Sunday 25 February 2018



King Herod - Friend of Hillel, foe of Shamai.

Recently, shocking headlines in the Israeli news read: “Police called to intervene as mass brawl breaks out between factions at haredi Ponovezh Yeshiva.[1] Could it be that this is mild compared to what may have occurred in a House of Study two thousand years ago?
There are two Talmudic accounts[2] describing an event which took place in the Study Hall where it seems that the House of Shamai attacked and possibly murdered some of the students of the House of Hillel!
Obviously, many say that this is a purely figurative description of a ‘robust debate’.
However, there are a number of commentators who believe the description of ‘murder in the Beit Midrash’ to have been devastatingly real and quite literal.[3]

Here is a description of the event in the Babylonian Talmud:

Leaving the technicalities for the footnote[4], Shamai became frustrated with Hillel in a debate concerning grapes - and then violence erupted. 
The Talmud records that immediately Shamai:          
thrust a sword into the House of Study and declared:
Whoever wants to enter may enter, but no one may leave!’
And on that day Hillel was made to sit in submission before Shamai, like one of his disciples.
And it was as terrible for Israel as the day on which the (golden) calf was made.”[5]
This reference to a sword is even more surprising considering the prohibition against bringing a sword into a House of Study.[6]
And we know that the day on which the golden calf was made was the day a civil war erupted when brother killed brother:
The Torah states:
Put every man his sword upon his thigh, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion.”[7]
Some interpret this event at the House of Study as a description of a real battle - while others simply interpret this as being a metaphor and that there was no real physical conflict.

However, according to the Jerusalem Talmud:

In the Talmud Yerushalmi it is recorded that the rabbis went to visit Chananya ben Garon in his attic. There they counted the rabbis and ascertained that Beit Shamai was in the majority, so they voted in eighteen new laws that day.
That seems like quite a routine description of a typical voting session, until the Yerushalmi continues:

The students of Beit Shamai stood below them and began to kill[8] the students of Beit Hillel.
It was taught: Six of them ascended and the others stood over them with swords and lances.”[9]

This description by the Jerusalem Talmud is very difficult to interpret figuratively and it seems as if some violent conflict ensued.
Interestingly, the two major commentaries on both sides of the page are at complete variance with each other over the issue of whether or not murder took place:
According to the Pnei Moshe[10] commentary, Hillel had to sit subjugated before Shamai while Beit Shamai literally killed the students of Hillel. This was how Shamai was able to win the majority vote.
However, the Korban haEidah[11] commentary refuses to accept the violent account of real murders taking place in the study house. According to him, Beit Shamai only threatened Beit Hillel if they tried to climb up the stairs. They stood with spears and lances preventing Beit Hillel from ascending, so that Beit Shamai could have the majority vote - but ‘G-d forbid that they actually killed them’:

Thus we see that the main commentators on the page are fundamentally divided over the issue as to whether or not murders took place in the House of Study.
The Meiri[12]  takes the story as being the literal killing of the students of Beit Hillel. He says that the eighteen laws enacted that day will never be withdrawn because lives were lost that day. He further says that it was not just Beit Hillel who were the victims of murder, implying that the murders were quite widespread.   
Rav Saadiah Gaon[13], on the other hand, interprets it figuratively. We know this from the fact that he was attacked by the Karaite, Shlomo ben Yerucham, regarding this issue of alleged carnage in the Talmud. Rav Saadia denied any record of murders taking place.
ונ"ל סעד לדבריו מדברי רס"ג שכתב ע"ד הקראים שכתבו שהיה הריגה בין בית שמאי ובית הלל, ורב סעדיה כתב שלא נמצא כן בתלמוד, וע"ז השיבו הקראים דמבואר כן בירושלמי
Interestingly, historical evidence points in the direction of those who believe the Talmudic description was indeed one of violence and murder:
A fragment found in the Cairo Geniza (See KOTZK BLOG 91) which describes the same battle, records that a mourning period was actually instituted during Tannaic times:
On the forth of Adar, a dispute erupted between the students of Shamai and Hillel and many were killed.”[14]
This evidence is in contradistinction to many other rabbinic statements that the debates between Shamai and Hillel were well-intended, peaceful, and ‘for the sake of Heaven[15].
The Babylonian Talmud relates:
Although Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed, Beit Shammai did not, nevertheless, abstain from marrying women of the families of Beit Hillel, nor did Beit Hillel refrain from marrying those of Beit Shammai. This is to teach you that they showed love and friendship towards one another, thus putting into practice the scriptural text, “Love truth and peace.” (Zech. 8:16)[16]
The Shulchan Aruch[17] records the ninth[18] of Adar as a fast day because Hillel and Shamai disagreed, but does not go into the details. R. Yosef Karo, author of the Shulchan Aruch, incidentally, adds that he had never known of anyone fasting on that day.
The Eliyah Rabbah[19], a commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, writes that on the ninth of Adar, real violence erupted resulting in three thousand people dead.[20] (The same number were said to also have died during the episode of the golden calf.)
Apparently, some mournful piyuttim or dirges were composed commemorating the disaster (although I have not been able to locate them).
Perhaps an understanding of some historical perspective can give us some degree of clarity:
These events took place around the time of the Jewish[21] King Herod (173BCE- 4BCE) who maintained good relations with Rome, sent his children to be educated there, and who was dubbed by the Romans as the ‘friend and ally of Rome’.
This gave Herod a period of tranquillity in which he had time to build great structures including renovating the Second Temple. According to R. Avraham Zacuto (1452-1515), who writes in one of the first Jewish books on history, Sefer Yochasin:
Herod built the Temple of a beauty that exceeded that of Solomon.[22]
But this expansion into the aesthetics brought with it some mixed feelings amongst the rabbis because they were fearful of this new secular Greek influence.
It appears, however, that Hillel was quite supportive of Herod while Shamai felt threatened by the secular cosmopolitanism. 
R. Zacuto continues: 
Indeed, Herod greatly respected Hillel, for they supported his rule...The disciples of the School of Shamai were killing the disciples of the School of Hillel and threatened their lives.”[23]
According to R. Binyamin Lau:
At this stage the Jewish forces were split and turned against each other in a civil war between the supporters of Herod and the supporters of the Hasmoneans.”[24]
Besides their political differences, Shamai was always stricter than Hillel.  Shamai, for example, taught that children should not eat on a Fast Day, as apparently, the custom had always been. Hillel’s leniency and innovation was that fasting should only be observed after puberty.[25]
Another example is that Shamai only believed in teaching ‘respectable people’ while Hillel believed in teaching all people. [26] When Hillel first arrived in Israel, he found the Torah world to closed and elitist and we all know the story of him having to climb onto the roof in the freezing snow to listen to Torah because he could not afford the entrance fee to the Beit Midrash.
Hillel and Shamai were the last of the five Zugot (Pairs of leaders), who led Jewish people for two hundred years (170 BCE-30 CE). The Zugot filled the positions of Nasi (President) and Av Beit Din (Head of the Court) respectively. Hillel was the Nasi, while Shamai was the Av Beit Din.
Under the leadership of Hillel and Shamai, the Sages “became immersed in halachik matters” more than in previous generations, and this sparked “the emergence of the phenomenon of dispute”.
Hillel and Shamai became symbols for characteristic Talmudik and Halachik dispute and debate.
However, “Our sources indicate that their disputes were filled with tension, and at times even danger:[27]
This was the background against which one has to interpret the events in the Study Hall.
It is significant that a historical event concerning an incident in the Study Hall, obviously witnessed by many and recorded in strong words and for which we even have a date (- as opposed to a theoretical Halachik dispute) was subjected to such divergent interpretation by the later Sages. Obviously, it touched a nerve.
If the account was indeed a metaphor for a robust debate[28], then long may such debates continue.
However, if the account was factual, it is a scourge on the history of Talmudic debate.
It is generally understood that the period of Shamai and Hillel was the first ‘peaceful era of debate’ following rabbinic involvement in the Hasmonean civil wars that had dogged the previous few generations.
This is how the history of that period is usually depicted.  –That with the advent of Hillel and Shamai, rabbinical Judaism moved from a period of political conflict to a focus on a scholarly debate within a framework of respect and tranquillity.
However, it is possible, as we have seen, that some aspects of the previous political upheaval - in which rabbinic leadership played active roles - were indeed perpetuated well into the so-called ‘tranquil period of scholarly debate’.
The only difference was that instead of the violence remaining within the political and transactional arena, it may sadly have regressed to encroach on the boundaries of Halachik discourse.
Observing some of the ugliness which often takes place within the zealous factions of the Torah community to this day, sometimes it seems that it would be safer to lean more towards the metaphorical reading than to think we have precedent in the more historic or literal view.
A respected colleague of mine suggested a possible motivation (although not a justification) for the killing:
Beit Shamai may have thought that they were acting ‘for the sake of Heaven’ out of a conviction that they were protecting future Judaism from corruption by foreign and secular influences which they perceived to be emanating from Hillel through his connection to Herod and Greek culture.[29]
Could it be that, based on the many commentators who take the literal interpretation, we can re-read the well-known statement from Pirkei Avot:
Any controversy ‘for the sake of Heaven’ will abide forever... And what is an example of such a controversy – that between Hillel and Shamai! [30]
When people think they are acting ‘for the sake of Heaven’, there is no way to stop or prevent whatever they deem necessary to do. And this righteous indignation that stems from being on G-d’s side is so dangerously ingrained in the psyche, that it remains intergenerational.[31]

