A hitherto unknown manuscript of Leon of Modena, the Italian rabbi who wrote a history of Jewish ceremonies and observances for King James I of England at the request of a nobleman of the English court, has been discovered at Ancona by Professor Isaiah Sonne, the historian, who has been putting in order the old libraries of all the Jewish communities in Italy.
The manuscript is a list in the rabbi’s own hand of a number of his works and throws light upon hitherto unknown facts about his work and times.
Leon of Modena is known for his attacks on the Kabala, the mystical discipline of a medieval Jewish sect. By his interpretation of Judaism to the Christian world of the seventeenth century he was of great service in the beginnings of the tendency toward the emancipation of the Jews of Europe. His book was widely read by Christians and was translated into several languages, the English translation appearing in 1650.
HIS CHARACTER ATTACKED
Born into a family of Jews who had come to Italy from France and attained distinction as physicians and scholars, this learned rabbi is given a curious rating by historians. Author of some twenty or thirty volumes of theology and historical criticism, he is charged with lacking stability of character which prevented his numerous talents and abilities from maturing.
Graetz, the author of the History of the Jews, says: “He pursued all sorts of occupations to support himself, viz: those of preacher, teacher of Jews and Christians, reader of prayers, interpreter, writer, bookseller, proof-reader, broker, merchant, rabbi, musician, match-maker and manufacturer of amulets.”
In addition, he seems to have been addicted to gambling, although he had, at the age of thirteen, produced a dialogue against gambling which went through ten editions and was translated into Latin, French, German and Judeo German. This weakness he explained by astral influences, which ruled over his destiny and could not be gainsaid.
In 1594, after various misfortunes, including the death of his father, he was appointed a rabbi and preacher in Venice. His addresses and sermons were attended by large audiences, including priests and noblemen. His oratorical abilities attracted the Archbishop Lodieve and others of the highest Venetian society, who called themselves his pupils.
Twenty-six different professions and occupations are mentioned in his biography. Gambling, however, seemed to have an irresistible influence over all his activities. We find him constantly in debt and just as often resorting to this incongruous means of extricating himself.
In 1631 he ran afoul of the leaders of the Venetian community, who passed a general excommunication against any one “who should play cards or take part in any other game of hazard within the period of six years.” The excommunication, though, was revoked, since Leon of Modena forthwith wrote a dissertation proving that the prohibition was against the law.
BUSY TO HIS DEATH
He remained a rabbi of the community of Venice until his death, producing books and poems; writing, studying and gambling. This forerunner of the modern Liberal and Bohemian was naturally an advocate of reform in ceremonies and ritual. He wielded an agile pen in proof of the numerous innovations he sponsored at any given time and just as agilely he refuted them, sometimes under a pseudonym.
He did, nevertheless, have considerable effect on the future of the Jews, particularly those of England. The Puritans, gaining control of the English government with the defeat of the Cavaliers and the execution of Charles II, were in all probability deeply influenced in their attitude to Jews seeking entry into England after hundreds of years of banishment by the publication of his history in London in 1650. It is said to have greatly stimulated public interest in the Jews.
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