Sunday, December 22, 2013

Rabbi Leone Da Modena and His Unlikely Grandson

I posted about this very colorful and enigmatic (perhaps even troubled) personality many times before.

While Da Modena's life and work has been extensively covered by such illustrious scholars as Talya Fischman and Howard Adelman (and also recently by Yakobh Dweck), the same is not true for his son-in-law and grandson.

Da Modena was a vociferous opponent of Kaballah and famously wrote  his anti-Kabbalistic treatise Ari Noham creating a firestorm in his day.

He ostensibly opposed all superstition and mysticism yet he engaged in quite a bit of the former himself (such as writing amulets for his personal use).

Da Modena was a tortured soul and it is likely that he was a manic depressive.

What i find most interesting though is his relationship with his son-in-law Jacob b. Kalonymous Halevi and his grandson Isaac Min Haleviim.

Da Modena did not experience much joy from his family, as he famously laments in his memoir. Several of them died (one was murdered by rival mobsters) childless in his lifetime. One son: Isaac was a drifter and a gambler. Perhaps discouraged by the constant stream of bad fortune striking the Da Modena family left Venice for the New World, leaving a wife and child behind, and only returned to get his piece of the inheritance (which he took by force and intimidation).

There was one however one ray of joy in Modena's life and ironically it came from the man who would marry his beloved daughter Diana. His name was Jacob ben Kalonymous (Kalonymous is also referred to as Calman di Padovani in some sources). He was a trained Kabbalist, well versed in Kabbalah. He received his education at the academy of Rabbi Ezra of Fano (the teacher of the Rema, Menachem Azaryah of Fano who Da Modena highly respected). Interestingly enough, Jacob pursued other extra-curricula activities such as dancing. In a later description of the man his profession is given as 'dancer', that is a dance teacher (Da Modena himself was intimately familiar with the arts and wrote many plays of a secular nature)

How he came to know and take his daughter's hand in marriage is unknown. It is likely that the young miss was rebellious and, as is so often the case, sought out someone very much NOT like her father.

Da Modena was of course not too thrilled with the marriage at first but soon came to appreciate the good nature and spirit of young Jacob engendering a warm and abiding friendship between the two. A touching testimony of the relationship between the two is found in Modena's writings:

 וכך היה לי ממש עם חתני, חתן דמים למעלות, כמהר"ר יעקב מן הלווים זצ"ל, נבון דעת וכולל בלימודים, אוי ואבוי על שברי כי לקחו אלוהים מאתי במיטב שנותיו, אשר גם אתה ידעת את האיש ואת שיחו בקבלה הזאת, כי מנעוריו גדל בה, ולמד אותה מפי הוותיק כמה"ו עזרא מפאנו ז"ל, שהיה רבו של הגאון הרמ"ע, כדברו בהקדמתו לפלח הרימון, ואצלך חבור חתני הנזכר הנקרא נחלת יעקב - קיצור לחלק הפרדס, וכללי החכמה ההיא בלשון זהב והאדרת, אין ערוך אליו, המהולל בתושבחות מאתך על יופיו וטובו: כי גם אני והוא תמיד כל היום היינו מתווכחים על זה, ברזל בברזל יחד, והתשובות אשר ראית כתובים בהקדמתו לחבור הנזכר, מתשדל וטורח להשיב, למטיל ספק בקבלה ובמחבר ספר הזוהר ויסודה ומכונה, היו נכונים לי ולדברי, אשר פעם הקשיתי לשאול ולדבר נגדו, ואף הוא היה מתכווין לפייסני בהם, ולהכניסני במסורת ברית הכרוכים אחריה, ולא שמיע לי, כלומר לא סבירא לי, ובכל זאת לדרכי הייתי מהלך ולא נתתי חכי לחטוא נגדם, ורק היה זה דברי כדברי אותו פילוסוף, חכמתכם האלוהות איני כופר בה, אבל אין דעתי נוחה הימנה עד היום הזה: כי בהתחש לי הלכה זו עמך, נלווה אפי עליהם, ונספחו לי זעם וקצף, מה שהיה כבר הוא, כל ימי כאש עצור בעצמותי, בראותי מתוך ספריהם וכשמעי מפיהם כי נמנו וגמרו ויחלטו הממני, כי זולתם מחכמינו לא ידעו ולא יבינו בחשיכה יתהלכו, וכל ישראל אין להם חלק לעולם הבא, רק אשר זרח עליהם אור, זה דרכם שכל למו.

In this eulogy for his son-in-law (in the preface to his Ari Nohem), Da Modena displays both his charitable side (disagreeing with his son-in-law without being disagreeable) and ingeniously adapts biblical verses in order to convey entirely new meanings while retaining an echo of the original (a classic Modena trademark). In describing Jacob Halevi. Modena changed the words in Exodus 4:36 "hatan damim la-mulot" (a bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision) to "hatan tamim lema'alot" (a son-in-law of perfect virtues).

Tragically, Jacob died young and it seemed that bad fortune would forever be the lot of Da Modena's progeny. However he left a precocious child, a lad by the name of Isaac. Isaac was the apple of his grandfather's eye (albeit not seeing eye-to-eye as it were). Isaac followed in his father's footsteps and immersed himself in Kabbalah. He gained some prominence in Venice and in the world of his Kabbalistic peers. His writings include an autobiography of sorts (writing it perhaps as an affectionate nod to his grandfather)  and glosses on the writings of one of the famous Kabbalist Rabbi Moses Cordeovero.

Isaac himself married Esther, the daughter of Judah Monte Scudolo who bore him three children: Sarah, Judah Aryeh (named after his beloved grandfather) and Jacob (named after his father).


1. For Venetian inquisitional material on "Isacco Levi," (our Isaac) from 1658, see: Pier Cesare Ioly Zorattini, ed. Processi del S. Uffizio di Venezia contro ebrei  e Guidaizzanti (1642-1681), 11 (Firenza: Olschki, 1993), pp. 7-14 and 107-1 23 0A 

Many thanks to Prof. Howard Adelman for referring me to this information.

Dr Adelman adds:

He was one of Leon Modena's many grandchildren - see the family tree in Cohen's edition of Hayyei Yehudah.  To this can be added a Leon, the son of Moses Saltero Fano, and he had a son, Leon, making him one of Leon Modena's great-grand sons. This Leon is listed in Asher Selah's compendium of 18th c
entury Italian rabbis and doctors, no. 364.  Isaac min Haleviim, whose father Jacob ben Kalonymos Halevi was a kabbalist and Leon Moden's interlocutoron matters kabbalistic, does not leave much of a kabbalistic footprint. He
dealt with occult books and became an anti-Shabbatean when the movement came to Venice (see Gershom Scholem). Isaac min Haleviim was also a poet, publisher, preacher, among other things, as well has his grandfather's scribe.

2. Daniel Carpi's edited edition of Medabber Tahpuchoth by Itzhak Min-Haleviyyim, published by the Chaim Rosenberg School of Jewish Studies, Tel-Aviv University 1985. The late Prof. Carpi also edited  Chayye' Yehuda, the autobiography of Yehuda Aryeh Modina (1985). Both in Hebrew

3. See also Jacob Dweck's  The Scandal of Kabbalah, and the book review here 

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