Rabbi Meir Yechiel's method of learning - "Pilpul"
Something about the Ostrowiec method in studying
Written by HaRav Isser Frenkel
Ostrowiec Yizkor Book 1971, Pages 83-85
Translated by Sara Mages
They said: when R' Meir Yechiel died and departed from the world, he appeared before Beit Din shel Maalah [the Heavenly Court], and when they asked him, as they ask every person who is brought to justice: "Did you engage in the dialectics of wisdom?" R' Meir Yechiel fell silent and didn’t answer the question. Immediately came and stood before Beit Din shel Maalah heaps of halakhot that R' Meir Yechiel explained on every single letter of the Torah, even the little crowns that adorn many of the letters of the Torah, like R' Akiva in his time - and they surrounded him from the front and back and wrapped themselves around him. And Beit Din shel Maalah began to read all the halakhot and their eyes lit up, like a shining mirror, from the abundance of light and the spark that flowed from the piles of these halakhot, and asked: Whose are they? The halakhot said: of that tzadik that we are wrapped around him and surround from all sides. Beit Din shel Maalah answered and said: bless you Avraham Avinu that Meir Yechiel is your offspring. The question, "Did you engage in the dialectics of wisdom?" no longer exists, because "wisdom" itself is standing before us…
What was the study method of R' Meir Yechiel Halevi? What is that wonderful method that has received such open and tumultuous admiration, and it has the simple and casual name, "Ostrowiec," without a nickname and without any additions?
Indeed, a new method in the world of teaching, the pilpul method. But not the one we are used to mentioning in the same breath with R' Yaakov Pollak. Because how can Rabbi Jacob's method be interpreted?
"The main foundation of the pilpul method is the intellectual science. But, with no similarity to the Sephardic method of intellectual science that aspired to build in an architectural way a building of thoughts. In the pilpul you mainly find mental gymnastics, without any real positive result to the body of the matter, and also without special efficiency and fertility. It seems, as if after strenuous activation of superior spiritual powers and great spiritual vigor, a machine is driven without the benefit of the machine being utilized, or a wheel that rotates incessantly around its axis only. This is not about the improvement of the order of study, or finding the true reason for the law, or establishing a fundamental historical fact regarding what concerns a certain Talmudic formula."
This is how R' Yaakov Pollak's method was interpreted by those who rose up against him and harshly criticized his methods (among them were: the Maharal, Maharshal, Maharsha, Shelah and more). But, in fact, the pilpul method in the period of R' Yaakov Pollak was the spice of life for the Jews of the time. They lived in ghettos, and this was a point of light in the darkness. The pilpul, the clarification, the sharp and prickly idea - all of them maintained the Jews in the Diaspora and breathed life into them.
To this day there are two methods in the world of learners: the method of deepening and logic, and, in contrast, the method of pilpul and sharp-wittedness. But, with all the criticism of the pilpul method, R' Yaakov Pollak set for himself a place of eternity in the world of learners. Moreover: R' Yaakov Pollak himself acknowledges that the pilpul is for clarification and does not come to draw conclusions for the halakha, since most conclusive proof is the fact that both R' Yaakov Pollak, and his sworn and faithful student. R' Shalom Shakhna (rabbi and father-in-law of R' Moses Isserles, which can also be seen as the successor of the pilpul method), didn’t write books so that no conclusions would be drawn from them. And on the other hand, they were known in their generation as the supreme ruling authority in all matters concerning questions of Halacha that arose in everyday life. This testifies to the diverse personality of these great Torah scholars.
And so, we arrive to R' Meir Yechiel Halevi and his method.
The Gemara debates the question: which one came first? The incisive and difficult that from the fervor of thought may sometimes argue without a basis to the question, or the moderate and conclusive who investigates and ponders the matter and comes to a correct practical conclusion? - the Gemara question remained in a draw. But, R' Meir Yechiel Halevi zt"l, HaGaon of Ostrowiec, came and solved this question with his broad personality.
