An index of the Talmud with more than 6,000 topical and 27,000 subtopical entries is a major undertaking and its publication a seminal event in Jewish scholarship. Attorney Daniel Retter, who painstakingly compiled the index, titled HaMafteach (“the key”) and published by Feldheim, says his work, which has the endorsement of many prominent rabbanim, fills what had been a longstanding void by making the location of the different topics discussed in the Talmud easily accessible.
Retter, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press who gives a Daf Yomi shiur every morning at the Young Israel of Riverdale, recently spoke with us about his book.
The Jewish Press: When and where were you born and raised?
Retter: I was born in 1945 in London in a bomb shelter. At that time bombs were still falling. I came to America when I was five years old. I attended Chasan Sofer yeshiva on the Lower East Side of New York and then continued to Rav Binyomin Paler’s yeshiva and remained there until after I got married and finished law school.
Describe what HaMaf-teach is about and what it is designed to do.
The book is an index of the entire Shas. There are main entries and sub entries arranged in alphabetical order. The book was designed to be user friendly so that one can find the Gemara he is looking for quickly and efficiently. I realized we would have to make the index in English and Hebrew editions. We are also working on a mafteach of tractates and masechtos. This would incorporate all of the sugyos and memros of that particular masechta or tractate. I think it is a useful work. My personal feeling is that every personal library that has a Shas should have an index for it.
Why did you feel a book of this kind was needed?
The book was created to fill several gaps. One example is the difficulty of finding a sugya [topic] or a memra [saying]. The source of all learning is the Gemara. After one has learned the Gemara on a particular topic one can move on to the Rishonim and Achronim. However, there is no methodical way to find that original Gemara.
Talmidim generally have to ask their rebbeim where the Gemara is. But sometimes a talmid might not want to bother his rebbe with a simple location question, and a rebbe is not always available to answer a question at a moment’s notice. And even a rebbe occasionally has to search for a particular Gemara.
The book will also be very helpful to those who, whether frum from birth or baalei teshuvah, never received a formal yeshiva education. They love learning – and with the explosion in popularity of the Daf Yomi, many of them are now learning regularly. Some of these people communicated to me their frustration in not being able to recall the correct locations of Gemaras they had previously learned.
Basically, the reason for the index is there was none until now. Necessity is the mother of all invention.
There has never been a mafteach on Shas?
To the best of my knowledge, there has not. There have been encyclopedias of Shas, but an index is much different. An encyclopedia has many volumes. Our generation expects quick results and a one-volume index is the solution. An index is not a teacher – it’s a locater. There are no editorial comments. We made it as simple as possible to find the location of the Gemara you are looking for. Simply, it is a tool to find the mikoros instead of wasting time looking for them. In fact Rav Mordechai Willig mentioned in his haskama that looking for mikoros is not included in yige’as haTorah, and it is bitul Torah.
Did you have the encouragement of rabbanim?
I had been working on this project for some time and very few people knew about it. I am fortunate to have a smart wife who advised me not to work on the book until I received the approval of rabbanim. She reasoned that if I were to wait until the book was completed to look for haskamos, perhaps someone would find something wrong with it. By that time I had good samples to show and I took them to gedolim. They not only encouraged me but they said the faster the better. It is for this reason that my haskamos are about five years old. And when I brought them finished copies they were very pleased.
Do you feel that there is a still a need for a paper book like this, given all of the technology available today?
Yes, for several reasons. Search engines are literal word searches; they cannot search for a sugya or even the meaning of a word. This sefer is like a talmid chacham because it contains different words the Gemara uses to refer to topics. For example, the Gemara refers to a pidyon haben as “shua ben.” A search engine would not retrieve that Gemara since it is not the same literal word. Generally people expect relevant results, and that is not always available on a word search engine. Once one finds one relevant Gemara he can locate other relevant sources via the mesoras hashas; however, you need to locate that first relevant Gemara. Additionally, search engines cannot be used on Shabbos and most yeshivas do not allow for the use of computers in the beis medrash.
How do you project the book will impact the way people learn Gemara?
I do not believe it will change the way people learn Gemara. I do think it will encourage more people to learn, because it can make them more comfortable learning Gemara and remove some of the intimidation many people feel, especially beginners. Perhaps this sefer will enable people to begin learning Shas by heart. There are always contests encouraging kids to learn different things by heart, and this sefer offers the opportunity to begin memorizing Shas as well. Perhaps by means of this sefer a new curriculum can be launched that will require students to know where all the sugyos of their masechta are found.
What kind of feedback have you been receiving?
Baruch Hashem we have only received nice letters from people. There have been several comments suggesting that we cross-reference a word, but to my surprise there have only been 4 or 5 “gotcha” letters. I thought there would be more. The marei mekomos are nearly 100 percent accurate. Do we have every entry? Well, if there is one a reader can’t find, please tell us and we will put it in the next edition. This is dynamic work in progress and it is still growing.
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