Preaching in the Venetian Ghetto


Preaching in the Venetian Ghetto: The Sermons of Leon Modena

Joanna Weinberg
This essay is published in: Preacher of the Italian Ghetto, ed. David Ruderman, University of California Press, 1992

Joanna Weinberg is Professor of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at the University of Oxford. Her research interest include rabbinic and Medieval Hebrew texts, Maimonides, Midrash and Medieval Jewish history and thought. Her latest book co-authored with  Anthony Grafton, “I have always loved the Holy Tongue”. Isaac Casaubon, the Jews, and a Forgotten Chapter in Renaissance ScholarshipCambridge Mass., January, 2011


The personality of the Venetian Rabbi Leon (Judah Aryeh) Modena (1571–1648) has intrigued scholars both past and present.[1] Widely divergent evaluations have been proffered of the man and his work. His Weltanschauung has been variously described as medieval, Renaissance, and baroque;[2] he has been called a hypocrite and a precursor of the reformers,[3] while in the most recent assessment, an impassioned plea has been made to appreciate Modena as a genuine defender of rabbinic tradition and an accomplished scholar in a wide range of subjects including the Christian Scriptures and Italian literature.[4]

That scholars of repute have reached diametrically opposed conclusions as to the historical period reflected in Modena’s writings seems to indicate that these categories are too vague to be useful and do not enhance the reader’s understanding of the subject. The purpose of this chapter is to discuss and analyze Modena’s mode of preaching. Rather than apply such designations as medieval or baroque to his sermons, I shall demonstrate how a Jew living in the ghetto in Counter-Reformation Italy was able to structure his sermons according to Christian specifications while their content remained predominantly Jewish in theme and source.

Modena’s sermons won him paeans of praise from Jews and Christians. He himself, in his own inimitable fashion, unabashedly acknowledged that he was deserving of such a reputation. As he writes in his Autobiography, “And even though for more than twenty years I have…preached in three or four places each Sabbath, this holy community has not grown tired of me, nor had its fill of my sermons. . . .”[5] Modena may have perfected the art of pulpit oratory; the task of the scholar, however, is to evaluate the sermons in their literary form. This task has been undertaken by a variety of scholars. That same diversity of approach which marks scholarly treatment of Modena’s entire literary legacy to which I alluded above is also conspicuous in the different studies of his homiletical productions. In 1950, Ellis Rivkin wrote an article briefly describing the subject of Modena’s sermons, pointing to their specifically Jewish resonances and the stimulating approach of the author to familiar theological issues.[6] According to Rivkin, Modena attached central importance to the form of the sermon which was “an end in itself.” In other words, Modena was a “Jewish preacher of the Baroque.” A more detailed investigation was provided in 1972 by Israel Rosenzweig in his book entitled A Jewish Thinker at the End of the Renaissance.[7] Rosenzweig attempted to analyze Modena’s sermons in their historical context. He argued that Modena was grappling with the reality of his time while seemingly addressing himself to traditional theological themes such as exile, covenant, repentance, and redemption. Rosenzweig found allusions to Christian (and particularly Protestant) doctrine[8] and detected in Modena’s treatment of penitents reference to conversos who had reverted to Judaism.[9] The oft-mooted view of Modena’s hypocrisy and his criticism of rabbinic Judaism is perhaps reflected in Rosenzweig’s opinion that Modena often veiled his true opinion by means of ambiguous imagery and phraseology. Modena raised intractable problems regarding the death of the righteous or the prolongation of the exile, but by means of consummate homiletical skills he erased the sting from these distressing subjects.

Among his various discussions of Jewish sermons, Joseph Dan also touched on the subject of Modena’s rhetorical work.[10] Dan suggested that some of Modena’s sermons were written with other preachers in mind. In other words, those sermons in which Modena appeared not to be expressing his own view on the subject under discussion and which were composed with a clear schematic structure were intended as model sermons that could be used by other preachers for specific festivals or occasions.

As may be seen from these brief summaries, interpretation of Modena’s sermons, whether in regard to their structure or historical significance, is still at a preliminary stage. The documentation and analysis that is provided in the ensuing pages should facilitate a more precise reading of Modena’s sermons.

