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I would like to see the pages of an actual Vilna Shas. I know there are many many reprints out there in bookstores, my bookshelf, and websites like http://www.e-daf.com, but that's not what I want. I want to see the pages of a book which was printed in Vilna and came off a 19th century printing press owned by the Romm brothers. Although I would love to see it in person, that's probably impossible so I'll settle for online scans. While images of a page here or there are nice, I'd really like to see a whole masechet or more including all the title pages, commentaries in the back, etc. Any leads?

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+500

Well it took me almost a year, but I can now answer my own question.

In Person The National Library of Israel has everything (and I mean everything) you could ever want when it comes to Hebrew books. Although they don't allow people to check out their rare books, you can sit in the reading room and read anything in their collection for as long as you like. They have an original Vilna shas so I got to sit down with it when I was in Jerusalem this summer. I even took the book selfie to prove it (although I forgot you're apparently supposed to smile in Selfies. I'm new to that). Vilna shas.

Online The library had actually done a high res scan of the entire set a number of years ago. However, it was mistakenly marked as being copyrighted and therefore not accessible to outsiders. After talking to a colleague there he managed to get this corrected, and the scan is now available to the public in high res and full color.

Why? I'm sure some people thought it was an odd thing to want - after all there are plenty of reproductions. This scan is much clearer than any of the other scans online. It's also complete - it includes all the stuff in the back like the Rif, the Maharsha, and Rambam's mishnah commentary that aren't found in most online scans which only focus on the Talmud itself. It also answers definitively what is included in each masechet as not all reproductions do that accurately. Many leave out some of the smaller commentaries like Rashash, Maharam Shiff, the mishnah commentaries, the Tosefta, or others. (Also interestingly many volumes had some other commentaries like the Rif bumped off into a separate volume). I can also see what things have been modified by modern publishers unsurprisingly the censor’s stamp I saw in the original is not present in any modern reproduction, and the printer's identity on the cover page is usually photoshopped out. Lastly it's just awesome to hold and look at. Since the original was printed on a real printing press, you can actually see the imprint in the paper where the force of the movable type made indentations in the paper. It's a little piece of Jewish history and as an avowed bibliophile, I'm thrilled to have had a chance just to hold it.

Dec 2016 - edit to add

Another source for online scans is the Russian National Library, who is currently claiming ownership of a part of the Chabad library. They actually have a very good interface for reading and skimming, you just have to be able to navigate the Russian interface. If you want a specific masechet, go to this page and add the name of the masechet you want in Hebrew to the search - it should come up. For example, here's a direct link to the censor's stamp in brachot (something thankfully not present in reprints).

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    Lemme get this straight: you got that scan opened to the public online? – Double AA Dec 2 '15 at 5:41
  • @DoubleAA Not directly - I just pestered someone at the NLI and he actually took care of it. – Popular Isn't Right Dec 2 '15 at 5:42
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    Ok but it wouldn't have ever happened without you. On behalf of the internet, I thank you! – Double AA Dec 2 '15 at 5:43
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    @DoubleAA, Some other things the Internet can thank Bachrach44 for: blog.sefaria.org/author/bachrach44 – Isaac Moses Dec 2 '15 at 6:45
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    Those Hi-Res images are heating up my computer. Literally. Yow. – Laizer Dec 3 '15 at 22:05

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