[1] See here.
[2] One reference is from the Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 17a. And the other is from the Talmud Yerushalmi 1:4. According to some the two incidents (regarding the ‘wine’ and the ‘attic’) are related, according to others they are separate incidents.
[3] I thank the Honourable Mr Jack Bloom for sparking my interest in this matter and for pointing out some of the sources to me.
[4] Wine is one of seven liquids (wine, honey, olive oil, milk, dew, blood and water) which are susceptible to becoming contaminated. If these liquids come into contact with an unclean object, they retain the contamination and pass it on to whatever other objects they come into contact with.
According to the Mishna, solid foods only transmit impurity to other foods, while liquids contaminate even the vessels.
Furthermore, with solid foods, the severity of contamination reduces with each successive contact – while liquids do not diminish their ability to contaminate other objects with each successive contact.
Now, the question arises as to what is the status of grapes (a solid food) that are harvested for the express purpose of being converted to a wine (a liquid)? Would they be regarded as a solid or a liquid?
Shamai, who typically renders strict rulings, maintains that those grapes are ‘liquid’ and susceptible to contamination immediately upon being harvested. Therefore, they need to be harvested by persons in a state of purity.
Hillel, on the other hand, is typically more lenient and maintains that the grapes are not susceptible to contamination until they are actually turned into a liquid and therefore the harvesters need not be in a state of purity.
Hillel then points out an inconsistency with Shamai’s ruling and asks why it is that only grapes need to be harvested in a state of purity - whereas olives (which are to be turned into olive oil, also a liquid) need not also be harvested in purity?
Shamai was easily annoyed and provoked by this question and responded sharply: “If you continue to provoke me, I will also decree impurity for the olive harvesting.”  
At this point, swords came out and that day was described as calamitous as the day of the Biblical golden calf, where many were killed in a brother versus brother battle.

[5] Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 17a.                                                                                                            
[6] Sanhedrin 82a. (It is possible, though, that this ruling came about later, as a result of the violence that had erupted in the House of Study.)
[7] Shemot 32:26-28.
[8] I noticed that some English translations use the word ‘slaughter’ instead of ‘kill’. The reader can decide what the word ’horgin’ means.
[9] Jerusalem Talmud 4:1.
[10] R. Moshe Margalit (1710–1780).
[11] R. David ben Naftali Hirsch Frankel (1707–1762)
[12] Avodah Zara 35b.
[13] Amudei Yerushalayim on the Yerushalmi.
[14] Mordechai Margaliot, Hilchot Eretz Yisrael min Hageniza, 142.
[15] Avot 5:17
[16] Eruvin 13b.                  
[17] Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, Hilchot Taanit 580.
[18] The Cairo Geniza records the date as the forth of Adar.
[19] R. Eliyahu Shapiro (1660-1712).
[20] Eliyah Rabba, Orach Chayim 580:7
[21] There is much debate as to the actual Halachik status of Herod. He was raised as a Jew but his father was descendent from the Edomites, many of whom had converted to Judaism.
[22] Sefer Yochasin, translated by Israel Shamir and edited by Prof. Joseph Kaplan, p. 18. (I thank Mendy Rosin for pointing this source out to me.)
[23] Ibid. Sefer Yochasin.
[24] The Sages – Character, Context and Creativity Vol 1, by Binyamin Lau. Part Three : Hillel and Shamai and their Students, p. 180.
[25]Tosefta, Yom Kippurim 5:2                                            
[26] Avot de Rabbi Natan, ch. 4.
[27] Ibid. The Sages, R. Binyamin Lau.
[28] Although many who purport this view acknowledge that real swords were drawn and people were prevented from voting.
[29] I thank Rosh Yeshiva R. Chaim Finkelstein for this innovative suggestion.
[30] Pirkei Avot 5:17
[31] I thank Mr Bloom for this fascination interpretation.