“For of the three elements in speech-making—speaker, subject, and person addressed—it is the last one, the hearer, that determines the speech’s end and object.”[11] This recommendation of Aristotle was one which Modena certainly endorsed. On several occasions, he stressed the importance of adapting the sermon to the intellectual capabilities of the audience. At the same time, he was conscious of the difficulties attendant upon satisfying all his listeners.[12] The greater part of Modena’s preaching career was spent in Venice, where Ashkenazi, Italian, Sephardi (both Levantine and Ponentine) Jews lived in close proximity to each other, while maintaining their separate rites and praying in separate synagogues.[13]Over the course of the years, Modena addressed all sectors of the Venetian community and was the main preacher in the Great Ashkenazi syngagoue and in the academy of Kalonymus Belgrado.[14] Such was his reputation that “many esteemed friars, priests and noblemen” also came to listen to his sermons.[15] Modena’s powers of communication and sensitivity to his audience are perhaps best illustrated by his introduction to the sermon which he delivered in the Sephardi synagogue on the Sabbath preceding the wedding day of his friend Abraham Lombroso.[16] Modena prefaces his sermon with the statement that every action must match the subject, time, and place. Implicit in these words is the message that as an outsider, an Italian Jew, he was to deliver a sermon which would suit the Sephardi context into which he had entered. The Scriptural pericope for that Sabbath was the story of Noah. Having described the Jewish people in exile in Noachian terms—they are enclosed in the ark of the exile and are tossed over the waters until the final exodus—Modena states: “for various reasons, your holy community bears more affinity to Noah than any other sector of the Jewish people.” Modena does not go on to enlarge on the “various reasons.” What he seems to be insinuating is that the Sephardim, who had suffered from the inquisition and had been exiled from place to place, are like Noah, righteous survivors, on whose merit the world depends. By means of such an introduction, Modena simultaneously communicated his sympathy for the community he was addressing and engaged their attention.

Modena bequeathed only a small sample of his sermons to posterity. Of the four hundred sermons he claimed to have delivered, only twenty-one were brought to print.[17] On the basis of Hebrew outline notes, Modena reconstructed some of the sermons he had delivered in Italian in the first ten years of his preaching career (1593–1602), and working under pressure, submitted them in a Hebrew version to the printer over the course of six weeks. The work was published in Venice in 1602.[18] He entitled the collection Midbar Yehudah (The Wilderness of Judah) or Mi-Debar Yehudah (From the Words of Judah) “because these are the words which I spoke in the congregations and because I am living today scorched in the wilderness, bereft of all goodness, waiting for God to bestow His favour on me, and also because I know that most of it is dry and waste like a wilderness. . . .”[19] In fact, the introduction to the collection reveals that apart from financial considerations, a neurotic obsession with his posterity, and jealousy of other preachers, combined with an assurance about his own skills as a preacher, prompted Modena to the publication of the Midbar Yehudah.[20]

To the great benefit of the scholar, Modena has left fairly full descriptions of his method and aims in composing sermons and of his own conception of the role of the preacher. This invaluable information may be extracted from his introduction to the Midbar Yehudah, from the first sermon in the collection, and from various letters and autobiographical remarks dispersed among his other works. In the light of this evidence, and following the classical rhetorical triad of ordo (arrangement), facundia (style) and res (subject-matter), we shall analyze Modena’s sermons in regard to structure, style, and subject-matter (including sources) and then, using one sermon as a test-case, examine how the theoretical principles become transposed into the final product.

The clearest statement regarding the structure of the sermons is to be found in a letter which Modena wrote to his teacher Samuel Archivolti.[21] He claims:

The sermons blaze a truly new path, for I have made them a blending of the Christian sermon and the traditional Jewish homily. After the verse from the Torah [nose] and the rabbinic statement [ma’amar] comes a brief introduction which they [i.e. the Christians] call prologhino. Then comes the first part of the sermon and then the second part, followed by an explanation of the nose and ma’amar. At the end there is a recapitulation of the entire sermon called epilogo[22] and finally, a petitionary prayer in the accustomed manner. This is the structure of every sermon. There is no section without some biblical verse or rabbinic statement and the sermon is developed by means of suitable connections based on the rules of oratory and retorica.

