When I was first learning Gemara, before the advent of Artscroll, if you wanted a text that could help you out, you basically had two choices. The old-school choice was the Soncino translation, an English version of the Gemara that was written in a vocabulary almost as difficult as the Hebrew/Aramaic original. Alternatively, there was the Steinsaltz Gemara, a new and new-fangled version that was quite intriguing. Rather than maintain the classic "Vilna" layout of the page, Steinsaltz broke the text into topical paragraphs, added punctuation, and included his own running commentary/explanation alongside those of Rashi and Tosafot, the two "big guns" on the standard page. For making all of these seemingly helpful changes to the page (not to the text, which remained the same), Steinsaltz was widely excoriated and shunned, and by the time he finally got around to completing his massive work, the Artscroll revolution was upon us.
You can read more about the controversy over Steinsaltz's Gemara at this post by my friend David Zinberg. The main issue that he raises is one that is bubbling up right now for Jewish educators - do we even need to hand our students actual Gemaras (or Chumashing or Mishnayot or Neviim) anymore? I am speaking specifically about schools that are trying out iPads for all students - there are several apps, some of them free, that contain the complete text of many classic Jewish texts. Why not just have the students reference that version of the text on the same device that they are using to take notes? It would avoid having students forget their books, and would provide opportunities for all sorts of innovative ways to learn and study.
One issue that Zinberg points out is the veneration of the classic Vilna layout of the page, completed between 1880 and 1886 by the Romm publishing house. In truth, the basic layout goes even further back and the Romm edition is merely the latest one to gain near-total acceptance. Steinsaltz took heat for breaking that down. Meanwhile, versions of the Gemara that add vowels to the Vilna page are seen perhaps as a crutch, but not as a threat, and the Artscroll Gemara, which severely reduces the need for the learner to put in all that much effort, has been heralded as the greatest thing to happen to Torah learning since Sinai. The Artscroll iPad app, for all of its innovation, kept the standard page layout, and thus has received many of the same accolades as the print edition.
But should any of that matter? Ask any Gemara teacher in Middle School or High School to list the skills that he or she is teaching, and "knowing how to navigate the standard page of Gemara" will certainly be on the list, but will likely be something to which only a small amount of time is devoted. Vocabulary, key words, identifying whether a Tanna or an Amora is speaking, learning the different parts of the Gemara's argument - these are the key skills which occupy our time in the classroom, and they can all be learned regardless of the page layout. By contrast, no such insistence on a page layout is required or even desired in any of the other text-based Judaic subjects - we tend to look for the edition that will work best for the students.
I am not saying that using a running text of the Gemara using the U'v'lechtecha BaDerech app is necessarily the best way to go. Perhaps the sugya-based iBooks currently being crowdsourced through an effort of Rabbi Mordechai Smolarcik will be the wave of the future. On the other hand, I can think of a variety of reasons why I might prefer an old-school paper edition of the Gemara in my classroom. However, it is an issue whose time has come and that we should be prepared to explain to ourselves and our students why we are using whichever version of the text that we have decided to use.
What are your thoughts on the matter? Please share in the comments section.