Sunday 18 February 2018


Rabbi Leon of Modena.
(The Jews of Italy never adopted the custom of wearing a head covering.)


The Italian rabbi, Leon (Yehudah Arye) of Modena (1571-1648)[1] - regarded alternately as a Gaon or as a maverick rabbi – was born in Venice to a distinguished French family who had fled to Italy after the Expulsion of Jews from France in the 14th century. His grandfather, Mordechai, a prominent physician, was knighted by Charles V.

He wrote at least twenty-five books. In his autobiography, Chayei Yehudah, which was one of the first Jewish autobiographies[2] he writes about his sad family life.  His first fiancé died the evening before their wedding. Then later, his firstborn son, Mordechai died as a result of inhaling poisonous fumes during an alchemy experiment.  Another son, Zevulun was killed by a Jewish gang in a dispute over a woman, and Yitzchak was sent to and disappeared somewhere in South America.

He wrote: “My heart cries out for the past, is startled by the present, and is terrified by the future.”


Self-described as a ‘precocious child[3], while barely a teenager, he wrote a work against the evils of gambling, entitled Sur meRah, or Turn from Evil,. This was published over ten times and translated into French, Latin, German and Yiddish. In a great irony, he later admitted that he fell victim to that very same vice later on in his life, as gambling was very common in Venice at that time.

At one stage there were murmurings against him and threats of excommunication if he were to continue playing cards within a period of six years, but his brilliant erudition against the ban had it speedily revoked.

Because of his many controversial views, the community, in an effort to dissuade him from acting as their rabbi, tried to raise the age of ordination first to thirty-five and then to forty years of age. However, in 1594, at the age of twenty-three, he was appointed as a rabbi of Venice.


R. Modena’s sermons (like many other Italian rabbis of the time, see R. Moscato), attracted huge audiences, including non-Jews and even Christian clergy. One of his students was the Archbishop of Lodéve.

Midbar Yehudah (a play on Midvar or Medaber Yehudah), a collection of R. Modena's sermons.

He writes in his Midbar Yehudah about the art of delivering sermons (Saperstein's translation):

"If he [the preacher] soars like an eagle and speaks of the great and profound mysteries of wisdom, his proud speech will not sit well with the badgers who are weak in the deeper meaning of the Torah…for they will not know what he is talking about. But if he should speak at a low level, simply and plainly, the learned will turn their backs on him and say, “What does he think he is teaching us?” If he speaks softly and fails to reach the very pinnacle of rhetoric and eloquence, they grow tired of hearing him.…Thus whoever preaches in public is looking for trouble, kindling contention."

According to his autobiography, he writes how he was, at least once, present for a sermon in the San Geremia church in Venice.[4]

This is interesting because he wrote a book, Magen veCherev which was a polemic directed against Christian fundamentals.

On one occasion, the brother of the king of France, Gaston, duc d’Orléans attended one of his sermons in the Sephardic synagogue.


King James1

R. Modena was asked by King James I (1566-1625) - who also commissioned the Authorised King James Version of the Bible - to write a definitive description of Judaism. He called the work Riti Ebraica which was to be translated and republished many times due to its popularity. 

R. Modena's Riti Ebraica on principles of Judaism for King James 1.


Again, like many other Italian rabbis (including R. Moscato and R. Azariah dei Rossi, the Meor Einayim) he had difficulty with, and denied the authority and accuracy of, much of Talmudic Aggadah (non-legal literature). In 1635, he published his Beit Yehudah (also known as haBonehwhich included all the Aggadot which the Ein Yakov[5] (the classic book on Aggadah) had left out.

Beit Yehudah
In his Beit Yehudah, he argues for a little latitude when it comes to rabbinical rulings. He says that because the Jews of Palestine had different customs to those living elsewhere, a precedent had been set for rabbinical scholars to sometimes adapt some of the established laws according to time and place, instead of allowing the law to become fossilized and petrified.

R. Modena's haBoneh commentary on Ein Yaakov.
In R. Modena's haBoneh, he reminds the reader that the word Halacha comes from halicha which literally means ‘to walk’ or progress.[6]


R. Modena was proficient in many languages and was offered a chair in Oriental languages in Paris, but turned the appointment down, probably because he may have had to convert to Christianity before assuming the position.