In this letter, Modena describes himself as an innovator and claims that his originality consists in his blending of Christian and Jewish modes of composition. As has been demonstrated by Marc Saperstein in his recent book on preaching, certain norms and conventions governing the structure of Jewish sermons were introduced from the second half of the fifteenth century onwards.[23] In particular, the use of the Scriptural verse (nose) and the rabbinic text (ma’amar) at the beginning of the sermon became a standard way of beginning a sermon. An introduction to the sermon which contained justification of the sermon was sometimes employed. As regards the development of the sermon, Saperstein points to two different forms: the homiletical model, which usually lacked structural unity; and the derush, where the sermon was constructed around one specific conceptual problem and which would also contain exegesis of various Scriptural and rabbinic passages. It does seem, however, that there were no set conventions for the actual development of the theme. At first glance, Modena’s sermons would seem to belong to the second category of derush. Nevertheless, his reference to the structure of Christian sermons, which is made explicit by his use of the terms prologhino and epilogo, clearly indicates that apart from the use of the nose and ma’amar, the main structure of his sermons followed a convention used by Christian preachers. Modena laid great importance on the art of communication, and a clear structure facilitated communication. In the absence of specific Jewish guidelines, he chose to compose his sermons on Christian models. Fortunately, it is possible to identify the specific model he followed and, as will be shown, it constitutes a significant source for understanding not only the structure of Modena’s sermons, but also his role as preacher at the end of the sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth century.

An inventory of the goods and Hebrew and vernacular books of which Modena was in possession was drawn up after his death in 1648.[24] The name Panigarola and a work Modo di compor prediche (How to Compose Sermons) figure under the list of vernacular books.[25]Francesco Panigarola (1548–1594) was the Bishop of Asti, and a prolific writer, poet, and popular preacher. Panigarola was a respected member of the Catholic establishment and a staunch defender of Tridentine doctrine. While there were numerous Christian preachers and theorists of preaching in Modena’s time, Francesco Panigarola was reputed to be a “Demosthenes Christianus,” one of the most distinguished and popular preachers of the sixteenth century, whose style has been characterized as anticipating baroque mannerism.[26] It may be more than coincidental that similar stories are told about Panigarola and Modena in regard to early manifestations of preaching talent. It is told that the young Panigarola was able to repeat by heart a sermon he had heard with such grace and facility that his teacher Cornelio Musso predicted that he would become a famous preacher.[27]Similarly, Modena narrates in his Autobiography that when he was nine years old his teacher Hezekiah Finzi predicted that “this boy will become a preacher to the Jews for from his manner it is clear that he will be fruitful in preaching.”[28] Panigarola’s sermons were translated from Italian into Latin and French and were reprinted several times.[29] He published an annotated edition of the classical rhetorical work On style, attributed to Demetrius of Phalerum, in which he incorporated a discourse on ecclesiastical preaching and its relation to classical oratory.[30] This subject had become a crucial issue once the Council of Trent had set down official guidelines on preaching. Preachers like Panigarola trained in both the “secular” and “sacred” were concerned to construct a theory of preaching which did justice to both camps.[31] Panigarola’s small work on preaching that was in Modena’s library also contained a short tract on the art of memory.[32] (It is interesting to note that Modena was also to write a tract on memory, the Leb ha-Aryeh, in 1611.) That Modena read the books in his library, and Panigarola’s works in particular, is confirmed by a close examination of Panigarola’s tract on how to compose a sermon. In fact, Modena’s use of one word, prologhino, lends even more support to such a claim, for according to Battaglia, Panigarola’s works constitute the first attestation of this word.[33]

Panigarola’s tract was intended for use by Franciscan novices. Nevertheless, its general guidelines could certainly be adapted to religious sermons of any description. Modena, as will be shown, almost invariably constructed his sermons along the lines set down by Panigarola. The amalgamation of Jewish and Christian forms provided Modena with a perfect medium for composing sermons that, despite their rhetorical ornamentation and exegetical meanderings, preserved a clear structural and conceptual unity.

