Today marks the start of a new tractate in the Daf Yomi cycle: Avodah Zarah, which largely deals with the relationships Jews may and may not have with their idol worshiping neighbors. While most of these neighbors are described as idol worshipers or heretics, in at least three places the text refers to them as נוצרים - Christians.
The problem is that you might never know this if you are using the censored version of the Talmud. Over the centuries, this version became the standard Hebrew text. It is found in nearly all editions based of the so-called "Vilna Shas" edition, first published by The Widow and Brothers Romm in 1886. It is also the basis for the text used in the Schottenstien Talmud.
Censorship in Masechet Avodah Zarah
Consider this section from Avodah Zarah 6a, which discusses rules about business dealings. As you can see, the standard text makes no mention of with whom we may not do business on a Sunday. In the Schottenstein (Art Scroll) edition the translation adds this explanation: It refers to "Babylonian pagans who observe a sun-worshipping festival every Sunday."
Except, it doesn't. Or at least it didn't. Here is the same text found in a 14th century manuscript, from the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris (Suppl. Heb 1337).
The text reads:
אמ[ר] שמואל נוצרי לדברי ר[בי] ישמע[אל] לעולם אסור
Shmuel says: According to Rabbi Yishmael, it is always prohibited to engage in business with Christians, [as their festival takes place every Sunday].
In the original, pre-censored Talmudic text, it is Christians with whom we are forbidden to do business on a Sunday. Not Babylonian pagans. The more recent Koren Talmud restores the text to its original:
There are at least two other instances in Avodah Zarah (6a and 7b) in which the Koren Talmud restores the text and uses the word Christian. Later on (17a,) an entire passage containing the words ישו הנוצרי - Jesus of Nazereth has been redacted. It can be found in the restored Koren edition:
The Truth and Its Consequences
Using the original uncensored text raises its own set of uncomfortable questions about our original relationship to Christianity. But using the censored text can lead to some silly outcomes. Here is an example, (based on a review essay of the Koren Talmud I wrote here).
The text of the Talmud in Berachot 3a describes God sitting through the night, mourning the loss of his Temple. The original uncensored text reads:
אוי לי שהחרבתי את ביתי ושרפתי את היכלי והגליתים לבין אומות העולם
Woe is me, for I destroyed my Temple, and I burned my Sanctuary, and I exiled them among the nations of the world.
However, the text of the English Schottenstein (and the Soncino) edition reads as follows:
אוי לבנים שבעונותיהם החרבתי את ביתי ושרפתי את היכלי והגליתים לבין אומות העולם
Woe to the children, because of whose sins I destroyed my Temple, and I burned my Sanctuary, and I exiled them among the nations of the world.
The additional words לבנים שבעונותיהם were added by Christian censors to make a theological statement about the fallen state of the Jews. The corrupted text was noted in Dikdukei Soferim, but none of this seems to have been evident to the editors of the English Schottenstein Talmud, who compounded the error by adding the following homiletic note to the corrupted text.
In its effort to comment on (nearly) everything, the Schottenstein edition added a homiletic explanation of a corrupt text written (almost certainly) by a Jewish apostate serving as Christian censor. Fortunately, the Hebrew and English editions of the Koren, together with the Hebrew edition of the Schottenstein (ArtScroll) Talmud returned the text to its original and uncensored form. No homiletic gymnastics needed.
Where did Avodah Zarah Go?
One of the early editions of Talmud was printed in Basel in 1580. According to Marvin Heller, (who knows everything about early Hebrew printing and the printing of the Talmud) it was "the most heavily censored edition of the printed Talmud. One tractate, Avodah Zarah was entirely omitted, the name alone being sufficient to disqualify it."
There were Christian censors to be sure. But Elisheva Carelbach, in her essay The Status of the Talmud in Early Modern Europe, notes that ironically, the Talmud may have been spared further decimation because of the intercession of Christian scholars:
So now, as we embark on the study of tractate Avodah Zarah, which edition will you be using? And which edition should you be using?