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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Tzuras Ha-Daf

My son, a recent Bar Mitzvah, is a subscriber to the new Koren Talmud, which features Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s translation and commentary in English.  The new "Steinsaltz" may find adherents among Talmud students at all levels, but it should be especially well received by those interested in the peshat, or basic comprehension, of the Talmud page.  Often dismissed as “making a laining,” acquiring peshat is an undervalued goal of Talmud study and Talmud education.   

Facilitating readability with punctuation, vocalization, and an expansive translation, the Koren edition -- like its Hebrew predecessor -- 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 Steinsaltz fans have enjoyed for decades, and we can celebrate the fact that this 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, publisher Matthew Miller proudly extols "the classic tzurat hadaf (pagination) of Vilna, used by scholars since the 1800s."  Indeed, he places tzurat hadaf at the top of the list of the new edition'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 is a regression, reversing the groundbreaking approach of the flagship edition.  When it first appeared, an outstanding feature of the Steinsaltz -- second only to the Modern Hebrew translation -- was the new layout, a fundamental and deliberate departure from the standard Vilna pagination. Aside from vocalization and punctuation, Rabbi Steinsaltz introduced a new system of paragraphs to break up the text into logical sections. And, he split each amud of the Vilna page into a two-page spread.  For many Talmud students, the modern look-and-feel of that edition was, and remains, its most appealing feature. To its detractors as well as its advocates, the first Steinsaltz did away with tzuras ha-daf in its current literal sense.

On the pages of the Koren, something is gained, but something is also lost.  The original Steinsaltz has a tangible airiness -- there is ample spacing between lines of mostly 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 layout of the late nineteenth-century Romm family Talmud down to the width of each line).  Side by side with the Koren, the Vilna-Romm edition is actually 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.  Neither the original Steinsaltz nor, for that matter, any modern, punctuated edition has 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.  We enable greater -- not less -- textual mastery, and detract nothing from genuine tradition, by advancing the aesthetics and clarity of the Talmud page.    

But it is still comforting, I suppose, that this revised Steinsaltz might now be acceptable to a certain segment of the community that could not stomach the original.

There is a certain irony to the term tzuras ha-daf.  Ancient and medieval philosophers 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. I think we can all agree that the layout of the Vilna Shas is far from a Platonic form. Rather than tzuras ha-daf, chomer ha-daf more accurately conveys an obsession with layout.  In its truest sense, tzurat ha-daf is the text and its meaning, rather than its appearance.  

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, then pagination is only a sacred cow.