The stylistic features of Modena’s sermons were conceived in relation to his perception of the role of the preacher. In the prologhino to the first sermon in the Midbar Yehudah, Modena describes the unenviable task of the preacher who must cater to the differing intellectual expectations of his audience.[34] He writes:

If he [the preacher] soars like an eagle and speaks of the great and profound mysteries of wisdom, his proud speach will not sit well with the badgers who are weak in the deeper meaning of the Torah…for they will not know what he is talking about. But if he should speak at a low level, simply and plainly, the learned will turn their backs on him and say, “What does he think he is teaching us?” If he speaks softly and fails to reach the very pinnacle of rhetoric and eloquence, they grow tired of hearing him.…Thus whoever preaches in public is looking for trouble, kindling contention.[35]

Modena therefore sought to find a compromise between the highly polished and mannered style of the Mantuan Rabbi Judah Moscato, which he claims was very unpopular, and the simpler language of the majority of Levantine and Ashkenazi Rabbis.[36] Modena thus describes three “genera dicendi” that in classical terms would correspond to the genus sublime, the genus mediocre and the genus humile.[37] Modena’s invective against current modes of preaching reaches rhetorical extremes in his highly mannered introduction to the Midbar Yehudah.[38] He pours scorn on overly ambitious preachers who are insensitive to the niceties of Talmudic discussion, but use “Aristotle and company” as a means to gain a reputation. They propagate useless ideas which encourage others to entertain misguided views about rabbinic tradition. Preachers of this kind, he alleges, have caused the current widespread disaffection with sermons and preachers. The effective preacher must possess two skills: the ability to conceptualize (ḥokhmat ha-iyyun) and the homiletical art (ḥokhmat ha-derush).[39] (By ḥokhmat ha-iyyun, Modena appears to refer to lucid interpretation of any kind.)[40] Preachers should emulate the example of the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud (and also some of the more recent preachers) who had a fine grasp of complex issues, but were models of clarity when they expounded in public.

Modena may have been encouraging emulation of the rabbis when he selected the art of wisdom and the art of eloquence as the two-fold banner of the effective preacher. But he was also consciously or not expressing the humanist ideal which set the highest store by the combination of wisdom and eloquence. His formulation may also reflect a trend in Jewish preaching of the late sixteenth-century in Italy detected by Bonfil, in which the overtly philosophical sermon was replaced by a more eclectic sermon in which allegorical and kabbalistic interpretation of the aggadot untrammelled by technical vocabulary was employed in order to deepen the religious consciousness of the public.[41]

Modena stressed that the purpose of his sermons was to instill in his listeners the fear of God, instruct them in ethics and beliefs, and offer explanations of the precepts of the Torah. He suggested that “valuable, useful, and pleasurable” (tob, mo’il, areb) would be appropriate designations of some of his sermons. The selection of these three adjectives is significant. In his tract on preaching, Panigarola discusses the three classical genres of oratory—the deliberative, judicial, and demonstrative (epideictic)—and adds a fourth genre, the didactic. He argues that depending on the nature of the sermon, any one or a mixture of these categories may be implemented. Recently O’Malley has argued that during the Renaissance, the epideictic genre was adopted by orators at the Papal court.[42] The medieval thematic sermon had emphasized teaching; now the demonstrative oration sought to inspire love and fear of God and to move and delight the listener. O’Malley also discussed Melanchthon’s treatise on preaching which influenced both Catholic and Protestant theorists of preaching.[43] Melanchthon introduced the didactic genre (genus didascalicum) used in dialectic and applied it to rhetoric. Melancthon formulated three other genres of rhetoric: the didascalicum, which teaches true doctrine, the epitrepticum, which exhorts to faith, and the paraneticum, which exhorts to good morals. While it is difficult to classify Modena’s sermons dogmatically into any one of the genres described above, it does seem that his use of the three adjectives, “valuable, useful, and entertaining,” and his express aim to teach fear of God and ethical qualities and to explain the reasons for the precepts of the Torah, combines some of the features of the epideictic genre with that of Melanchthon’s categories. Moreover, Modena expressly states that his purpose is neither to castigate nor to set himself apart from his audience. While such a statement is clearly a tactical ploy to win the confidence of his audience, it also suggests the purpose of epideictic oratory, which seeks to impress ideas on the audience without explicit intention to teach or to spur to action.

