Leon of Modena

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Leon Modena or Yehudah Aryeh Mi-modena (1571–1648) was a Jewish scholar born in Venice of a notable French family that had migrated to Italy after an expulsion of Jews from France.


He was a precocious child and grew up to be a respected rabbi in Venice. However, his reputation within traditional Judaism suffered for a number of reasons, including an unyielding criticism of emerging sects within Judaism, an addiction to gambling, and lack of stable character. As Heinrich Graetz points out, this last factor prevented his gifts from maturing: "He pursued all sorts of occupations to support himself, viz. those of preacher, teacher of Jews and Christians, reader of prayers, interpreter, writer, proof-reader, bookseller, broker, merchant, rabbi, musician, matchmaker and manufacturer of amulets."

Though he failed to rise to real distinction, Leon of Modena earned a place in Jewish history in part by his criticism of the mystical approach to Judaism. One of his most effective works was his attack on the Kabbala (Ari Nohem, first published in 1840). In it, he attempted to demonstrate that the "Bible of the Kabbalists" (the Zohar) was a modern composition. He became best known, however, as the interpreter of Judaism to the Christian world.

He wrote an autobiography entitled "Chayye Yehuda," literally "the life of Judah". In this highly candid and sometimes emotional work, he admitted to being a compulsive gambler. He also mourned his children (two of whom died in his lifetime - one from natural causes and one killed by gangsters). Another son was a ne'er-do-well who traveled to Brazil and returned to Venice only after his father's death.

At the behest of an English nobleman, Leon prepared an account of Jewish customs and rituals, Historia de' riti hebraici (1637). This book was the first Jewish texts addressed to non-Jewish readers since the days of Josephus and Philo. It was widely read by Christians, rendered into various languages, and in 1650 was translated into English by Edmund Chilmead. At the time, the issue of whether Jews should be permitted to resettle in Britain was coming to the fore (See Resettlement of the Jews in England), and Leon of Modena's book did much to stimulate popular interest. He died in Venice.

Among his deepest interests was music. He served as cantor at the synagogue in Venice for more than forty years. Earlier, he is believed to have introduced some sort of polyphony in the synagogue at Ferrara, and wrote two essays on music justifying polyphonic practice in services and celebrations.[1] Modena was certainly a musician and a friend of Salamone Rossi; it is not clear whether he was also a composer.[2]


Magen va-hereb (Hebrew מגן וחרב "Shield and Sword") is his polemic masterpiece; an attack upon Christian dogmas. In Magen va-hereb Leon Modena takes to task Christians their interpretations of Hebrew scriptures and refutes the claims of Jesus.[3]


His written works include:

  • She'elot u-Teshuvot Ziqnei Yehudah (Collected Responsa, Mossad ha-Rav Kook ed. Shelomo Simonson, 1956 [1])
  • Beit Lechem Yehudah (Anthology of statements of Hazal organized by topic, Venice, 1625 [2] and Prague, 1705 [3]
  • Diwan (Collected Poems, JTS Publications, ed. Shimon Bernstein, 1932 [4]
  • Ari Nohem (See above)
  • Kitvei Y. A. Modena (Letters and musings, ed. Yehuda Blau, Budapest, 1906)
  • Magen ve-Tzinah (Responsa, ed. A. Geiger, Breslau, 1857)
  • Tzemach Tzadiq (Ethical Treatise: a recent translation into English of this work is now available on the Web)
  • Lev ha-Aryeh (Monograph on Memory improvement and Mnemonics, in which he greatly extols the use of the method of loci [5])
  • Sur me-Ra (A philosophical dialogue on gambling, written at the age of 13, Amsterdam 1692 [6], Vilna 1896 [7]
  • Historia de' riti hebraici (See above, translated into Hebrew by Shelomo Rabin, Vienna, 1867 [8])
  • Pi ha-Aryeh (Italian-Hebrew dictionary of all difficult words in Tanakh, Venice 1640 [9]

Appearances in popular culture

Leon of Modena is the basis of the character Judah Aryeh in the novel People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks.


  1. Don Harrán. "Leon Modena". In Macy, Laura. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> (subscription required)
  2. D. Harran, " 'Dum Recordaremur Sion': Music in the Life and Thought of the Venetian Rabbi Leon Modena (1571-1648),"
  3. A translation of the Magen wa-hereb by Leon Modena, 1571-1648 translated Allen Howard Podet (2001).
  • Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Leon of Modena". Encyclopædia Britannica. 16 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 443.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


  • H. Graetz, History of the Jews (Eng. trans.), vol. v. ch. iii
  • Jewish Encyclopedia, viii. 6
  • Geiger, Leon de Modena
  • The Autobiography of a Seventeenth-Century Venetian Rabbi: Leon Modena's Life of Judah. Trans. and ed. Mark R. Cohen. Princeton, 1988.
  • Yaacob Dweck, The Scandal of Kabbalah: Leon Modena, Jewish Mysticism, Early Modern Venice. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2011.