Nazir 33

Science and Health

On today’s daf, we get a once-in-the Talmud experience: a page of Talmud with no Talmud on it! That’s right, Nazir 33b is unique in the Babylonian Talmud for having no actual Talmud on it. The page is instead completely filled by the commentary of the medieval group of commentators known as Tosafot. That’s why the English version on Sefaria jumps straight from 33a to 34a.

How did we get a page of Talmud with no Talmud in it? To understand that, we have to go back to 1519, when a Christian man named Daniel Bomberg and his publishing house began to publish what would become the first printed edition of the complete Babylonian Talmud. We call this text “the Bomberg Talmud” or the “Venice Print Edition,” because that’s where Bomberg set up his publishing house.

Before the advent of the printing press, the Talmud was transmitted, studied and sold as handwritten manuscripts. Each manuscript was unique in its pagination, depending on the size of the page, the size of the scribe’s handwriting, and which commentaries — if any — a client might have wanted included. But printing led to greater standardization. 

Bomberg wasn’t the first person to print the Babylonian Talmud. The Soncino family in Italy had already published specific tractates (mostly ones that were popular in the rabbinic curriculum and so were likely to sell many copies). The Soncino family innovated two important things: the idea of standard pages and the inclusion of the medieval commentaries of Rashi and Tosafot in the margins.

But Bomberg went a step further — publishing the entire Babylonian Talmud. In general, the structure laid out by the Soncinos worked just fine. But what to do if faced with a lot of commentary on a short amount of text? That’s what happened with the fifth chapter of tractate Nazir. Tosafot had a lot to say — so much to say that it didn’t all fit in the usual margins. 

And so the printers made an unusual decision to dedicate an entire page of the printed edition to catching up with Tosafot. Nazir 33b presents Tosafot’s commentary not only on Nazir 33a, but going back as far as Nazir 31b — for a total of four pages of Tosafot’s commentary.

Except it’s actually even weirder than that. Because for some reason, in this chapter of Nazir, the editors made another decision too — they first published all the Tosafot commentaries on all the mishnahs in chapter 5, and then published the Tosafot commentaries on all the Gemara, even though the printed text of the Talmud goes back and forth. 

Why did the printers decide to organize this chapter’s Tosafot this way? I’ve been unable to find an answer to this question in the historical scholarship, so if you know of one, please let me know!

But in the meantime, today’s daf reminds us that understanding what is going on in the Talmud requires understanding the logic and meaning of the text, the world in which it was written and also the world in which it was printed. For more on the history of the printed editions of the Talmud, check out Marvin J. Heller’s Printing the Talmud: A History of the Earliest Printed Editions of the Talmud (Brooklyn, 1992).

Read all of Nazir 33 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 23rd, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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