Facilitating readability with punctuation, vocalization, and an expansive translation, the Koren edition also provides context to a sugya with topical discussions (“Notes”), halakhic summaries (“Halakha”), biography (“Personalities”), etymology (“Language”), and other realia (“Background”) in the margins of the daf. These are the same features that Steinsaltz fans have enjoyed for decades, and we can celebrate the fact that the same high-quality product is now accessible to those without training in Modern Hebrew (a growing number of us, sadly, even in the Modern Orthodox community).
The translation-commentary and the supporting material are not the only innovations of the Koren. At least as significant -- in Koren’s view, at least -- are the updated “Vilna Shas” pages at the back (or front) of each volume. In his introductory remarks to Berakhot, publisher Matthew Miller proudly extols "the classic tzurat hadaf (pagination) of Vilna, used by scholars since the 1800s." Indeed, he places tzurat hadaf first on the list of the Koren’s notable features.
Although it has many merits, the Vilna section of the Koren does not compare favorably with the original Hebrew-only Steinsaltz.
The return to the Vilna format (a trend that began some years ago with a tzurat ha-daf edition of the Hebrew Steinsaltz) is significant because it reverses the groundbreaking approach of the flagship edition. When it first appeared, an outstanding feature of the Steinsaltz -- second only to the Modern Hebrew translation of the text -- was the new layout, a fundamental and deliberate departure from the standard Vilna pagination. For many Talmud students, the modern look-and-feel of the page was and remains the most appealing feature of that first version. Aside from vocalization and punctuation, a new system of paragraphs was introduced to break up the text into logical sections. And, Steinsaltz split each amud of the Vilna page into a two-page spread. Hardly tzuras ha-daf in its current sense.
Something is gained in the Koren, but something is also lost. The original Steinsaltz page has a tangible airiness -- there is ample spacing between the lines, which typically have equal width -- allowing the reader to more easily follow and grasp the sometimes knotty text. The aesthetic clarity of the layout minimizes intimidation and eases the way to comprehension. In contrast, the punctuated Vilna pages of the Koren feel busy and crowded (true to their tzuras ha-daf ideal, the Koren editors painstakingly mirrored the Vilna pagination down to the width of each line). Side by side with the Koren, the original Romm family Vilna Shas is neater and more welcoming, despite its lack of nikud.
An idealization of the Vilna layout also appears to underlie a baffling practice in contemporary early Talmud education. The original Steinsaltz -- or, for that matter, any modern, punctuated edition -- has not been widely adopted in elementary and high school yeshivot. Some educators apparently assign more value to tzuras ha-daf than to textual clarity; I have heard others argue that a Spartan diet of Talmud without “dots” will serve our children well as they advance in Torah study. But when young students are introduced to Chumash, do we insist that they read from the layout found in the Sefer Torah, where tzurat ha-daf actually has some halakhic significance? Do we worry that our children will become textually impaired by relying on nikud and separations between verses? Sixth and seventh-graders especially, but advanced students as well, waste time, energy, and precious educational resources parsing a text that is difficult to understand even after it can be read. But it is some comfort, I suppose, that Koren's Vilna Shas might be acceptable to a segment of those who resisted the original Steinsaltz.
There is a certain irony to the term tzuras ha-daf. Ancient and medieval thinkers -- Jewish and otherwise -- distinguished between chomer (matter) and tzurah (form). Plato, most famously, spoke of a world of ideal forms, representing perfect reality. Shadows of those forms, he said, exist in our world only in their inferior, material manifestations. We can all agree, I think, that the layout of the Vilna Shas is far from a Platonic form. Rather, that edition enhanced what was already a conventional pagination with the most advanced printing technology of the late nineteenth century. We enable greater textual mastery, and detract nothing from tradition, by further advancing the aesthetics and clarity of the Talmud page. Rather than tzuras ha-daf, chomer ha-daf more accurately conveys the idea of pagination frozen in time. The true tzuras ha-daf is the essence of the text, its meaning.
One hundred years from now, tzuras ha-daf may mean something radically different than it does today. In our nascent digital age, e-readers of all kinds have made the format of the printed page mostly irrelevant. I suspect that many Talmud students have already sacrificed tzuras ha-daf for the convenience of studying on their iPads (though, to be fair, a Vilna-based app is available in the ArtScroll Digital Library).
Perhaps, on some level, the Talmud may be regarded as a sacred text, even if that category is normally reserved for Scripture. But if the text -- the true tzurah of the Talmud page -- is sacred, pagination is only a sacred cow.