements has been the most helpful to you in your knowledge of Torah and intellectual growth? Explain.
  5. Identify and describe the individual(s) who have ignited Torah in you.

To Do
Practice the fine art of sharp debate. As a family, choose an article or topic from the newspaper on which there is a diversity opinions. Debate the issue at the dinner table. Create guidelines for the discussion, such as: each person having adequate time to speak, no shouting or hurtful statements, while still in keeping with the idea that "iron sharpens iron."