The Talmud is a considerable body of work: 63 volumes of rabbinical discourse and disputation that form Judaism’s central scripture after the Torah. It has been around for 1,500 years and is studied every day by tens of thousands of Jews. But trying to navigate through its coiling labyrinth can be enormously difficult because the one thing this monumental work lacks is a widely accepted and accessible index.
But now that breach has been filled, or so claims the publisher of HaMafteach, or the Key, a guide to the Talmud, available in English and Hebrew. It was compiled not by a white-bearded sage, but by a courtly, clean-shaven, tennis-playing immigration lawyer from the Bronx.
The index’s publisher, Feldheim Publishers, predicts it will be snatched up by yeshivas and libraries, but more important, it will be a tool for inveterate Talmud students — and there are plenty of those. Feldheim’s president, Yitzchak Feldheim, said the first printing of 2,000 books — a market test — sold out in a few days here and in Israel. More printings have been ordered.
The index has 6,600 topical entries and 27,000 subtopical entries that point students to the treatises and pages of text they are seeking. In these passages, sages analyze matters like whether one can remarry a former wife after she has been betrothed to another, or how one should handle a lost object found in a garbage heap. The index guides the student to significant laws about Sabbath and daily observance, as well as maxims, parables, commentaries and Talmudic personalities.
The index, which costs $29.99 in English and $24.99 in Hebrew, represents seven years of work, but do not ask Daniel Retter why he undertook it, unless you have a spare hour. His answers are as meandering and as twisting as the Talmud itself, with pathways leading to byways leading to offshoots that sometimes end in cul-de-sacs. Along the way, his voice sometimes rises and falls in Talmudic singsong, and his eyes glitter with delight at the saga’s oddities.
“My father was a man of letters,” he begins, then describes how his father, Marcus, had been dedicated to Talmud study during an epic life in which, as a child, he escaped the Nazis on the Kindertransports that rescued Jewish children and took them to British havens. He brought his family, including Daniel, to New York from London in 1949. (With his dry wit, Mr. Retter noted that his father had literally been a man of letters, since a dozen of his had been printed in The New York Times.)
Daniel Retter, 66, attended a yeshiva, enrolled at City College at night while studying Talmud in the daytime, then studied at Brooklyn Law School during the day while digesting Talmud at night. He married another lawyer, Margie, an advocate for abused women seeking Jewish divorces; they raised four children and ended up in Riverdale, where he continued his Talmudic explorations.
“I can’t waste a minute,” he said in an interview at the Manhattan offices of his law firm, Herrick, Feinstein. “If I’m on the immigration line waiting for a client to be called, I study the Talmud.”
But a puzzle nagged at him. He and other students sometimes needed help tracking down a specific passage, law or topic, or the thoughts of sages like Hillel and Shamai. Most of the time the student consults a loftier scholar.
“For the life of me,” Mr. Retter said, “I could not understand why the Talmud did not have an index.”
One 50-year-old translation of the Talmud, by Soncino Press, has an index, but its pages do not match those of the standard Aramaic text used by most students hunched over their dog-eared volumes. More recent English translations are either not indexed or have not been completed. For three decades, Talmud students have been able to use a Nexis-like CD search engine, the Responsa Project, created by Bar Ilan University in Israel, that locates words by frequency and proximity. But like Google, it often produces irrelevant hits. Bar Ilan officials acknowledged that the CD had one major disadvantage: it cannot be accessed on the Sabbath, when much learning takes place. It also costs $790.
Mr. Retter said he believed that the Talmud, whose compilation was completed in the year 540, “was designed to be mysterious, designed to be locked — I call it the ‘book of mystery.’ ”
“The Talmud was written in exile, and it was the thread that kept Jews together,” he said. “It had no punctuation, no paragraphs. It was a book that was to be transmitted orally from father to son.”
Until 1445, the concept of an index was meaningless, since books were not being printed. But in the 16th century, the first editions of the Talmud were published in Antwerp, Belgium; the Vilna edition, printed in Lithuania in the 19th century, standardized pagination. One effort to help students navigate the Talmud, Mesoras HaShas, provided cross-references alongside the Aramaic text toward similar ideas elsewhere in the Talmud. But, Mr. Retter wrote in his introduction, “it was not an index as that word is commonly understood, because one had to know the location of the initial reference to find the others.”
Rabbi Benjamin Blech, professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University, said the rabbis believed that study should not be made too easy. “We want people to struggle with the text because by figuring it out you will have a deeper comprehension,” he said. “They wanted a living index, not a printed index.”
Nothing satisfied Mr. Retter’s needs. As he said: “I’m a lawyer, and if I want to know the law, I look it up in an index.”
Before he went — Talmudists should pardon the expression — whole hog, he took his wife’s advice and sought the approval of great sages so the work would be credible. HaMafteach includes letters of endorsement from a dozen, including Yisrael Meir Lau, the former Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel. Mr. Retter also recruited Rabbi Elchanan Kohn, a recognized Israeli Talmud scholar, as his editor.
The index’s potential market is sure to include the thousands of Jews who participate in Daf Yomi, the page-a-day cycle in which everyone studies the same daf — two actual pages — every day for seven and a half years, until all 5,422 pages are completed, when they begin all over again. Some 90,000 people are expected at the Daf Yomi graduation of sorts that will be held in August at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey.
If readers find any errors, the index provides a very contemporary way of making corrections that the ancient sages never foresaw and so could not have quibbled with: an e-mail address, email@example.com
PS: BELOM SAYA BACA 😀