He was learned and sharp- witted. He couldn’t make a mistake and be confused with the wrong version, because of his vast knowledge in all the secrets of the Torah - as in the saying in Tanna Devei Eliyahu that illustrates the essence of his teachings: "Just as the Holy One, blessed be He has secrets in his Torah, so each of the scholars has secrets in his teachings" (Seder Eliyahu Rabbah Chapter 6) - everything was visible and known before him and open before him like the scroll of a book. And he uprooted very big mountains and ground them together. His wit knew no bounds and limits. He literally cleared large areas of stones and filled valleys and ravines, straightens rails and filled pits. There's no definition that can express the validity of his greatness and the extent of his Talmudic knowledge. He was sharp and difficult, yet mild and concluder, therefore, his question doesn’t remain in the draw.
He approached with sharp-wittedness, carefully cut the issue he was dealing with and in this manner drew the true conclusion. He opened with a face expressing pleasantness and kindness, and from the easy came to the heavy and serious. He started calmly and rose with his pure intellect high up into the creative world. He said something far-fetched, improbable, and yet - although it seems strange - he straightened the curved into a straight line, showed the versatility of the ways of studying the Torah, method within method, commentaries within commentaries, straight and upside down, back and forth, until it is impossible to get to the bottom of his opinion - and yet, at the end you can find the halakha strong and improved and enlightening, because it was the strength of R' Meir Yechiel Halevi - the power of the Torah.
R' Meir Yechiel Halevi continued the method of R' Yaakov Pollak and R' Shalom Shakhna and found new ways in it. He also held their opinion because he answered all life's questions that arose with complete and absolute decisiveness. Only sometimes he writes: "Regarding the question, I don't want to resort to halakha for hidden reasons but, instead, I will amuse myself in with pilpul be-alma" [i.e. inferring one matter from another]. However, he refrained from writing his pilpulim. If his pilpulim have a name and a remainder, it is thanks to his tzadik son, R' Yehezkel Halevi zt"l, and his students, and also thanks to the fact that in the letters of consent for the books he was asked to express his opinion on, he adds from the innovations of his spirit and thought.
There was no one like R 'Meir Yechiel Halevi in his sharpness in all of Poland and Lithuania among all the outstanding rabbis of the generation who lived there, and whose teachings are our heritage. He was the craftsman of pilpul, but the established pilpul, the pilpul that has evidence from other sources, that has a foundation and a roof, whose foundations are firm and strong and cannot collapse. And in this regard he was more daring from the first innovators of the pilpul method, R' Yaakov Pollak and his student R' Shalom Shakhna.
The pilpul constituted the elixir of life for R' Meir Yechiel Halevi. In his reply to HaGaon of Sochatchov he ends with the words: "I extended the subject of study in the Six Orders of the Mishnah in the pilpul method, because I'm among the lovers of pilpul.
On every step of the way, even the smallest, you find the line of pilpul: "and it is necessary to debate in all this at length, but due to my lack of strength I will finish." Or: check carefully because he is sharp," or in his sharp accounts you find: "and this is a wonder," and this arouses wonder and wonder at the wonders of the Torah."
Negaim  and Oholot are simple halakhot, study for the sake of study. And then we turn to the lively route in the study method: the method of pilpul, in which it is possible to renew innovations upon innovations. And the ear is not satisfied with hearing, and the mind is not satisfied with listening. And the main thing is that you study in this method in order to be innovative, and what is the advantage of the power of innovation? "I learned it from my father z"l." - said R' Meir Yechiel Halevi, "when I came to visit him after many years, he took me out to the market square and told me: Meir Yehiel, you surely remember my bagels. Well, after years and years of roaming around the villages looking for buyers for our bagels, they became famous and everyone arrived at a very early hour and started demanding the bagels, and I got to the point where I had to buy the flour from all the bakers in town to fill the high demand for my bagels. And that's how I accumulated money in which I bought the house that you see - and while talking he showed me the house that was his property, but - father z"l finished by raising his voice - all this was done for me by my success. I didn't inherit anything from others and nothing remained to me… And since then I learned to know - R' Meir Yechiel Halevi continued - everything that a person acquires on his own, and thanks to his talents and actions, remains his property forever... The Torah is certainly not inherited, and when a person learns a lot of Torah and reaches a stage where he can renew innovations in the Torah, shine a light in it and add ornaments decorations to it, Torah becomes his private property, and inalienable asset, in the term of: "And in His law he meditates day and night" (Psalm 1:2). And so - continued R' Meir Yechiel - I practice with my students "because in pilpul I develop the intellect of my students and instill in them the desire to be innovators and to think in the teachings of God."