From classical times, theorists of rhetoric compared oratory to the visual arts, and saw a relation between epideictic oratory and painting and sculpture.[44] It was commonplace for Renaissance orators to compare themselves to painters. This commonplace appears in the first sermon of the Midbar Yehudah, albeit with an original twist. Modena quotes a famous passage from tractate Berakhot (10a) in the Babylonian Talmud:

Come and see how different is the capacity of human beings from that of the Holy One Blessed be He. A human being has the capacity to draw a figure on a wall, but he is unable to invest it with breath and spirit, bowels and intestines. But the Holy One Blessed be He shapes one form within another and invests it with breath and spirit, bowels and intestines. That is what Hannah meant when she said, “There is none as holy as the Lord, neither is there a rock [ẓur] like our God” [1 Sam. 2:2]. There is no painter [ẓayar] like our God.

Modena’s interpretation of this aggadah follows the pattern he uses throughout his sermons. Its logical consistency is examined and questioned. Superficial problems are raised and then rejected on the basis of a more probing examination of the underlying message of the text. Modena wonders why the author of the aggadah used the strange analogy of the wall-artist. He suggests that the choice was dictated by the author’s wish to convey both the art of the painter and that of the sculptor. In particular, he questions the validity of the final statement in which, by means of a play on the words “rock” and “painter,” God is described as the ideal painter.[45] At first glance, the aggadah would appear to be referring to God’s unique powers as creator. He argues that the comparison between God and human beings only becomes valid if the analogy is indeed being drawn between the artistic faculties of God and those of humans. He thus argues that the intention of the aggadah is to stress the fallible qualities of human artists who are not even able to imitate nature, in this case, the human body, with any degree of verisimilitude. Having interpreted the aggadah as an illustration of God’s mastery of the plastic arts, Modena then draws an analogy between the painter and the writer, and the sculptor and the preacher. The painter and the writer can erase any defect in their painting or writing. The sculptor, on the other hand, cannot undo any blemish which appears once the stone has been chiseled. Similarly, the speaker cannot bite back the words once he has uttered them. Only God has perfect control over the stone and the pen. With the rabbinic text as his basic proof text, Modena appears to have adopted the Renaissance idea of the preacher as artist, and given it a novel application. The work of the preacher consists in imitatio dei. By means of a disingenuous method of preempting any criticism of his shortcomings as preacher, Modena expresses the vulnerability of the preacher who takes on the awesome task of imitatio dei, but can never ensure the perfection of his art.

Modena contrasted his style with that of one of the most distinguished preachers of his generation, Judah Moscato. One of the notable features of Moscato’s sermons is his extensive citation of non-Jewish sources; the paucity of references to non-Jewish authors is one of the most distinctive features of Modena’s sermons. The difference between the two preachers in this regard is particularly noteworthy given that Modena published his sermons only fourteen years after Moscato’s sermons appeared in print. It was not for lack of familiarity with secular sources that Modena eschewed non-Jewish references in his sermons. His other works bear evidence of his wide knowledge of Christian texts. On the few occasions that he does cite a non-Jewish author or a story he has read in a secular source, he usually does not give the name of the author, even when it is clearly a well-known writer such as Aristotle or Livy. It would seem that Modena’s highly developed sensitivity to the preacher’s task dictated his use of sources. One of the techniques of humanist rhetoricians was to avoid citations of classical sources in extenso. This was regarded as one of the characteristics of a refined and polished style. Naturally, the non-Jewish references did not have the same value for Modena as did the classical sources for the humanists. Nevertheless, a similar concern for the elegance of the sermon prompted Modena to avoid explicit allusions to extraneous works. The main body of his sermons was concerned with interpretation of the rabbinic aggadot and midrashim. Modena ensured that the references to non-Jewish texts should not interrupt the flow of the argument and intrude on the audience’s attention. The interpretation offered here does not necessarily discount the validity of the idea expressed by Moshe Idel that by Modena’s time, “Renaissance Jewish syncretism had ended its full turn: in lieu of numerous citations from alien sources in support of the Torah, there is a return to the Bible itself…a fideistic attitude becomes more and more evident.”[46] It would seem to me, however, that it was the particular context of the pulpit which determined the manifestation of a “fideistic approach,” if indeed that is the appropriate way to designate Modena’s sermons. It cannot be overlooked that two years before his publication of the Midbar Yehudah, Modena printed his Hebrew translation and adaptation (Ẓemaḥ Ẓaddik) of the Italian medieval moralistic treatise Fiore di virtù. This alien text was replete with references to pagan sages and Christian saints. Although he modified, truncated, and replaced the Christian sayings with rabbinic stories, Modena apparently regarded the work as suitable material with which to edify the Hebrew-reading public. Indeed, some of the anonymous stories with which Modena entertains his readers in his sermons are taken from the Fiore di virtù.[47]

