A Taste of the Chazon Ish Torah Study Method

The Chazon Ish School on Talmudic Dispute

Two Batei Midrash

Broadly speaking, two “Batei Midrash”, or common learning methods are prevalent today; ‘Brisk’ and ‘Chazon Ish’. The respective approaches clearly preceded these individuals, thus Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz and Rabbi Chaim Solevechik are not the ‘Founding Fathers’ of the methods that bear their names.

Nevertheless, their powers of exposition and persuasion, their commanding scholarship, and the unique devotion displayed by each toward their own school of thought effectively turned them into the “mascots”. By now, their very names are synonymous with the various approaches (Reverse Eponym).

Entire volumes could be written on the two methodologies, but the time is not yet.

A brief summation suffices for our purposes; the “Brisker” camp studies Torah textually as a ‘Taxonomic Science’ (labeling its perceptions, and focusing on legal definitions). The Chazon Ish adherents practice a kind of Inductive Science (using human logic, and intuitive grasp of the text). Kindly forgive the vast imprecisions in the above descriptions.

A product of the logic-directed school is its inclination to the following two principles:

  1. “Afushi Plugta”
  2. Aggadic “Mashma’us Dorshin”

These will be clarified soon.

Our focus here will be on the Chazon Ish himself and his followers as characteristic of the whole school. Unfortunately, I am not as familiar with the Brisker ‘Derech’.

In the ‘Chazon Ish’ view, perhaps contrary to common belief, Halacha is not an amorphous body of ‘Great Truths’ stemming from many individuals’ “Shoresh Neshama”. Absolutist truth and falsehood do exist, and humans possess the ability to differentiate one from the other.

In every Halachic dispute, one side is correct, and the other is not. All Kabbalah aside, the oft-quoted saying “These and those are the words of the living G-d” means only what Rashi Kesubos 57a says it does (except maybe in Eruvin 13b).

Hence, the advent of Halachic Machlokes (dispute) was a negative turn of events caused by the decay of Torah wisdom, not its growth.

(I am not quoting the Chazon Ish here; I am defining the supposed axioms of the approach which is his namesake!)

Afushi Plugta

This leads us, then, to the famous rule known as “Afushi plugta bechdi lo mafshinan” (lit. we do not presume increased debate without adequate grounds to do so).

A form of Occam’s razor, this means the Gemara is predisposed to interpret the sages as agreeing with one another wherever feasible. The polarity of reasoning in their factual debates, too, is always reduced.

As once explained by the Chazon Ish in a letter, sound logic dictates that any two (approximately equal) wise men are far more likely to agree on any given topic than to disagree.

One example is found in the Ritva Nidda 21b (also echoed by Ramban, Rashba, and Ran) —

(וה”מ היכא דשיעא אבל פלאי פלויי וכו’,) איכא למידק כיון דאיהו לא צריך לומר אלא בשפופרת תנאי היא ל”ל לאפושי פלוגתא בכדי ולומר דפליגי נמי בדפלי פלויי. וי”ל דלאו אפושי פלוגתא הוא דכיון דלת”ק דם נדה הוא זה ע”כ טמאה בדפלאי פלויי

In brief, the Gemara seems to needlessly introduce a new point of contention. The answer given is that the two cases stem from the same issue already being dealt with.

One caveat: Oftentimes the precise point of contention is some minor detail. Still, that one minor detail has far-reaching consequences for Halacha. Say the common disputes in the laws of Shabbos (note Sanhedrin 67b!), where one opinion fully allows a given action, and the other deems it a Torah-mandated prohibition. In the same way, the seminal dispute of Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Akiva Sanhedrin 51b on scriptural exegesis —

אמר ליה רבי עקיבא ישמעאל אחי בת ובת אני דורש אמר ליה וכי מפני שאתה דורש בת ובת נוציא זו לשריפה

Has bearing on (at least one) different case in Yevamos 68b (cf. Tosafos ad. loc.)

Only when the source of disagreement lies in logic or reality does the Gemara even attempt to mitigate it.

One example of the Chazon Ish’s tendency toward “Afushi Plugta” was made famous by Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin in his book “Great Men and Methodologies (Ishim Veshittos)” (I can’t now find the spot in the Chazon Ish).

