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Leon Modena

(1571 – 1648)

Leon Modena (Judah Areyeh mi-Modena) was a Venetian rabbi, cantor, preacher, teacher, author, and polemicist. His father, Isaac, came from an old French Jewish family which settled in Modena and, after they moved to Bologna and later Ferrara, retained the surname Modena. His mother, named Rachel, but renamed Diana by his father, came from an Ashkenazi family that had resettled in Italy. Leon Modena was born in Venice but spent his youth in Ferrara, Cologna, and Montagnana. He studied Bible, rabbinics, Hebrew language, poetry, letter writing, voice, music, dancing, Italian, and Latin. At the age of 13, he composed Kinah Shemor, a macaronic poem, sounding and meaning the same in Hebrew and Italian; translated sections of Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando furioso; and wrote a pastoral dialogue on gambling (1595/6).

In 1590, at the age of 19 after the death of his fiancée, his cousin Esther Simḥah, Modena married her sister Rachel and received the title of ḥaver. He wished to embark on a rabbinic career, so in 1592 he returned to Venice, but the Jewish lay leaders raised the age of ordination to 35 and then 40. Modena, therefore, had to create his own opportunities for income and recognition until he was ordained in 1609.

Modena used his skills to serve as a legal clerk for the leading rabbis of Venice; a teacher of Hebrew and rabbinics for students of all ages; a popular preacher; a proofreader, expediter, and author of dedicatory poems in the Venetian Hebrew publishing industry; author of many Hebrew tombstone epitaphs, including his own; and a letter writer for his students. He also turned to gambling, a popular form of entertainment in Venice. Indeed, due to both emotional and financial distress, he gambled intermittently, despite his own better judgment, with both Christians and Jews, for the rest of his life.

Unable to earn a living in Venice, Modena moved to Ferrara from 1604 to 1607 where he functioned as a rabbi and taught for a wealthy family. During these years Modena made a successful presentation concerning Jewish moneylending before the papal legate, sided with most of the rabbis of northern Italy against the rabbis of Venice in a continuing controversy over a ritual bath in Rovigo, and supported a major musical performance in Ferrara that took place in the synagogue on Friday evening, Tu be-Av. He spent another year abroad in Florence (1609–10).

Modena met with and taught Hebrew to many English and French Christians. One offered him a chair in Oriental languages in Paris which he refused, probably because he would have had to convert. Another commissioned him to write for James I a description of Judaism, the Riti Ebraica, the first vernacular description of Judaism written by a Jew for a non-Jewish audience, first published in Paris in 1637 and subsequently republished and translated many times.

In his published books, Modena demonstrated his skills as an author, teacher, and popularizer of rabbinic teachings. In Sod Yesharim (1594/5), he prefaced magic tricks, folk remedies, and Jewish riddles to a curriculum of biblical and rabbinic studies to make it attractive to young students. In Ẓemaḥ Ẓaddik (1600), he embellished a Hebrew translation of the most popular Italian book of the period, Fior di Virtù, removing Christian references and adding citations from traditional Jewish sources. In Midbar Yehudah (1602), he translated some of his Italian sermons into Hebrew. In Ẓeli Esh he made the first Italian translation of the Passover Haggadah (1609). In Galut Yehudah (1612), he tried to overcome Church laws against translating the Bible by providing a translation of difficult words, to which he later added a rabbinic glossary as well (1640). In Lev Aryeh (1612), he presented a Hebrew system of memory improvement, based on those popular in Venice, as a preface to a work on the 613 commandments of Judaism. In his play, L'Ester (1619) he combined the current dramatic standards with traditional rabbinic sources. To the anthology Ein Yaakov, the major source for rabbinic materials in Italy where the Talmud was banned, Modena contributed an index, Beit Leḥem Yehudah (1625); a supplementary collection, Beit Yehudah (1635); and a commentary (Ha-Boneh, 1635). Modena's devotion to rabbinic learning and his educational program found expression in these books.

During his early years as a rabbi in Venice, Modena wrote some interesting responsa on contemporary Jewish cultural and legal issues, such as going about bareheaded and playing tennis or traveling by boat on the Sabbath. From his ordination until his death, Modena served as the chief Hebrew translator for the government and secretary for several organizations, including the Italian synagogue, where he also was elected cantor. In 1622 he prepared for press the first book of Hebrew music, Ha-Shirim asher li-Shelomo, by Salamone Rossi. He ordained candidates for the degrees of ḥaver and rabbi, including medical students in Padua, approved the decisions of other rabbis, and authorized books for publication, with the result that by 1618 he was referred to as a gaon, and an excellent, well-known, honored and brilliant preacher. By 1627 Modena signed his name first in order among the Venetian rabbis. In 1628 he was maestro di cappella for a Jewish academy of music, Accademia degli Impediti, which was popular both inside and outside the ghetto..