As I have said, Modena’s sermons are built on interpretations of midrashim and aggadot of the Talmud.[48] He never cites legal texts, although, as I will demonstrate, a halakhic dimension is sometimes implicit in his discussion. By the end of the sixteenth century, the major classical midrashim were available in print. Modena tended to comment on the most famous talmudic aggadot and midrashim from the collections of the Midrash Rabba and Yalkut Shimoni. He also gave extensive interpretations of Scriptural passages, particularly of the Psalms and Proverbs, following the order of the verses. This was a mnemonic device widely used by both Jews and Christians. It is interesting to note that Panigarola recommends that the preacher should have in his possession a good biblical concordance and make thorough use of the indices when preparing his sermon. Modena often interspersed his sermons with lexical comments on biblical words and expressions and some passages are patently constructed on the basis of consultation of concordances. He also occasionally ended his sermons in a symbolic manner on the basis of the notes in the Masorah Magna, which gives detailed information as to the occurrence of words and letters in biblical texts.

Modena is economical in his citation of post-Talmudic sources. It is thus striking that the few medieval Jewish sources that he does quote are mostly derived from kabbalistic sources and in particular, the Zohar. In later life, Modena was to acquire a reputation as a virulent anti-kabbalist and in a famous responsum (circa 1625) to the question whether it is permitted to teach kabbalah in public, Modena attempted to disclaim real knowledge of this esoteric body of literature.[49] He implied that his kabbalistic allusions were simply concessions to the expectations of some of his listeners.[50] In a pioneering article focusing on the Ari Nohem, Modena’s critique of kabbalah, Moshe Idel has traced the cultural context in which Modena developed his antikabbalistic bias and also the specific elements in kabbalah which Modena challenged.[51] Idel demonstrated that Modena’s views were partly fashioned by his awareness that Christian theologians used the kabbalah to strengthen their own doctrine. In addition, they were influenced by his involvement in the current debates regarding the validity of rabbinic tradition and thus he drew a distinct line between rabbinic tradition, that is, the Oral Law, and any other phenomenon including kabbalah. What emerges from Idel’s discussion is that Modena was not averse to kabbalah per se, but rather to its misappropriation by others. It thus becomes clear that the citation of kabbalistic texts in his youthful Midbar Yehudah in contrast to his attack on kabbalah in his maturity is not an indication that Modena radically changed his view on the subject, nor that he was posing as a partisan of kabbalah. Rather, and this is substantiated by an examination of the mode in which he cites the kabbalistic texts, Modena used kabbalistic interpretation where it fitted into his own scheme of thinking. The kabbalistic allusions had no more or less authority than his other references to medieval texts even if he added the epithet “holy” when he referred to Simeon bar Yoḥai, the ascribed author of the Zohar.

The twenty-one sermons of the Midbar Yehudah, written for different occasions and different audiences, were uniform in style and structure, but varied in subject matter. Nevertheless, as Rosenzweig demonstrated in his book on Modena, certain themes recur in various forms throughout the sermons. Prominence is given to questions of exile and redemption,[52] the covenant between God and Israel, repentance and the immortality of the soul. Adam’s sin is a pet subject and one to which he returned in many of his subsequent publications.[53] Since a comprehensive treatment of the sermons is beyond the scope of this chapter, I have selected one sermon for detailed analysis.