He behaved with his students in friendships, and his conversations with them on matters of the Torah and morality, were always conducted out of the desire to share with them the course of his thought according to their perception.
His "perception" was very comprehensive. His perception was for sharp minds like a white-hot big knife used for slaughtering, a sharp two-edged sword or a sharpened knife. There are no stages in his perception. To reach a height, a certain height, you have to climb, or climb a ladder rung by rung, to go step by step, until you reach the peak. An acrobat is able to climb several steps at once. Rabbi Meir doesn't know what acrobatics is, but he knows how to go from the first stage to the highest stage all at once. One of the country's geniuses stands by him and listens to a daily Talmudic conversation built on ladders, meaning a short sermon with stages, that one solution of a problem is rejected in favor of the following question, until we reach an enlightening final conclusion. And the same genius hears dozens of explanations built in a form of a "ladder," and they flow in a stream from his holy mouth, and he emits in a whisper to the one standing next to him: I don't get this brain. After all, another man in his place should have thought about it for at least an hour, and he edited the things in five minutes?... A bit of that whisper crept into R' Meir Yechiel's ear, and he replied as if out of justification for wasting time on a five minute thought because in five minutes you can derive more intellectual benefit: you've made a mistake , I think for five minutes? God-forbid, I think for one minute, the four minutes before the thought I devote to another thought, that the Holy One, blessed be He, will help me reach the source of truth so that I can innovate at that moment correct and accurate things...
R' Meir Yechiel could have been Rosh Yeshiva in the conventional sense. After all, he belonged to the third type of outstanding people whose lessons form a method of study, and the echo of their teachings spreads to other yeshivot. His innovations constituted a source for pilpul and his questions and solutions served as fundamental teaching material for Roshei Yeshiva and students. He created a unique teaching method and acquired many scholars who were involved in his method and came from near and far. And what did those who came? They were also distributors. They were also the creators of a study method, the famous study method of Ostrowiec.
Dozens of rabbis, and hundreds of religious functionaries in the community, came out of Beit HaMidrash in Ostrowiec, and they all excelled in their own special character, both in their behavior in life and in the way of studying. A character that the distinct seal of Ostrowiec was imprinted on it, the seal that turns the teaching method into part of the Creator's work.
The Torah was firmly established in his students. It stuck a stake in them that wouldn't fall, and they were among the most famous rabbis in Poland. Among them: HaRav Yudel Levin President of the Court of the community of Krakow, HaRav Leibush Rosenberg a judge in Lodz, HaRav R' Eliezer the Rabbi of Wolbrom, HaRav R' Emanuel Leibowtiz, HaRav R' Elimelech the Rabbi of Lagow, HaRav Nachman Meidoser the Rabbi of Brok and Bnei Brak [Israel], HaRav Yerachmiel President of the Court of the community of London, and many others who perished in the Polish Holocaust, and we were not granted that they will continue to spread the teachings of R' Meir Yechiel,(of the students alive today a special mention should be made to HaRav Fishel HaCohen, member of The Chief Rabbinate Religious Council of Tel Aviv-Yafo, and HaRav Z. Ben-Yakov).
 Halakha (pl. halakhot) is the totality of laws and ordinances that have evolved since biblical times to regulate religious observances and the daily life and conduct of the Jewish people.
 Pilpul /pl. pilpulim (from the Hebrew word pilpel - pepper) is 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.
 The Maharal of Prague is an acronym for Morenu Harav Rabbi Laib, "Our Teacher Rabbi Leow," who was a Talmudist, theologian, and Rabbi of Prague.
 Shlomo Luria (Maharshal) was a Polish rabbi, posek (arbiter) and Talmudic commentator.
 Tanna Devei Eliyahu is the composite name of a Midrash (textual interpretation) consisting of two parts. The first part is called Seder Eliyahu Rabbah (31 chapters); the second, Seder Eliyahu Zuṭa (15 chapters).
 There are four types of character in people: 1. Is a Sodom-type of character. 2. is an unlearned person. 3. is a pious person. 4. is a wicked person. (Mishnah, Pirkei Avot 5:10)