In 1630, when the leaders of the Jewish community tried to ban gambling, he published a Hebrew pamphlet in the form of a rabbinic responsum in which he questioned whether gambling was a sin according to Jewish belief and challenged the lay leaders' authority to issue such a ban without rabbinic approval. But even the rabbis of Venice, on whose behalf he argued, opposed his views.

Modena's most important writings remained unpublished during his lifetime. These included his defenses of rabbinic Judaism against Jewish critics, Christianity, and Jewish mysticism. He wrote Sha'agat Aryeh (1622) against Kol Sakhal, an anti-rabbinic work; Magen ve-Ẓinnah (c. 1618), a response against attacks on rabbinic Judaism; and Diffesa (1626), a defense of the Talmud against the apostate Sixtus of Sienna, whose appeal was based in part on his use of Kabbalah.

His critique of recent trends in Jewish mysticism, especially the spread of the new school of Lurianic Kabbalah and the impact of Christian utilization of Kabbalah on Jewish apostasy, included a trilogy of works: a tract against reincarnation, Ben David (1636); a text challenging the authenticity of the Kabbalah, Ari Noḥem (1639); an attack on Christian Kabbalah, Magen va-Ḥerev (1645, incomplete).

In Ḥayyei Yehudah, the first full-length Hebrew autobiography, Modena recorded many of the details of his unhappy but productive life. His difficult family life included, in addition to the death of two infants, the loss of his three adult sons: Mordecai, who died by inhaling fumes during alchemy experiments; Zebulun, who was murdered by a Jewish gang over a Jewish woman; and Isaac, whom he banished to the Levant and who traveled as far as South America. His main source of solace remained his two daughters: Diana, who would become the executrix of his estate, and Esther or Sterella, married to Jacob of La Motta. Modena's intellectual and spiritual heirs were Diana's first husband, Jacob Halevi, and Jacob's son, Isaac min Haleviim. After his beloved son-in-law died in the plague of 1629, Diana soon remarried Moses Saltaro Fano, with whom Modena did not get along, and who moved away, leaving her father to raise her son. Modena and his wife, Rachel, quarreled a great deal, especially after all the family moved out and their health deteriorated. According to the Venetian Ministry of Health she died on March 7, 1648, and he two weeks later. After his death the Italian congregation made extensive plans for his burial, and he was eulogized by the Jewish community and by Christian writers abroad.

As Modena's manuscripts were discovered during the 19th century, they were viewed as attacks on traditional Judaism. The early proponents of Reform Judaism looked to Modena as a precursor and, in the same tendentious spirit, those who wished to undermine the Reform appropriation presented him as a gambler, a heretic, a hypocrite, or someone racked by contradictions. Trying to make sense of these complexities, some have sought to identify him as the personification of the Renaissance Jew or the "first modern rabbi." The fact is, however, that in Italy the Renaissance was over by the time he lived and to see him as modern is to miss the fact that he spent much of his life defending traditional medieval rabbinic authority against attempts by the Jewish laity to limit their coercive power. Indeed, it may be more apt to view Modena as one of the last medieval rabbis and to see the period in which he lived as the earliest beginnings of the modern period for the Jews.

Leon Modena's life, however, is not only an important example of the struggles of early-modern rabbinic authority but also of social history. His candid and extensive writings provide details about the social and economic conditions of the family, women, and children and about daily life, community, and religion, including the occult, magic amulets, and especially, Jewish-Christian relations.


R. Davis and B. Ravid (eds). The Jews of Early Modern Venice (2001); T. Fishman, Shaking the Pillars of Exile: "Voice of a Fool," an Early Modern Jewish Critique of Rabbinic Culture (1997); D. Malkiel (ed.), The Lion Shall Roar: Leon Modena and His World (2003); L. Modena, The Autobiography of a Seventeenth-Century Venetian Rabbi: Leon Modena's Life of Judah, ed. and tr. Mark R. Cohen (1988); B. Richler, "Ketavim bilti Yedu'im shel Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh mi-Modena," in: Asufot, 7 (1992/3), 157–72.

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.