The tenth sermon in the Midbar Yehudah was given in 1597 on the Sabbath preceding the fast day of Tishah b’Ab, which commemorates the destruction of the Temple. For Modena, the day acquired greater poignancy because it marked the end of his thirty-day mourning period for the death of his mother. The concurrence of personal bereavement and communal mourning provided Modena with the theme of his “prologhino.” The Scriptural verse (nose) with which he begins his sermon was carefully chosen to enable him to connect his personal situation with that of the community. Modena cites the verse, “How can I alone bear your trouble, your burden and your strife?” (Deut. 1:12), but following a rhetorical ploy which became widespread from the end of the fifteenth century, he fragments the verse, playing with the word “I bear” (esah) which in other contexts can have the meaning of “raising the voice.” He thus reads the verse “How can only I raise my voice in lamentation? How can I alone bear your trouble, your burden and strife?” He then gives the rabbinic text (ma’amar) which was to be analyzed in the last part of the sermon.

One of the characteristic modes of beginning a sermon was for the preacher to justify his call to the pulpit. In this case, Modena claims that he is the best candidate for the task of mourning the loss of the Temple because he is in a state of bereavement for the death of his mother, the worst disaster that can befall a man. Using kabbalistic imagery, Modena associates the loss of his mother with the loss of the Temple, for “our mother has wandered far away from us, that is the Shekhinah of God, truly, the holy mother.” After a somewhat facetious account of the reasons for lamenting the death of a mother more than that of a father, Modena proceeds to introduce the theme of the sermon, which is in the form of a question.[54] Should one feel more pain for the grief of the individual or for that of the community? He then ends the introduction with a rhetorical flourish aimed at winning the sympathies of the audience, or perhaps, suggesting to the reader the situation of the lachrymose Modena in the pulpit: “My sorrow has got the better of me. Look away from me that I might take a little comfort. Though I speak, my grief will not be assuaged.”

In the first part of the sermon, Modena examines the arguments for each side of the question introduced in the prologhino. He first puts the individual’s case, opening his discourse with an idiosyncratic, but revealing, use of the legal expression “A man never incriminates himself,” which in this context must be translated “A man values his own person.”[55] Since this proposition is true, Modena argues, one might infer that the individual sets the highest store by his own happiness and conversely, that his own suffering is the hardest to bear. An aggadah in the Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot 7a) in which Moses asks God to grant him three requests supplies him with the proof of such a contention. Analyzing and questioning the aggadah in the manner demonstrated above in respect to the “artist” analogy, Modena comes to the conclusion that the three requests correspond to three specific and distinctive characteristics of Israel: (1) Moses asked that the Shekhinah should rest on Israel when he said, “Is it not that you go with us?” (Ex. 33:16). This, according to Modena, alludes to the physical existence of a specific people, Abraham’s descendants; (2) Moses requested that the Shekhinah should not rest on the wicked of the world when he said, “So that we are distinguished, I and your people” (ibid.). This alludes to the people’s distinctive spirituality that stems from their observance of the precepts; and (3) Moses asked God to show him His ways (ibid., v. 13). This is an allusion to the righteous, who are the crème de la crème. By means of an allegorical interpretation of Isaiah’s song of the vineyard (chap. 5) and an allusion to its interpretation in the Zohar,[56] Modena argues that the purpose of Moses’ request was to ensure Israel’s attachment (devekut) to the Shekhina in their lifetime.[57] He extends the idea of the specific when he points to the strange formulation in one of Moses’ requests. His statement, “So that we are distinguished, I and your people,” according to Modena, specifies the specific. Moses, whose prophetic powers were unique, who stood out as an individual among individuals, wanted to be the recipient of God’s favor. Thus, the good is enhanced the more specific and individualized it becomes. The same is true of personal disaster. The more specific the disaster, the greater the suffering. Modena discusses this with reference to the midrash in Ekhah Rabbati (1:9) in which it is stated that the demise of the righteous is more grievous to God than the ninety-eight curses in Deuteronomy and the destruction of the Temple.