In his Leket Yehudah, R. Modena wrote Halachik responsa dealing specifically with issues concerning his time and culture. These included the question of wearing of a head covering, as the Italian custom was to go bareheaded. See KOTZK BLOG 54. He addressed questions like the playing of tennis and travelling on a boat on Shabbat.

He received a question as to whether or not a rabbi can use an hour-glass to time his sermons on Shabbat. He responded that its best to keep sermons brief because he never heard of anyone complaining that a sermon was too short.

It is interesting to note that Venetian rabbis were not paid salaries at that time. Instead, they were paid for ‘services’ which included writing responsa literature. 


R. Leon Modena, despite the controversy which followed him, was in charge of rabbinical ordination. He was honoured with the titles Chaver and Gaon and was always the first to sign the important documents of the other Venetian rabbis. He had the authority to approve books for publication and to approve the rulings of other rabbis.  He also conferred the medical degrees on the students of Padua University.


Surprisingly, R. Modena also dabbled in superstitions and folk beliefs such as distributing amulets (to avert the plague of 1630), practising name changing, consulting astrologers and performing palm readings. On one occasion, after consulting a horoscope he saw that he was to die within two years. When he heard this, he immediately spoke out against horoscopes and superstitions.


R. Modena also had a deep interest in music. He arranged a choral performance in the Sephardic synagogue in Venice and attracted such a large audience which included many Christians. The crowd was so large that the authorities had to intervene to control the numbers.

He was a friend of the composer Salamone Rossi (son of R. Azariah dei Rossi, the Meor Einayim) and, in addition to being an orator, he served as a cantor in Venice for over forty years.

In 1622, he compiled the first book on Jewish music, haShirim Asher liShlomo, together with his friend, R. Salamone (Shlomo) Rossi.

haShirim Asher liShlomo
R. Modena got embroiled in a controversy surrounding a major choral (or, according to some accounts, a musical) performance which took place in a synagogue in Ferrara, on a Friday evening on the festival of Tu beAv. Either way, he later published two arguments defending the use of choral music as part of Jewish liturgy.

He claimed that there was never a prohibition against the use of music as part of Jewish prayer services. He wrote:

Is it conceivable that those whom God has bestowed [the musical] wisdom and strive to honor the almighty be considered as sinners? God forbid! We would sooner condemn the shaliach tzibbur [Chazzan, Cantor] to bray like an ass rather than pleasantly sing.”[7]

According to Elad Uzan, who explains the apt title of the book haShirim Asher liShlomo :

Music was associated with Christian liturgy—or, at least, with forbidden secular music. The only way in which Rossi and Modena could promote tolerance of music in synagogue was by connecting its essence to the ancient musical practice of the Levites during the time of the Temple, as Rossi did by referring back to the founders of that tradition: David the Psalmist, and Solomon the builder of the Temple and the author of the Song of Songs. Thus, Rossi could characterize The Songs of Solomon as a return to Jewish origins, defined as “to return the crown to the glory of old” (le’hahzir atara l’yoshna), rather than as a suspicious incorporation of music which has no Jewish affiliation.”[8]

Today, amazingly, this music is played by orchestras in concerts all over the world and it is taken extremely seriously by those who understand Baroque music. Unfortunately, there is no real interest in his music from within the Jewish world.

You can hear how Rossi’s and R. Modena’s music would have sounded in Italy in the 1600’s, here and here.


In 1636 he authored his Ben David, which was a work against the concept of reincarnation.
Then in 1639, R. Leon of Modena wrote an extremely sharp criticism of the authenticity of the Zohar, in his work Ari Nohem which means The Lion Roars[9].

Interestingly, the Christians were attempting to appropriate the Zohar as an ancient form of wisdom and mysticism – and R. Modena was trying to prevent them from perpetuating what he considered to be a myth. He believed the Zohar to be a relatively recent and fraudulent work, written by R. Moshe de León (1240-1305), and not as many believed, by the Tanna R. Shimon bar Yochai (2nd century AD). See KOTZK BLOG 87.

The timing of this book is significant because it was written during the period when the Zohar was enjoying increasing popularity, and it shows that such criticism is not, as often portrayed, merely a modern phenomenon.