In Bava Kama 114a we find a Mishna discussing Tum’ah (impurity) of animal hides held by robbers and thieves. The decision to use them without further treatment (as a mat, for example) makes them a ‘Keli’ which can subsequently become Tamei. According to Tanna Kama, a robber’s thought cannot render the animal hides subject to Tum’ah, while a thief’s thought can.

Rabbi Shimon says the opposite. The hides of a thief do not become Tamei; only the hides of a robber become Tamei.

The underlying reasoning is that one’s thought holds no influence on items not in his possession. If the victim still believes he can recover his loss, the decisions of the robber or thief are meaningless.  The disagreement between the sages and Rabbi Shimon is whether the victim had “Yiush” (legally – recognized despair) in the case of robbery, or in the case of theft.

— The inherent difficulty is obvious. How can the two sages differ so fundamentally on the facts of the matter? How can Tanna Kama hold ‘Yiush’ is present in one case but not the other, while Rabbi Shimon asserts the exact reverse?

The Chazon Ish writes as follows (I recommend reading the Hebrew original) —

הא דפליגי ר”ש ורבנן בגנב וגזלן נראה דלא פליגי במציאות הדבר בסברות הפוכות, אלא ענינו דכל יאוש פתיכי בו מעט תקוה ובכל תקוה פתיכי בו יאוש, ומדת היאוש אינו נמדד במדה ומסור הדבר לכחמים, ולרבנן אלימא להו בסיבת הגנבה שהוא מצד שאין לו מקום ידוע לתקותו, ולר”ש אלימא לי’ יאוש בסיבת בסיבת הגזילה שהוא מצד רפיון כחו, כו’

In other words, the degree of “Yiush (despair)” present in victims of both robbery and theft is nearly equal. Robbery causes despair in its victims because of the force exerted, even though the robber can be sued in court. On the other hand, the victim of theft does not know who took their property, although they rely on their power of investigation to catch the thief.

The question at hand, then, is just which type of “Yiush” suffices to grant ownership to the villain.

Another Chazon Ish quote based on Afushi Plugta (although this is not explicit) regarding the Mishna in Nega’im 14:1 (re Leviticus 14:7, 51) —

כיצד מטהרין את המצורע, כו’. טבל והזה שבע פעמים לאחר ידו של מצורע, ויש אומרים, על מצחו. וכך היה מזה על השקוף שבבית מבחוץ.

Chazon Ish Nega’im 11:13 —

בתוי”ט כ’ בשם הק”א דפליגי בקרא דעל וכ”כ הגר”א בתוס’ והא דפסל ת”ק על המצח משום דכשמגביה ידו היא למעלה וזה דוחק ועוד למה לאחר ידו דוקא, ואפשר דמתנ’ מנהגא קתני ולא דינא ובאמת כשר בכל הגוף כמו בהזאת חטאת אלא שנהגו בקביעות מקום ומשום שהוא לבוש בגדיו בשעת הזאה ואין מגולה מבשרו אלא פניו וידיו, וגם לפעמים נופל לעינו ולפיו, ונהגו לאחר ידו דתוך ידו חששו דלמא כו’ וי”א שחשש גם בגב היד דלמא יזה בתוך ידו ונהגו על מצחו, וכו’. וכן על השקוף שבבית אינו אלא מנהגא ומן הדין כשר אם הזה בכל מקום שהוא ואפי’ בפנים אלא שהנהיגו להזות במקום מיוחד, וכו’

I cannot do it justice in translation. The elementary idea is his interpretation of the Tannaic dispute as concerning custom, not Halacha.

Mashma’us Dorshin

Exegetical disputes contain a related form of reductionism called “Mashma’us Dorshin”. Mashma’us Dorshin means that while the meaning of this specific verse in scripture is debated, no disagreement is found with reference to the Halacha itself, or as to what in fact happened at the time being described.

For instance, in Mo’ed Katan 7b Rabbi Yehuda and Rebbi argue over how we derive delaying the Kohen’s inspection of leprosy for a Chassan. Is it from the verse of “and on the dayor by a Kal Vachomer of sorts from the waiting period (Hamtana) of Leprosy of the Home? In Abaye’s view, the dispute is academic; the law itself is unanimous.

Another instance of Mashma’us Dorshin is Shabbos end of 69b (according to Abaye). In short, violating Shabbos by forgetting either Shabbos itself or the fact this moment is Shabbos obligates one to bring a Chatas offering for every single violation.

