Join The Conversation With Mishpacha's Weekly Newsletter

Ask a Busy Man

David Damen, New York

It was an idea that many had thought of, but none had brought to fruition — create a comprehensive index for the Talmud Bavli. Then along came Daniel Retter, a high-powered New York attorney and talmid chacham, who applied the full force of his razor-sharp legal mind to the daunting task. The result is his HaMafteach, which can be found on the tables of gedolei Yisrael, as well as on the shtenders of scholars around the world.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

flag on picnic tableIt’s not unusual for the international news section of the New York Times to feature stories about Jews, but the edition of December 28, 2011, provided a rare study in contrasts. One large photograph depicted the “zealots” of Beit Shemesh with protest signs in their hands. A headline screamed, “Israeli Girl, 8, Finds Herself at theCenter ofTension Over Religious Extremism.” On the following page, immediately after this unflattering article, appeared a news item with an entirely different tone: “After 1500 Years, an Index to the Talmud’s Labyrinths, with Roots in theBronx.”

In the second article, the newspaper explained to its millions of readers across the globe: “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.”

That difficulty had now been bridged by a newly published index. The New York Times also took note of the man behind this historic project, Daniel Retter, writing with some degree of wonder, “It was compiled not by a white-bearded sage, but by a courtly, clean-shaven, tennis-playing immigration lawyer from theBronx.”

The Times may have had found the leap from high-powered New York attorney to highly talented Talmud scholar improbable, but those who know Daniel Retter aren’t surprised at all. Early in the morning, Daniel Retter can be found on the ground floor of the Young Israel of Riverdale in the Bronx, where he gives a shiur on the Talmud, explaining concepts such as migu in vivid, flowing terms. A few hours later, after “Rabbi” Retter has become “Mister” Retter, the expert in immigration law, he can be found either in aNew York courthouse or in theManhattan skyscraper known as Park Avenue Two, where the offices of the exclusive law firm Herrick, Feinstein LLP are located.

What is surprising on all counts is that such a busy man could have found the time to complete a project as complex as HaMafteach, the first-ever index to the Talmud Bavli. Just one look at Retter’s legal library, which consists mainly of yellowing sifrei kodesh, provides a key of its own to this lawyer-scholar whose burning love for the Torah dwarfs all of his numerous professional achievements.

In fact, Retter claims that his years in law actually sharpened his desire to finish the project. “In my legal work, I am used to working with indexes. Without them, legal work would become Gehinnom. So why shouldn’t there be an index to the Talmud Bavli, which is, l’havdil, the crowning glory of Judaism? Why should a maggid shiur — or any Jew toiling over his learning — not be able to easily locate the topics he is studying?”


To read the rest of this story, please buy this issue of Mishpacha or sign up for a weekly subscription.

Share this page with a friend. Fill in the information below, and we'll email your friend a link to this page on your behalf.

Your name
Your email address
You friend's name
Your friend's email address
Please type the characters you see in the image into the box provided.

The Fortunes of War
Rabbi Moshe Grylak We’re still feeling the fallout of the First World War
Some Lessons, But Few Portents
Yonoson Rosenblum What the midterms tell us about 2020
Vote of Confidence
Eyan Kobre Why I tuned in to the liberal radio station
5 out of 10
Rabbi Dovid Bashevkin Top 5 Moments of the Kinus
Day in the Life
Rachel Bachrach Chaim White of KC Kosher Co-op
When Less is More
Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman How a good edit enhances a manuscript
It’s My Job
Jacob L. Freedman “Will you force me to take meds?”
They’re Still Playing My Song?
Riki Goldstein Yitzy Bald’s Yerav Na
Yisroel Werdyger Can’t Stop Singing
Riki Goldstein Ahrele Samet’s Loi Luni
Double Chords of Hope
Riki Goldstein You never know how far your music can go
Will Dedi Have the Last Laugh?
Dovid N. Golding Dedi and Ding go way back
Battle of the Budge
Faigy Peritzman Using stubbornness to grow in ruchniyus
The Challenging Child
Sarah Chana Radcliffe Strategies for raising the difficult child
Bucking the Trend
Sara Eisemann If I skip sem, will I get a good shidduch?
The Musician: Part 1
D. Himy, M.S. CCC-SLP and Zivia Reischer "If she can't read she'll be handicapped for life!"