A topical project

A New York City lawyer has created an index for the Talmud to enable yeshiva students to find topics in the pages of the codified Oral Law without the help of a rabbi or teacher.

Daniel Retter 521 (photo credit: Sam Sokol)
Daniel Retter 521
(photo credit: Sam Sokol)
For millennia the Talmud has served, in rabbinic parlance, as the Jews’ portable homeland in exile. Despite separation over thousands of miles of distance and vast differences in language and social norms, the common culture enforced by the Talmud’s dicta and explications of Mosaic laws unified Jews from Tunis to Warsaw.
Consisting of thousands of pages of rabbinic disputations in Aramaic, the common vernacular of the residents of Judea during the Roman period, the Talmud represents the sum of hundreds of years’ worth of discussions on the Oral Law, said by the rabbis to have been revealed alongside the written Bible at Mount Sinai.
This impressive work of scholarship has remained a closed book for many due to its archaic phrasing and largely unorganized formatting. Topics are arranged in a somewhat topical fashion, with different tractates dealing with specific legal and religious issues, but within these volumes the flow of the text resembles nothing so much as a contemporary stream-of-consciousness novel. One topic flows into the next, making a simple-sounding task like finding a specific rabbinic debate almost impossible for the novice student.
While the world of the Talmud has opened up for English- and Hebrew-speakers in recent decades, mostly due to the respective translations of Artscroll publications in America and Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz here in Israel, in-depth study still often requires the aid of an experienced rabbinic mentor.
Daniel Retter, a New York City-based attorney and lifelong Talmud aficionado who claims to have found a way through the morass, sat down with The Jerusalem Post to speak about his labor of love, Hamafteah (“The Key”), an 800-page index for the entire Babylonian Talmud that hit the shelves of Judaica shops throughout Israel several weeks ago. Retter explained why the Talmud, which has gone through many editions and has spawned numerous commentaries and derivative works, has never been properly indexed and why he believes it was important for one to be produced now.
According to Retter, a soft-spoken but forceful American in his mid-sixties, his work, which is published in both modern Hebrew and English editions, is the first of its kind. Having arrived in Israel last month to consult with some of Israel’s leading rabbis, many of whom have warmly endorsed his book, Retter explains that the reason the book has received such kudos from the rabbinic establishment is that it enables a student of Talmud to search for topics on his own without interrupting the flow of his studies or disturbing his rabbi with repeated queries regarding something that he should, by all rights, be able to look up himself.
Sitting in a hotel room in downtown Jerusalem, Retter pulls out a copy of his compendium and challenges me to find a topic that is not included. While I am able to stump him with one esoteric sugya (topic), the book otherwise proves extremely comprehensive. Arranged by terms indicating topics and both legal and theological concepts, the book combines attributes of both a glossary and an index, listing all of the pages in the Talmud in which any given entry can be found as well as providing concise explanations of the terms in question.
ENTER ANY modern-Orthodox study hall and you will see students sitting and searching the Talmud and its associated commentaries and legal codes by keyword on laptops, smartphones and tablets. Asked what the advantage is to a hefty paper tome instead of a search on a handheld device, Retter, leaning over the book, his hands rapidly flipping through its pages, explains that his book provides context that is sorely lacking in computerized versions of the Talmud.
He gives the example of a rabbinic disputation regarding a ceremony called pidyon haben, in which a father pays a kohen a sum to “redeem” his first-born son. There is one place in the Talmud that refers to this ceremony as “yeshuat haben,” using a different term for redemption that would not show up on a keyword search for the word “pidyon,” he explains. A rabbi or his book, on the other hand, would know to group the two names for the ceremony together.
Besides, Retter states with an impish smile, the use of computers is prohibited on Shabbat. He did not add that many yeshiva students from Israel’s ultra-Orthodox communities, in which money is tight, are unable to afford expensive computers.
Conceived of some seven years ago, mostly “out of frustration” that there was no such work extant, the book is aimed largely at the yeshiva students who make up a bulk of the haredi world. Costs are being subsidized by the author in order to create conditions suitable for its mass acceptance in yeshiva circles.
While Retter is haredi himself, he belongs to an American stream of ultra-Orthodoxy that believes in higher education and participates in various white-collar professions. Working as an attorney, Retter wakes up every day around 5 a.m. to study and prepare for the early morning Talmud class he teaches.
The reason a work like this volume has not been produced previously, explains Retter, is that for much of its history, the Talmud was not formatted in a consistent way. Obviously, he notes, until the arrival of the printing press, the study of Talmud was confined to the elite. After printing became an option, every publisher printed his own edition without attempting to standardize the pagination. Only once a common format for printing the Talmud became available did such an endeavor become possible at all.
However, he notes, prior to the 20th century, Talmud study was still limited, for the most part, to a small elite. It was only with the explosion of enrollment in yeshivot, following the establishment of the kollel system in Israel, that the issue of an index became pressing to any great degree. Previously, students had closer relationships with their teachers and had greater access to them. Now, when yeshivot such as the Mir in Mea She’arim boast thousands of pupils, giving students a resource that obviates the necessity of constantly bothering rabbis with questions became sorely needed.
Moreover, he adds, the proliferation of English translations in America has brought many working men to the Talmud, men who may be studying on their own and may not always have access to a rabbi when learning.
Sitting in his hotel room and flipping through endorsements by leading rabbis of all sectors of Jewish life, from modern to hassidic, it becomes clear that Retter, who is not ordained, has filled a void that many clerics have keenly felt for a long time.
As Rabbi Shlomo Amar, Israel’s Sephardi chief rabbi, put it, Retter’s book is a “formidable project” indeed. After all, religious or not, one must admit that the Talmud is a significant Jewish cultural touchstone that continues to shape Jewish attitudes and values today. But only if you can find your place in the massive tome.