Interesting explanation about the traditional layout of the Talmud. From Andrew on the Marks and Meaning mailing list
I’m reminded as you discuss this of the arrangement of texts in a traditional manuscript copy of the Talmud. Most printed copies are a bit different, but originally a Talmud page was divided into nine squares like a tic-tac-toe grid. Sometimes the central box was further subdivided, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The central box served as the location of the primary text to be analyzed in the original Hebrew — usually it was a Torah or Haftorah portion. The boxes to the left and right were explanations of the vowel-pointing for this piece of text; in other words, they were commentaries on what the Hebrew ./meant./ — what actual words were in play here, along with a brief definition of unusual or rare words. The boxes above and below the main text were set up to act as containers for alternate versions of the story, or stories that played off of elements in the center box.
The four corner pieces were commentaries on the main text from Rabbis Hillel, Gamaliel, and the other two — eminent masters riffing jazz- like off of the core beat at the center, or arguing the left-right interpretations, or further explicating the up-down side-stories.
All of the boxes — ALL — would shift size on the page to accommodate all the various elements. If there was a long commentary from one of the rabbis but little else, that box would expand, and the Torah portion would shrink until it was only the verse, or even the word, relevant to that commentary. Conversely, (though it didn’t happen often), if there were a long story in the Torah with little commentary, several verses would get squeezed into one large box, with eight small and almost empty boxes circling it.
The point was, there were nine books crammed into one. Hillel always occupied the same square on the page. The Babylonian Haggadah (stories) was always above the Torah, the Palestinian Haggadah always below. You could read one commentator exclusively, or read the Torah or Haftorah exclusively, or try to read all the commentaries on all of Torah simultaneously.
Ed also posted some more visual links:
An annotated page: http://www.ucalgary.ca/~elsegal/TalmudPage.html
Talmud style layout in HTML (with fixed size boxes, so not precisely) http://www.ucalgary.ca/~elsegal/TalmudMap/Samples.html