Wednesday, December 28, 2011

After 1,500 Years, an Index to the Talmud’s Labyrinths, With Roots in the Bronx 

The Talmud is a formidable 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 English version costs $29.99, and the Hebrew, $24.99.

The index 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 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 from Germany 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

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: students cannot get access to it 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 complete editions
of the Talmud were printed by a publisher from 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.


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