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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?”


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