He considered the familiar phrase Chochmat haKabbalah, or Wisdom of the Kabbalah, to be misleading because he said the Zohar was neither a wisdom nor a kabbalah (literally, tradition) going far back into Jewish history.

R. Modena explains what motivated him to write this book:

About six months earlier I had completed a treatise against Kabbalah. I entitled it Ari Nohem [The Roaring Lion] because of my great anger at one of those [kabbalists] who had spoken wrongly in his books against the great luminaries of Israel, especially ‘the eagle’, Maimonides, of blessed memory. But it was never printed.”[10]

The Ari Nohem remained in manuscript form for just over two centuries when it was eventually first printed in 1840:

(pic Ari Nohem, written in 1639 but only printed in 201 years later in 1840

Basing himself on Maimonides, R. Modena refuses to accept the view of Nachmanides that the Oral Tradition was transmitted in an unbroken chain down the generations together with a Mystical Oral Torah. [11]

Citing Rambam[12], R. Modena says that the Secrets of Torah were never transmitted down the generations, but remained the preserve of an ever-diminishing number of Nistarim or Yechidei Segulah (a chosen few mystics) throughout the generations, and there never was a kabbalah or tradition as there was with the (halachik) Oral Torah.

He considers the appropriation of the term Kabbalah (referring to the Mystical Tradition) to be disingenuous as he says that the Kabbalists have ‘no tradition, but only hamtzaot or inventions’.


In Kol Sakal, or The Voice of a Fool, written (according to some, not under his name but under a pseudonym - for fear of reprisals) he attacks rabbinic Judaism in one of the most challenging critiques ever written by a rabbi.

He compares the rabbis, to the Karaites, who just obey the letter of the law without regard for the spirit of the law.

He also had issues with the second day Yom Tov.

He makes another extremely controversial statement where he claims that Teffilin as we know them, are not Biblically ordained, but instead, from the rabbis.

He even goes so far as to say that rabbinical law is, in his view, at times at variance with Biblical law.
The concept of a Mikveh is superfluous because the Torah only requires that we ‘wash the body’ not immerse it in water.

He suggests that before Antignos of Socho[13] (third century BCE), there was no real rabbinical tradition as we know it today. This, he says, is as evidenced by the numerous different sects that existed around the time of the Second Temple. He believed that had the rabbinical tradition been as strong as is generally accepted, there would not have been so many variant and opposingly distinct Jewish sects at that time.

This obviously created a huge stir amongst the mainstream. The challenges in Kol Sakal are so scathing that many scholars believed that R. Modena could not possibly have authored the book. 

This, especially in light of the fact that R. Modena was asked to defend rabbinic Judaism after the prosperous Spanish Marranos who had settled in Venice, began to challenge rabbinic tradition and authority. Thus, R. Modena wrote another work entitled Shaagat Aryeh, or The Roar of a Lion, in which he fiercely defends rabbinic Judaism.

No one really knows how to deal with both these books which are so dramatically different from each other. The notion that they were authored by the same person just creates an aura of intrigue. To make matters worse, they were both printed side by side in 1852 (over two hundred years after R. Modena’s death) in a book called Bechinat haKabbalah.

Some suggest that he did indeed write Kol Sakal because its style is very similar to his other writing.[14]

Others, like Professor Mark Cohen, suggest that R. Modena copied the Kol Sakal in order to have source material at his disposal so that he could go on to refute it in his Shaagat Aryeh.

Still others maintain that the defence in Shaagat Aryeh is so sparse that it looks as if he actually agreed with the Kol Sakal. And that he only wrote the latter to slip in the Kol Sakal!

Others posit that he simply was a heretic.

In defence of R. Modena, Ellis Rivkin[15] writes:

Throughout his life he championed the principles of traditional Judaism and skillfully protected it from its detractors. Yet ironically enough, he is still considered by many to have been inclined towards heretical ideas, and to this day is believed to be the author of...Kol Sakal.

His character too has been much maligned; and he generally pictured as a man without principles, opportunistically changing his views from day to day...

Such an evaluation cannot withstand a thorough study of the evidence, and it is indeed unfortunate that this evaluation has gone so long virtually unchallenged.”


I have tried to present a picture of Rabbi Leon of Modena as he is generally depicted in academic circles. 

He thus emerges as a very complex personality and the reader does not really know how to frame him, as he certainly breaks the mould of a typical rabbi.