Rabba son of Abahu and Rabbi Nachman differ on how we learn out the preceding two laws from the following two verses: Exodus 31:16 and Leviticus 19:3. Here too, the laws do not change, only their source does.

Now, at first seem it might as though the device of Mashma’us Dorshin is the topic of an ongoing debate between Rava and Abaye. Whenever Abaye applies M.D. – such as the above two cases, Rava disagrees. Since we know the Halacha always accords with Rava in his disputes with Abaye, we might deduce that M.D. should not be in our toolbox.

But in fact, if you check all such cases, it appears their disputes only revolve Mashma’us Dorshin in Halachic issues. In Aggadah, they would apparently not differ (these assertions are based on memory – I have not yet checked). Indeed, the Chazon Ish and students seem to often discern M.D. in Aggadah.

One example of novel Mashma’us Dorshin by the Chazon Ish is also quoted by Rabbi Chaim Greineman in his “Chidushim Ubiurim”.

The Torah says (Genesis 6:9) —

אלה תולדת נח נח איש צדיק תמים היה בדרתיו את האלהים התהלך נח

“These are the offspring of Noah – Noah was a righteous man; perfect in his generations; Noah walked with G-d.” (ArtScroll translation)

The Gemara Sanhedrin 108a (also quoted by Rashi Genesis ad. loc.) —

אמר רבי יוחנן בדורותיו ולא בדורות אחרים וריש לקיש אמר בדורותיו כל שכן בדורות אחרים

“Rabbi Yochanan said: In his generations [Noah was considered perfectly righteous], but not in other generations. But Reish Lakish said: in his generations [Noah was considered perfectly righteous], and surely in other generations.”

“Chidushim Ubiurim” Sanhedrin 108a —

א”ר יוחנן בדורותיו כו’ אחרים, שמעתי בשם מרן זללה”ה דמר אמר חדא ומר אמר חדא ולא פליגי, דאמנם אילו היה בדורו של אברהם היה צדיק יותר, אבל מ”מ לא היה נחשב לכלום מחמת גדלותו של אברהם

“I heard in the name of [the Chazon Ish] that each sage spoke to a different matter and did not disagree with one another. For, had Noah been in the generation of Avraham, he would, without doubt, have been more righteous, nonetheless, he would not have been considered significant compared to Avraham.”

This is not the conventional understanding. The author (who?) of the glosses on Targum Yonasan (ad. loc.) and others disagree (but cf. Eruvin end of 18b in support of the Chazon Ish). Cf. too Gur Arye on Rashi (ad. loc.).

This method is also demonstrated with similar efforts by students of the Chazon Ish. The Gemara in Kiddushin end of 33b quotes the following verse (Exodus 33:8) —

כו’ והביטו אחרי משה עד באו האהלה

Then raises a dispute over whether the Jews would watch Moses in a critical or positive way.

Following in his master’s footsteps, Rabbi Chaim Greineman, a prime disciple of the Chazon Ish, comments on this Gemara in his Chidushim Ubiurim Kidushin—

חד אמר לגנאי וחד אמר לשבח כו’, יתכן וגמירי שהיו לגנאי ושהיו לשבח ופליגי לאיזה מהן רמז הכתוב

“Perhaps they knew that some Jews viewed Moses in a good way and others in a bad way. The argument then is to which of these two groups this verse is referring.”

One more sample, Sanhedrin 94a regarding Exodus 18:9 —

ויחד יתרו רב ושמואל רב אמר שהעביר חרב חדה על בשרו ושמואל אמר שנעשה חדודים חדודים כל בשרו

“And Yisro rejoiced (vayichad)”: Rav and Shmuel disputed [the allusion]. Rav said this means he transferred a sharp (chadah) sword on his flesh [meaning circumcision], and Shmuel said this means Yisro’s entire body was covered with goose bumps (chiddudim) [distressed about Egypt’s downfall].

Comments the Chidushim Ubiurim (ad. loc.) —

נראה דלא פליגי ותרוייהו קושטא ורמיזי בקרא

“It seems there is no disagreement. Both opinions are correct, and are hinted at in the verse.”

Note the disagreement of Rabbi Hirsch’s commentary (Exodus ibidem).

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