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Thursday, July 20, 2017

Daniel Retter teaches Daf Yomi at the Young Israel in Riverdale. (Credit: The New York Times)

HaRav Boruch Dov Povarsky, shlita, rosh yeshiva Ponevezh, with Daniel Retter in his home, discussing HaMafteach, and the document is a haskama signed by Rav Povarsky with Harav Hagaon R’ Steinman’s endorsement.

The HaMafteach app (Credit: googleplay.com)

In 2011, Daniel Retter, a serious Talmudist by avocation and attorney by vocation, published, after seven years of work, the first-ever comprehensive index of the Babylonian Talmud and Mishnayot in one volume of Hebrew and English each, called HaMafteach® (The Key). It was published in hardbound form. A second, enhanced edition was published in 2014, and has since been issued in various formats in English and Hebrew. Now, it has become available as a free app on both Apple and Android devices.

Retter has been learning and teaching the Daf Yomi (daily Talmud portion) for decades. When he moved to Riverdale in 1988 he started davening at the Young Israel of Riverdale, where there was no Daf Yomi shiur. Retter then started the Daf Yomi shiur (there are now four daily Daf Yomi shiurim at the Young Israel) where he still teaches a daily Daf Yomi shiur that is well attended until this day.

Retter always wondered why there was never an index created to help navigate the complex labyrinth of concepts and subject matter that comprise the Talmud. “With law books, when you want to look up a law or case, there is an index. Every educational or academic work has an index. So I thought, the Talmud should also have an index,” Mr. Retter said. “I wanted to do it, because I found it necessary. Because it didn’t exist, and had never been done before.”

Usually, when someone writes a sefer, they first finish writing it, and then go to their local rabbi and roshei yeshiva to ask for haskamot (approbations). However, following the advice of his wife, attorney Margaret Retter, Mr. Retter decided to gather haskamot first. “My wife said to me, this sefer you are writing is revolutionary, and frum Jews don’t like revolutionary things. As the Chasam Sofer so famously said, ‘Chadash asur min haTorah’—any ‘new’ thing is ‘forbidden’ by the Torah, actually a play on the prohibition of new grain before the Omer, which is called ‘chadash,’” he said. “So I traveled the world. I met with roshei yeshiva, rabbanim, admorim (rebbes), both Sephardic and Ashkenazic, Litvish and chasidish, both in Israel and in America. I showed them samples and they loved it. They said, ‘Finish it as fast as you can.’”

A potential concern voiced was, “Does HaMafteach make Talmud study too easy?” One of HaMafteach’s haskamot proved key in clarifying this matter. As Retter told Michel Martin of NPR radio in 2012, “My rabbi, Rabbi [Mordechai] Willig, wrote in his approbation, or his haskama, to my book, ‘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 [Yitzchak] Hutner, z”l, the former rosh yeshiva of 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 (the) question directly, I do not think that there’s any purpose or reward in looking for something if it can be found more easily.”

This is especially relevant today, Retter said, because of the dramatic increase in the typical class size in a yeshiva. “In the olden days, a yeshiva or cheder was very small, with 10-20 talmidim in a class,” he explained. “Today, you have the Mir Yeshiva with 5,000 talmidim, Lakewood with 7,000 talmidim, with one rebbe walking around the whole beis midrash. HaMafteach gives the talmidim the ability to find a source without running to ask the rebbe, which would be bitul zman [wasting time].”

Another factor that reinforced Retter’s decision to create HaMafteach was, in Retter’s words, “the combination of a growing baal teshuva movement, the popularity of the Daf Yomi movement and the Artscroll Talmud publication, all at the same time.” This was something that motivated him. “Friends of mine who were baalei teshuva asked me, how come there’s no index? How come I can’t look up something?” Retter said. “HaMafteach helps make Talmud learning convenient and accessible to everyone, regardless of background.”

In essence, Retter has done for the Talmud (lehavdil) what Carl Linnaeus has done for biology with his first-ever taxonomy system, which forever made the field more navigable and organized. Until HaMafteach®, we had to make do with “A Dictionary of the Targumim, Talmud Bavli, Talmud Yerushalmi and Midrashic Literature,” or the Index Volume, which was not in accordance with the Talmud’s daf foliation, or the Soncino Edition of the Talmud. Those with access to very good Talmudical libraries were able to consult the concordances to the Tosefta, Targum Onkelos and the monumental concordance to the Babylonian Talmud, all produced by Chaim Yehoshua Kosovsky.

Still, none of these do what HaMafteach does. This taxonomy, which classifies the Talmud into 7,700 main entries and 29,000 sub-entries, is a tour-de-force. In the print edition, HaMafteach® is your key to opening up the Talmud, both in English and Hebrew volumes, in a most beautiful layout by the famous graphic designer Ben Gasner, which helps you locate every topic, saying, anecdote, maxim, parable, significant subject matter, law, biblical exegesis and biblical and Talmudic personalities mentioned in Shas and Mishnayot. The English edition includes transliteration of Hebrew and Aramaic words and phrases, with a copyrighted integrated glossary.

“It facilitates public speaking... it is very helpful for those who want to give chaburas, drashos and classes, or if someone wants to give a speech at a sheva brachos,” Retter said about his sefer. “Most important, it stops the frustration of talmidim who learn something and want to remember where to find it.”

Now, Android and iOS users, rejoice. Retter has now made HaMafteach available online—at no charge. Go to https://appadvice.com/app/hamafteach/1097860566 for iOS and to https://play.google.com/store/apps/developer?id=HaMafteach+LLC for the Android version. To use the app, simply enter your search term (in Hebrew or English).

For each “hit,” one click brings up the Hebrew-only tzurat hadaf, the traditional page of the Talmud, where the term or topic is located, based on the Vilna Shas. All 2,711 folio pages (both amudim of each daf) are included. The response pops up lickety-split.

The app was just recently released, and we can expect ongoing improvements, according to Mr. Retter. I certainly suggest trying out HaMafteach, whether in print or on your phone. As Retter said simply, “It is a great tool for those who love learning.”

Retter has just revealed that after three more years of research and work, he has added about 40 percent more topics and sources (mareh mekomot) to a new HaMafteach®, which is now bound in the back of each mesechta. The well-known Shas publishers Vagshal-Moznaim have recently bound this newly updated Hamafteach® in the back of the individual volumes of Masechtot Gittin and Kiddushin. “In this manner, students of the Talmud can just turn to the back of their individual Gemaras and find what they are looking for, whether it is a topic they have just learned, or wish to find, without leaving their seats and wasting any time,” Retter explained. Finally, Retter has just announced he will offer this new “back of the Gemara” edition to any publisher who wishes to avail himself of this new, upgraded and comprehensive Hamafteach®, at no charge.

David E. Y. Sarna is a writer, retired entrepreneur and contributor to The Jewish Link. He has eight published books, including “History of Greed: Financial Fraud from Tulip Mania to Bernie Madoff,” “Evernote for Dummies” and “Implementing and Developing Cloud Computing Applications” and hundreds of articles, and is currently working on his first novel about the Jewish treasures in the Vatican’s secret archive, as well as books about the internet of things, and on the Talmud for general readers. He and his wife, Dr. Rachel Sarna, are long-time Teaneck residents.

By David Sarna and Rachel Retter

 Rachel Retter, a new graduate of Manhattan of High School for Girls, is a returning Jewish Link intern and contributor, and the proud granddaughter of 

Daniel Retter.