Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the first-ever index to the great, intricate body of Jewish law, the Talmud—whose existence and provenance was reported yesterday by Joseph Berger in the New York Times—isn’t who made it. Yes, it’s remarkable that HaMafteach (“the Key”), the 30,000-plus entry index to the 63-volume Talmud (yours in Hebrew or English for less than $30!) is the handiwork not of an esteemed committee of rabbis who worked on it for decades, full-time, but of one Daniel Retter, an immigration attorney from the Bronx. What’s absolutely incredible is that nobody has ever done it before. The Talmud was definitively compiled in 540, and give or take movable type, word processing, and a few other innovations, the same technology Retter used to create his defiantly non-hyperlinked tome has been available to generations of sages. (And on the other hand you can read the Talmud on your iPad.) Yet this is the only one of its kind.
This new advance—which has received the blessing even of eminent rabbis—seems to me a function of the Jews’ current status as well as of the status of humanity’s collective consciousness. “The Talmud was written in exile, and it was the thread that kept Jews together,” Retter says in the article. “It was a book that was to be transmitted orally from father to son.” It’s an insightful observation: The Talmud was about more than the laws of the Jews; it was itself an instrument of the propagation of the Jews, an agreed-upon device for forcing Jews to constantly think about and study Judaism. But in the Jews’ postmodern state, with Diaspora eliminated either via aliyah or the comfortable blend of assimilation and domesticity most American Jews would claim, the Talmud has lost that function, and so an index—a way to make studying Talmud easier—no longer seems at cross-purposes with one aspect of the Talmud’s existence.
And while the index itself demands no computer, the efficiencies and conveniences of advanced computing have conditioned us to expect the ease and the speed that the index enables. The article’s kicker, predictably, relays the information that if you find errors in the index, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Clearly the index isn’t unrelated to the Internet. But it’s still wonderful that the thing itself is totally old-school.
Speaking of which, this isn’t the Times’ most-emailed article? What are you people waiting for?