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Brisk: The Mastery & the Mystery

With its own lexicon, its own unspoken rules, and its uncompromising value system, what is the secret of Brisk — and how has it managed to capture the hearts and minds of a nation? 

Photos: Mishpacha Archives

So What Is Brisk?


Asher Soloveitchik was in my dirah!

Not as a rent-paying member of the dirah, but l’maiseh, he was inside.

A son of Rav Dovid Soloveitchik, a grandson of the Brisker Rav, was sitting inside our dirah, on a bed covered with blue plaid linens bought in Marshall’s, near a small cubby with Pringles and an ArtScroll siddur, schmoozing with us.

Our little group of bochurim was heady with a sense of accomplishment, of having finally arrived. Months after we joined the yeshivah of Rav Dovid, determinedly filing away every little bit of Brisker lore, eagerly lapping up scraps of history, and of course, reveling in its Torah — how many times did we learn that first Brisker Rav on Lishmah, even before booking airline tickets? — we’d become entrenched enough in this world of Brisk that our rosh yeshivah’s son had come in to chat.

At the time, he was still a bochur: Asher of the clear, Brisker eyes, nuanced smile, and disciplined walk.

We knew that it was strange that he’d veered from the precise, usual path from the yeshivah on Rechov Pri Chadash to his home on Rechov Amos, and come in to our one-room dirah on Rechov Malachi, (which, alas, is no longer a dirah, or even the real-estate tivuch it became after that; it’s been swallowed up into a colorless extension onto somebody’s porch.)

We knew this was a one-time occurrence; tomorrow it would be a buzz in yeshivah and it would never happen again. (It didn’t.)

We were like a group of fresh political interns suddenly come face to face with the vice president in the hallway. We’d taught ourselves to roll our reishes, when we said “the Rav” we were no longer referring to the shul rabbi of our youth, we’d learned to be wary about hechsherim not called Badatz Eidah Chareidis, and we dreamed of marrying girls who would walk the chickens and oversalt the meat and all the other kitchen terms we’d heard of, but never seen.

Now one of the royal family was among us, close enough to touch.

We racked our 19-year-old brains for the perfect question to suit the occasion, scrambling. The genie was out of the bottle and we couldn’t think of a single wish.

Someone finally asked a question that was vague, but at least it worked, given our choppy, neophyte Yiddish.

“Voss is Brisk?”

Asher looked up, intrigued by the question.

It wasn’t a new one.

The traditional answer is that Brisk is marked by the rigorous, systematic, precise, analytical approach to a Gemara, the splitting of ideas into “two dinim,” differentiating between the Talmudic concepts of gavra and cheftza. That thought process doesn’t just answer questions and contradictions, but rather, it exposes any inherent flaws.

Brisk, to others, means a laser-sharp focus on truth, with no distractions — not in halachah, not in hashkafah, not in life. It’s a fearless, agenda-free perspective.

But over the years, it had become a way of life, a community of its own — so what did it mean, to be a Brisker?

(Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 781)

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