What one does notice, however, is that there are frequently different accounts of his world-view. This is particularly true of the Kol Sakal /Shaagat Aryeh controversy: - was R. Modena a protagonist or an antagonist when it came to rabbinical Judaism? Did he write against the rabbis or in support of them?

Perhaps the answer lies in the important fact that many of R. Modena’s manuscripts were only discovered during the 1800’s. 

This was at a time when Reform Judaism was beginning to sprout and they looked to these newly discovered texts and were happy to interpret them as providing some form of precedent for what they were trying to achieve.

At the same time, the Orthodox world was, understandably, very concerned about the new Reform movement, and did not want them to find support in earlier rabbinical personalities. So they may have tried to undermine the stature of R. Modena, emphasising all his vices, and playing on issues like his gambling and his ‘heretical’ writings.

And they had fertile ground to do so because R. Modena certainly had some interesting and challenging views.

(Bear in mind that the philosophical writings of Rambam, Ibn Ezra and other classical Rishonim, were likewise also treated in much the same way by both Reform and Orthodox at that time.)

Because many of R. Modena’s manuscripts were only discovered so long after his death, unfortunately, today we can only glimpse at him through the lens of the religious politics of the 1800’s, two hundred years after he lived. 

Reform and Orthodox were promoting very different agendas and were forced to frame some of the more interesting earlier rabbis according to their perspectives under the duress of the religious crisis shaking the Jewish world at that time.

This is why, sadly, we may never know just how just who Rabbi Leon of Modena really was.



Apropos Rabbi Leon of Modena visiting a church, and his music often sounding rather a church-like, here is an astounding and fascinating ruling from the Krach Shel Romi:

I happened to find it in a footnote to Peninei Halacha, Hilchot Tefilah, 4:2 p.54:

My loose translation follows:

In the responsa of Krach Shel Romi, he is lenient (about using Christian tunes in a synagogue) and describes instances where Gedolim (great rabbis) used to listen to Christian melodies and would then incorporate them into the prayer services of the (Jewish) High Holidays.”

For the record, the Tzitz Eliezer disagrees sharply with this view, as do most other Poskim.

However, the point still remains that although many may disagree with the lenient view of the Krach Shel Romi - he nevertheless cited historical evidence (“that there were Gedolim” – in the plural!) where this practice actually occurred. And it indeed, and surprisingly, the practice of some ‘Gedolim’!

The Krach Shel Romi was written by R. Yisrael Moshe Hazan who was the Chief Rabbi of Rome in the mid 1800’s.

Could it be that he was referring to our duo of Italian rabbis: - R. Leon of Modena and R. Shlomo or Salamone Rossi?

[1] R. Modena would be classified as being from the Baroque Period, which spanned from the early 17th century to the late 18th century. The other Italian rabbis we looked at in the previous four posts, were from the earlier Renaissance Period (14th – 17th centuries).
[2] Besides Josephus.
[3] Jewish Encyclopaedia, Leon (Judah Aryeh) of Modena. According to Professor Mark R. Cohen, R. Modena described himself as such in his very candid autobiography.
[4] Hayyei Yehudah, ed. Carpi (Tel Aviv, 1985), p. 63.
[5] The Ein Yakov is a monumental work focusing primarily on the stories (as opposed to the jurisprudence) of the Talmud. It was compiled by the Spanish rabbi, R. Yaakov Ibn Chaviv (1460-1516) at around the time of the Spanish Inquisition. The book became very popular, with over thirty editions, and appealed particularly to those who did not understand the legal and technical aspects of the Talmud.
[6] I thank R. Chaim Finkelstein for pointing this out to me.
[7] She’elot u-Teshuvot Ziqnei Yehudah  101, 36, Shelomo Simonson edition, 1955, 18.
[8] The Jewish Musical Pioneers: Salamone de Rossi and Rabbi Leon of Modena, by Elad Uzan. 
[9] A pun, again, on his name Yehuda Aryeh.
[10] See; The Autobiography of a Seventeenth-Century Venetian Rabbi: Leon Modena’s life of Judah, ed. Mark R. Cohen (Princeton. 1988). p. 153.
[11] Maimonideanism in Leon Modena’s Ari Nohem, by Yaacob Dweck.
[12] Guide for the Perplexed 1:71.
[13] His students Yossi ben Yoezer and Yossi ben Yochanan were the first pair of Zuggot.
[14] Particularly, his Beit Yehudah.
[15] Leon da Modena and the Kol Sakal, by Ellis Rivkin.