A Lawyer, Not A Sage, Creates Talmud Index

Generations of scholars have studied the ancient, 63-volume central text of Jewish faith, law and practice without the help of an index. But Daniel Retter has recently created what is believed to be the first comprehensive index for the Talmud. He speaks with host Michel Martin about spending seven years on the massive project.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And now we want to turn to another story that touches on profound matters of faith and spirituality. Today, we take a look at the Talmud. That's the book of Jewish tradition, thought, practice and values, and it lies at the center of Jewish study.

Every day, thousands of Jews pore over the text, reading and rereading its more than 5,000 pages and, until now, only people with an extraordinary memory or a lifetime of dedication could easily find their way through its 63 maze-like volumes. But, after 1,500 years, students can now use what is believed to be the first comprehensive index for the Talmud.

And with us now is its author, Daniel Retter. Thank you so much for joining us.

DANIEL RETTER: Thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Daniel, what's it called in Hebrew?

RETTER: It's called the HaMafteach, which means the key.

MARTIN: The key. And how did you come up with the idea?

RETTER: Well, as you know, I'm an attorney, and as an attorney, I use legal books every day to do my research. And I've been learning, I've been studying the Talmud for 50 years. I've been teaching the Talmud for about 25 years on a daily basis. And I wondered why it was that, when I needed to find a precedent decision, I needed to find a interpretation of a particular statute, I could easily access this information through the index, which would be found in the back of the law book.

And yet the Talmud, which is the basis and foundation of all Jewish law and basically refers to the Bible, the five books of Moses and its many, many thousands and thousands of discussions, there was no - what I thought - was a practical, or actually, an index at all. And in order for me to be able to find what I was looking for, I'd either have to ask someone who was much smarter than I was, or I'd have to search in my own memory or, basically, do without.

MARTIN: Well, yes. One can easily see why this was a good idea. How hard was it to come up with a framework for this? I would imagine that, after 1,500 years and nobody's done it, it would be rather difficult.

RETTER: Well, it was a seven-year labor of love. The methodology involved was the idea of being able to find entries or topics. And once we had the entries or the topics, we would build on them and have subentries and subtopics. And once we had all of those, then we would develop the sources or find the sources. So about seven - almost seven years ago, I decided that this was what was needed.

And my wife, Margie - who's a lawyer in her own right - said to me, Danny, one minute. You know, we're very traditional. The Talmud study's very traditional. The rabbis are very traditional. And I'm not so sure that you want to do something as revolutionary as this without getting the haskamah, or the approbations or the endorsements of the various rabbis throughout Israel, throughout America, throughout the world. And if you work for - on this for many, many years and you finish it and then it's not accepted for whatever reason, then you've really worked for nothing.

So taking her good advice, I worked for about two years, and we developed a template where we covered all of the various track dates, the 63 track dates. And then I basically went around the world, went to Israel, rather than went to America. And unlike the normal author who writes a book and then seeks endorsements, here was a situation where I just sketched out the basic idea, the basic plan with many, many examples, and then I went to the various rabbis, both rabbis - the Sephardic rabbis, the Ashkenazic rabbis, the Chassidish Rebbes, the Lithuanian scholars. And they not only were very much encouraging, but they said, Mr. Retter, or Daniel, do it quickly, because this is needed.

So, once we had that, so to speak, green light, we spoke to many rabbis, many students, and we asked them for suggested entries. Of course, we did not tell them what it was about. We just wanted to develop entries. I had my own database of entries.

And then I was fortunate. I found a wonderful rabbi in Israel named Rabbi Elchanan Kohn (unintelligible) who helped me and was my senior editor. And, together, we put together about six-and-a-half thousand entries. Once we had the main entries, we then developed subentries for about another 27,000. So we had a total of about 35 - 30,000, 35,000 topics that were found or that are found in all of the Talmud - or we call it Shas. And then we were able to develop the sources where these topics are found and, after seven years, thank God, we finished it.

MARTIN: It truly was a labor of love. And I do want to mention that the first printing sold out in a matter of days. So one has to assume that there will be subsequent printings. But before we let you go, Mr. Retter, and thank you so much for speaking with us about this, which clearly was such a labor of love.

You know, there have been scholars in the past who've said that studying Torah should not be - sorry - studying Talmud - studying the Torah, should not be too easy. And so I do wonder if there's anybody who said, no. You're just making it too easy. Part of the study is the mystery of it and the unraveling and the dedication. What do you say to that?

RETTER: Well, it's interesting that you mentioned that because my Rabbi Willig(ph), where we live in New York, wrote in his approbation, or his haskamah, to my book - to my sefer - he said, you know, there are people who think that looking for a source and wasting time doing that is part of learning Torah. And he cited the famous Rabbi Hutner, the former rosh yeshivah, the former head rabbi of the Yeshiva Chaim Berlin in Brooklyn, who said, no. That is not part of learning. It's not part of working for the Torah. It's no mitzvah to spend time, to waste time looking for something if it can be found more handily.

So to answer your question directly, I do not think that there's any purpose or reward in looking for something if it can be found more easier.

MARTIN: Well, congratulations.

RETTER: Well, thank you very much, and thank you again for having me.

MARTIN: Daniel Retter is the author of the - say it again for me. The HaMafteach? The HaMafteach?

RETTER: Close. Close. HaMafteach.

MARTIN: HaMafteach.

RETTER: HaMafteach, the key.

MARTIN: The key. It is believed to be the first comprehensive index of the Talmud. He is also a lawyer, and he joined us from our member station WLRN in Miami, Florida. Thank you so much for joining us, and shabbat shalom.

RETTER: Michel, thank you. Thank you very much.

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