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1648: A Pre-modern Celebrity: Rabbi, Scholar and Gambling Man

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The Grand Canal of Venice, by Francisco Guardi, painted around the time Leon of Modena lived there.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On March 24, 1648, the Jewish writer and scholar Yehuda Aryeh Mi’modena, better known as Leon of Modena, died in Venice at the age of 76. Leon  possessed a fascinating combination of social distinction, erudition and intellectual nimbleness, and weakness of character that made him something of a pre-modern celebrity, known as much for his moral failings as for his accomplishments.

Leon was the descendant of a prominent French Jewish family that had settled in northern Italy after being expelled from France in the 14th century. He was raised first in Modena and later in Cologna and Montagna and schooled not only in traditional Jewish subjects – Hebrew, Torah, rabbinics – but also in the secular sciences, music, poetry, Latin, Italian and dancing.

At the age of 12, it is said, Leon translated into Hebrew the first canto of “Orlando Furioso,” the epic Italian poem by Ludovico Ariosto and, the following year, wrote a dialogue against gambling, which went through numerous printings and widely translated. 

Historians have lamented Leon’s “instability” and lack of character. Suffice it to say that the boy who condemned gambling at 13 became an inveterate player of all games of chance as an adult. He later attributed his weakness to the position of the celestial bodies at the time of his birth.

In 1592, when his father died, Leon, now married and working as a teacher, settled in Venice and became a rabbi and preacher. His distinction as an orator attracted the attention of Christian audiences as well as Jewish and he was well-regarded in the city’s academic and social circles. 

According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, Leon practiced a total of 26 different professions, in addition to being a teacher and speaker, including proofreader, notary, bookseller, writer of epitaphs for gravestones and letter writer. But all his expendable income went to gambling, first to supplement his income, later to cover his considerable gambling debts.

As a teacher respected by Christians, Leon was invited to become a professor of Eastern languages in Paris (he refused, as he most likely would have been required to convert) and wrote the first modern explication of the Jewish faith for non-Jews, “Historia de’riti Hebraici,” which was translated into several languages, including English, in 1650, at a time when the English were considering the readmission of Jews to the realm. In that work, he argued for the rationality of rabbinic Judaism (he was a critic of Kabbala) and against superstition. Later, when he heard it had been translated into French, Leon panicked, and rewrote certain sections that he thought might offend the Venetian inquisitor’s office.

Leon’s Hebrew-language autobiography, “Hayyei Yehuda,” candidly described his own life, including his addiction to gambling, but also provides much detail about Jewish day-to-day ritual life, and the sad tale of his own children. Two of his children died in infancy, and two adult sons came to early deaths, one from inhaling fumes from alchemy experiments, one after being attacked by a Jewish gang in a fight over a woman.

Leon of Modena wrote and published extensively. A 1630 pamphlet argued against an attempt of the Venice Jewish community to ban gambling (he questioned whether it was really a sin); several works condemned Jewish mysticism and Lurianic Kabbala specifically and another argued against belief in reincarnation. He also wrote a book on memory improvement and prepared the works of composer Salamone Rossi for publication. His belief in the rationalism of Judaism, and against mysticism, was seen by some as an attack on the religious faith – although in fact he saw himself as a defender of rabbinic authority.

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