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If one enters a beit midrash and takes out a masechta of Talmud, one will invariably find that it is typeset following the exact form of the page found in the edition from Vilna.

So here are two questions about that:

  1. Why did the Vilna edition become so widespread?
  2. When did it supersede other editions as the primary version of the Talmud?
  • The story of the vilna and slavita shas is well documented. Almost all the rabbonim in the world took sides. At the end R Akiva Eiger approved the Vilna shas. – cham Jun 3 '15 at 14:22
  • @cham, that was a different sha"s. It was also published by Romm, but it was an earlier edition (On the Mainline has a wonderful blog about the Acharit Davar to the more notable Vilna Sha"s: onthemainline.blogspot.com/2011/03/…) – Noach MiFrankfurt Jun 3 '15 at 15:20
  • Once the Romm brothers had the rights to be the only printers for several years, they had the monopoly. – HaLeiVi Jun 3 '15 at 17:00
  • @HaLeiVi, That doesn't explain why it's used so commonly by Sephardim and western/central Europeans – Noach MiFrankfurt Jun 3 '15 at 17:04
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    They were the only printers. It was a heavy investment. It took many years to produce. There was little room for startups. – HaLeiVi Jun 3 '15 at 17:14
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The Vilna Shas is relatively recent (it was published in 1886). It was the most extensive Talmud ever printed at that time, including dozens of early commentaries printed for the first time from manuscripts, as well as later commentaires, all painstakingly edited by talmidei chachamim. It took them six years to prepare the new edition. As such it was a superior product, and was highly successful.

In parallel, their main competitor, the Slavita Shas had sold out by 1835, and for different reasons that printing house was shut down by the government.

Add to this the power of memorization (talmidei chachamim know where on the page specific citations/commentaries are) which helped make it the standard.

Interestingly, the printing of the Vilna Shas was done on a "Kickstarter-like model": due to the substantial costs involved in the editing and printing, the publishers issued a notice to the public announcing their Talmud, together with a sample, and asking for pre-commitments to purchase it when it appeared. Response was overwhelmingly positive and launched the venture. The high investment required was another barrier to entry for competitors.

Finally, soon enough, Europe got engulfed in World War 1 and following, which massively restricted printing of new books. New editions of the Talmud only restarted to be prepared after the end of WW2.

The factbase above leverages Akiva Aaronson's People of the book, a wonderful book about Jewish books. See also here for further reading.

  • There were many other prints in Austria and Germany, so I suppose the key factor is the first. Despite the censorship, the quality of the Vilna Shas is very high, it's relatively free of typos, which was a big achievement in that period. And it's not independent from the fact that the centre of Talmudic knowledge moved to that region over the centuries from other parts of Europe. – Kazi bácsi yesterday
  • When you say print do you mean printers? And if yes did they have the resources to prepare their own shas? – mbloch yesterday
  • Anton Schmid in Vienna had three editions of the Talmud, and I'm sure there were others. – Kazi bácsi 22 hours ago

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