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In Satan in Goray, Rabbi Benish is frustrated that the young men are learning pilpul, and has tries to ban it.

They delved too deeply into things that were meant to be hidden, they drank too little from the clear waters of the holy teachings. The study of the Bible and Hebrew was looked down upon. The early commentators were rarely read. Young men, confused by the twists and turns of pilpul, sought to resolve a hundred dilemmas with one answer; they scorned true learning, as child's play.
Satan in Goray, part 1, chapter 3: "Extraordinary Rumors" (translated by Jacob Sloan)

Even as someone who speaks Hebrew and is not unfamiliar with Jewish texts (I've learned the entire Mishna and parts of the G'mara), I've never come across the term "pilpul", and I'm not quite sure what it refers to. What does Singer mean when he says that these young scholars are spending too much time on pilpul and not enough time studying the basics?

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  • The Hebrew word פלפל‎, pilpul, is in Wiktionary, and that's probably the Yiddish word here. Exactly what it means in this context is not entirely clear to me.
    – Peter Shor
    Feb 15, 2022 at 21:30

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The term pilpul is a term that describes a type of rabbinic scholarship. At different periods in history its contextual meaning has varied somewhat, as have the religious attitudes towards it.

The term does indeed appear in the Talmud, in the context of different categories of scholars:

Our Rabbis taught: Rich in possessions [and] rich in pomp — that is a master of aggadoth. Rich in money [and] rich in oil — that is a master in dialectics [זהו בעל פלפול]. Rich in products [and] rich in stores — that is a master of traditions. All [however] are dependent on the master of wheat [i.e.] Gemara.

(Bava Batra 145b, Soncino translation, my emphasis)

Elsewhere in the Talmud, the term in verb form is used in another scholarship context:

Raba said, When man is led in for Judgment he is asked, Did you deal faithfully [i.e., with integrity], did you fix times for learning, did you engage in procreation, did you hope for salvation, did you engage in the dialectics of wisdom [פלפלת בחכמה], did you understand one thing from another.

(Shabbat 31a, Soncino translation, my emphasis)

In later times it was often used pejoratively to refer to a certain type of Talmudic analysis that was thought to be sophistritic and a waste of time. In contemporary times rabbinic students may use the term to refer to any sort of sophisticated analysis or scholarship.

There is also a Wikipedia article on the topic, as well as a question on our sister site Mi Yodeya, which may provide additional details.

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