Cheftzah gavrah. There’s something about those two words that conjure up a sense of the sheer power of the lomdus popular in the olam ha’Torah; bequeathed to us, in large part, by Reb Chaim Brisker. The razor sharp clarity of defining and categorizing, contrasting and differentiating one concept from another, one halacha from the next. Depth and precision, logic and lucidity.
Of course, as anyone who’s been seriously learning the Daf as we make our way through the atypical terrain of Maseches Nedarim knows, that paradigm of discerning description was not coined by Reb Chaim; it’s all over our Masechta! With the Ran on today’s daf being a prime example, when he discusses why it is that a neder can take effect on a shvuah but not vice versa. The shvuah did not generate any halachik effects on the object in question, it just created an abstract obligation or prohibition on the gavrah, the person, vis a vis that object. So there is still room for a neder – which pertains to changing the status of the cheftzah, the object – to make its mark.
What, then, was the phenomenal genius of Reb Chaim? Of course, it was not only the cheftzah gavrah paradigm that he innovated, but an entire system of Talmudic analysis that effectively created a renaissance of derech ha’limud. But, still, the cheftzah gavrah paradigm is, for many, the emblematic flagship of that Brisker renaissance. The quintessential, characterizing model of lomdus that the olam ha’Torah inherited as a result of Reb Chaim’s singular influence.
I can’t say for sure that the following is the answer, but I believe it may have merit. What I would like to suggest is this. The unique genius of Reb Chaim was not in innovating heretofore unheard of methodologies, concepts, or modalities of thought. What was it, then? It was how he put it all together. Similar to the way that the Rambam, through his Yad Ha’Chazakah, clarified and organized for kol Beis Yisrael all the myriad and varied mitzvos of the Torah – the entirety of Mishna, Talmud Bavli, Talmud Yerushalmi, Tosefta, Sifra, and Sifrei – in a manner and form that no-one before him had done; so too did Reb Chaim Brisker clarify and organize the foundations and fundamentals of crystal-clear Talmudic analysis – lomdus, as we call it – into a fluid system that had as of yet not been widely available as the shared possession of the alafim v’rivevos of lomdei Torah.
Reb Chaim saw the paradigm of cheftzah gavrah in Maseches Nedarim, and understood that it could be implemented in many other venues of Shas and Poskim as a basic mechanism of proper understanding. The identification of a fundamental principle of logical reasoning and clarification, and the accurate application thereof in further spheres of learning, is the hallmark of the genius and kindness that was Reb Chaim Brisker. The ability to recognize a good thing – something eminently helpful – and extend it; make the most of it.
And that’s something that we can take a cue from Brisker heritage and incorporate not only into our Gemara learning, but also our life learning.
It is told of Reb Chaim that he would sometimes take his young son Velvel (ultimately to become the renowned “Brisker Rav”) on walks. In the course of those walks, Reb Chaim would ask little Velvel different questions that, at first glance, seemed completely mundane. “Velvel, tell me, you see those two trees over there? Which one is larger than the other?” One tree was tall and lanky, the other shorter but with a much wider girth. “Velvel, you see that wall over there? How many bricks are in the wall?”
Of course, it is self-evident that these questions were specifically engineered to hone the young lad’s mind. But, and this question is naggingly obvious, why couldn’t Reb Chaim have come up with some Torah riddles? Is there any lack of pointed questions one could think of in Torah topics that can sharpen a person’s analytical abilities?
I think, and again this is my own suggestion so take it or leave it, that it was not just the precision-refinement of young Velvel’s thought processes that Reb Chaim was trying to accomplish. There was an additional – very powerful – unspoken message in these exercises: Nothing in life should be approached like an am ha’aretz!
Halevai that we would always be able to sit by our Gemara uninterrupted for our whole lives. But that is not the way life works. We were not born into a Yeshiva shel Maalah. We have been placed in Olam Ha’Zeh where there is a whole world outside of the kosalei Beis Ha’Medrash that we are also enjoined to face and grapple with. And one needs to be prepared and know how to correctly approach every single facet of life that he will encounter. To take the power of the learning that he does inside the Beis Ha’Medrash and be able to apply in every venue of life.
“Velvel! Don’t take anything for granted in life! Don’t ever allow your mind to just turn off and take things at their superficial appearance. Everything, but everything in life should be carefully analyzed through the discerning prism of your G-d-given seichel.” That, I believe, was the primary, albeit unspoken, lesson that Reb Chaim was transmitting to his young son. And it is a paradigm that can serve each and every one of us as a beacon of light. A source of empowerment to approach life from a posture of dynamic, proactive operation; wherein we are forever recognizing and identifying, classifying and defining the tools, mechanisms, and fundamental principles of life. And generating ever higher levels of goal attainment through their accurate extension and implementation.
Rabbi Yehoshua Berman serves as the Rosh Kollel of Kollel Reshet HaDaf in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel. In addition to having authored Reflections on the Parsha, Rabbi Berman regularly delivers shiurim on Halacha and Hashkafa, writes comprehensive chazara questions (in Hebrew) for the advanced Daf Yomi learner, and weekly words of inspiration from the Parsha. Rabbi Berman can be contacted at email@example.com.