Thursday, March 05, 2009

Small-Format Gemaras

On a mailing list, someone wrote:
If amudei gemara were also divided into smaller chunks and larger fonts per printed page, I'm sure that it would induce greater concentration and ultimately better results amongst those who are in need of proficiency.
Such gemaras used to exist, but the only one in modern times has been the Steinsaltz English edition.

A bit of publishing history:

The pagination of the Gemara has remained consistent since Daniel Bomberg published the first full shas in 1520-1523 in Venice. Since then, any reference to, e.g., Eruvin 23a, has always referred to the same page. The arrangement of the columns, between Rashi, text and Tosfos, may differ based on differing relative font sizes, but the same content is on the same page in every printed Gemara.

Shaar-blatt (cover page, usually framed with a gateway, although not in this case, hence the term shaar-blatt) of Frankfurt-an-der-Oder/Berlin 1735 edition:

and a sample page:

Click on the images for larger-size views. Note that I have a foot-rule in most of the images, for comparative size. Sorry it's so shiny, so you can't actually see most of the inch-markers, it's what I could find in the house. Note that this full-size (folio) edition has the same pagination as today.

Starting in the early 1700s, though, people realized that folio-sized Gemaras are inconvenient when traveling. Also, small individual tractates were no threat to the full folio gemara publishers. So there arose a split-page gemara style. Each two-page spread covered one amud of the standard Talmud. So two pages covered Eruvin 23a, then the next two pages covered Eruvin 23b, then two pages for 24a etc.

Shaar-blatt for Amsterdam 1743 Beitzah. This was one of a very few, mostly short, masechtot printed by Proops in this format in the late 1730s and early 1740s. Others include Ta'anit and Rosh Hashanah:

Sample page. Note that this format, unlike most, has two special features:

1) Maharsha on the same page, instead of in the back;

2) Rubricated Rashis - the "dibur hamatchil", cited phrase, at the beginning of each comment in Rashi is in square letters, to bring it to the reader's attention, instead of the semi-cursive (rashi) letters of the rest of the commentary. I have not seen this feature in any other gemara down to the modern era, say, the past 20 years.

Note the pagination in the above example. Both pages are headed

29 Hameivi Tractate Beitza Side 2

but the left page also has a page number 57 in the corner, which is the real physical page (leaf) number.

These small-format Talmuds were fairly popular for over 150 years, until in the 20th century photolithography allowed one to reduce the size of an existing page for reprinting. Since then, almost all small-format Talmuds have been just reductions of the Vilna page. Given the 16" size of a Vilna Talmud page, the normal desk-size sets that one gives for bar-mitzvah presents, a page reduced to 8" becomes so small as to be barely readable. Half-daf portable Talmuds, as described above, were quite readable at 7-9" height, because that was the size at which they were initially typeset.

Thus, since the Vilna edition,

most reduced-size Talmuds have just been reductions of the Vilna pages.

Note the above Vilna page, a full 16" high. It's a real Vilna volume, albeit a late (1920s) printing. A co-worker found it on a garbage pile in Boro Park, and passed it along to me, knowing I like old seforim.

There were some reduced-size real reprintings, such as in Warsaw by the Orgelbrand press and others, which put out a small-sized Talmud set (I have a few volumes):

c. 1864, where the main text and the Rashi/Tosfos were printed in the same size, just with different typefaces, as you can see in the detail below:

This allowed them to crush an entire Bomberg folio page into one small-format page, at a mostly-readable size.

The Lemberg edition of the 1860s was the last of the two-for-one-page editions of the regular Talmud.

shaar-blatt of Lemberg Yoma. This was part of a complete Shas set, as was its copy in the Bennet shas:

sample page:

Note, in the Lemberg edition, the Tosfos Yesheinim, which is on the main page in the Vilna edition in the margins, is relegated to the back of the book, to save space. It's really only the Vilna edition and its imitators that have real prose commentaries in the outer margins, such as Rabbeinu Chananel, Rabbeinu Gershom, and Tosfos Yesheinim on Yoma.

The Steinsaltz English edition also uses a two-for-one-page layout, but their commentaries are all in English. The Rebecca Bennet edition of 1959, small red hardcovers you might have seen in batei midrash or older people's homes, used a reduced copy of the Lemberg edition for the Hebrew side, and Soncino for the English.

Bennet's edition, using the Soncino English translation without authorization, is noted in Habermann's bibliography of the talmud with two words:

Washington Heights, 1959: Without authorization.
This was perhaps the first, but not the last, of a long string of unauthorized reprintings of the Soncino English Talmud: MP Press, which came out when I was in high school in the 1980s, was the first to have folio-size pages for both the English and Hebrew. Soncino later came out with their own folio-sized parallel edition. Then there's an antisemitic website that has about half of the Soncino Talmud. Several people have written to Soncino about it, but they have not done anything to enforce their copyright. Oh well.

I've also seen tiny pocket-sized reductions of the Lemberg text; since you're starting with a smaller page, you can get really tiny yet still readable. This one, from the Moriah press in Israel, is less than 5" tall. Yet it's still readable, starting from the initally smaller-format Lemberg page.

Marvin Heller has written a whole book, a second volume of his "Printing the Talmud," on the subject. It is primarily a bibliography of these reduced-size editions from 1700-1750.

Sizes of Talmuds described in the text:

Full-page Talmuds

Place published


Height (inches)







Warsaw (quarto)



Half-page Talmuds







Bennet (after Lemberg)



Moriah (after Lemberg)



Since it is quite popular to learn on the subway, and as Daf Yomi has gotten more and more popular, it seems to me that one of the talmud publishers, who already has the entire text in computer form, such as the Friedman Edition or the New Vilna Shas, should put out two-for-one-page travel editions of Shas. They already produce reduced-size editions with new Hebrew commentaries for the daf-yomi traveling learner. As the Daf Yomi learners age, larger print would be better, so perhaps it's time to bring back the 2-for-1 page travel editions.


Lion of Zion said...

nice post.
who was rebecca bennet? how did she and MP press get away with what they did?
(i always wanted a complete rebecca bennet set)

thanbo said...

Soncino may not have registered their copyright in the US. Remember the first American paperback of the LOTR was unauthorized as well. The US didn't sign onto the Berne copyright treaty until 1972.

Wolf2191 said...

R Kook wanted to publish something like this (see Igrot Riyah V. 1) but it neer happened

Wolf2191 said...

R Kook wanted to publish something like this (see Igrot Riyah V. 1) but it neer happened

Wolf2191 said...

R Kook wanted to publish something like this (see Igrot Riyah V. 1) but it neer happened

Nachum said...

Soncino Hebrew is also two amudim for each amud, and they make a smaller size.

The LOTR issue was that the American editions were essentially the British-printed pages with new covers, so it was figured that no American copyright had been established, since it had never been published in the US. That allowed another publisher to jump in and print an edition.

I think MP also went by the name "Traditional Press" and was published by the H&M Skullcap seforim store on the Lower East Side. Soncino, I think, had never made an effort to establish copyright here, and hadn't yet published (at least the Talmud) in the US.

The irony is that, in my opinion, the all-English edition is superior.

I've also seen an MP edition of the El Am masechtot. (Also smaller dafim, and in English!) Not sure if those were authorized- they (or the originals, at least) were printed in Israel.

Nachum said...

Replace "Soncino" in the first line with "Steinsaltz."