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.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting character.
    If I remember well, someone that gambles.. is not accepted as a witness.
    Also, we are forbidden from entering a church..
    Its hard for me to disasociate the person from his work.