Leon of Modena

Leon of Modena

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." One of his students was Azaria Piccio,[1] with whom he would later be intellectually close to.[2]

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.[3] Modena was certainly a musician and a friend of Salamone Rossi; it is not clear whether he was also a composer.[4]


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.[5]


His written works include:

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. Ruderman, D.B. & Idel, M. (2001). Jewish thought and scientific discovery in early Modern Europe. Detroît: Wayne State University Press.
  2. Ruderman, D. B. (1992). Jewish preaching and the language of science: The sermons of Azariah Figo. In D. B. Ruderman (Ed.), Preachers of the Italian ghetto. Berkeley: University of California.
  3. Don Harrán. "Leon Modena". In L. Root, Deane. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. (subscription required)
  4. D. Harran, " 'Dum Recordaremur Sion': Music in the Life and Thought of the Venetian Rabbi Leon Modena (1571-1648),"
  5. A translation of the Magen wa-hereb by Leon Modena, 1571-1648 translated Allen Howard Podet (2001).


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