Constructing a bridge to the other side of the argument, Modena quotes the popular saying, “The affliction of the many is semi-solace.”[58] Among the illustrations of this saying, Modena alludes to a story in the Fiore di virtù. Alexander of Macedon’s last instructions to his mother were to make a party after his death and to invite only those who had never suffered in their life. Nobody appeared at the feast. His mother was to take solace by the fact that she was in the same position as everybody else.[59] Modena reverts to the discussion between God and Moses when taking up the other side of the argument. Moses’ statement “that we are distinguished, I and your people” indicates that he did have altruistic sentiments. He included the people in his request in the knowledge that his good would be enhanced by the general good. The importance of giving priority to the good of the many is illustrated by the aggadah in tractate Ta’anit in the Babylonian Talmud, in which Rabbi Ḥaninah ben Dosa comes to the realization that his well-being exists at the cost of the discomfort of the rest of the world.[60] This leads to the idea that “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” Modena cites examples from the “gentiles who killed themselves for the sake of their countries.” Without naming his source, he quotes a story from book six of Livy which describes how a cavalryman was prepared to follow an oracle’s advice and throw himself into the earth’s chasm in order to avert the destruction of the entire population of Rome. He cites a similar case of self-sacrifice told in the Bible. Mesha, King of Moab, killed his first-born son in a desperate attempt to save his people from Israel (2 Kings 3:27). Modena seeks to understand these actions, which from a personal perspective he finds incomprehensible. Two alternatives faced the individuals in question: either to participate in the universally bad situation, or to eradicate the suffering of the many. Modena thus concludes that the more universal the disaster, the more momentous it is. This conclusion serves as a transition into the final part of section one. Modena returns to the theme of the day, the destruction of the Temple, the most universal of all disasters which affects Israel, all peoples of the world, and even God. And he ends with a reference to the nose. “How can I bear it by myself. It is the duty of every person to raise his voice in lamentation.”

In the first part of the second section of the sermon, Modena produces evidence from various aggadot that demonstrate that the destruction of the Temple was the most universal of all calamities. His opening text is a striking aggadah that describes the unique qualities of Mount Zion, “the joy of the whole world.”[61] Various texts are cited which demonstrate that Jerusalem was the focal point of the world. “Had the nations of the world realized what a boon the Temple was for them, they would have built fortifications around it in order to protect it.”[62] The famous aggadah describing God weeping over the ruined Temple brings the first part of this section to a dramatic climax.[63]

At this juncture, Modena raises the question of the relevance of the destruction of the Temple for his contemporaries. The mourning for the destruction of the Temple, he explains, has not become obsolete. In fact, one should mourn with even greater intensity because God’s decrees may be reversed at any moment. An interpretation of the first verses of chapter one of Lamentations then follows. Like the nose verse, the chapter begins with the word Ekhah (How): “How does a city sit solitary?” The significance of this word is further elaborated by means of a midrash which states that three prophets, Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, all predicted the fall of Jerusalem using the expression ekhah.[64]

Having ended the second section by focusing on the meaning of the word ekhah, Modena then proceeds to examine the rabbinic text that he recited at the beginning of the sermon in the light of his foregoing comments.

Rabbi Abahu began his discourse with the verse “For they like man [Adam] have transgressed the covenant” (Hosea 6:7). The Blessed One said: “I put Adam in the Garden of Eden and gave him a commandment which he transgressed. I punished him by expulsion and by sending him forth and I lamented over him Ekhah [this is a play on the word ayekha, “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:8) ]. So, too, I put his descendants into the land and lamented over them, ‘How does a city sit solitary?” ’ (Lam. 1:1)[65]

Modena’s analysis of this aggadah skillfully brings together some of the central points in his sermon. Adam was an individual, but his sin had universal repercussions.[66] Similarly, Israel’s sin, which resulted in banishment from their land and destruction of the Temple, had universal implications. The expressions “banishment” and “sending away” signify the different stages in God’s meting out of punishment. Initially, His intention was to punish Adam with eternal punishment, but then He simply sent him away in the hope that he would repent. When God realized that he had not repented, when He said to Adam in the Garden, “Where are you?” (ayekha), he was not merely inquiring where he was, but was crying out in pain, “How can it be that you do not repent?”[67]

Modena refers to the poignancy of the ending of the aggadah: “Who is there who on hearing this does not shed tears for our calamity?” He proceeds to comfort the people with the assurance that the reversal of the decree of banishment can be reversed by means of repentance. Using the Masorah Magna, Modena refers to the three passages in the Bible in which one verse ends and the following verse begins with the word “the earth”: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth . . .” (Gen. 1:1); “The earth faints and fades away…the earth also is defiled under its inhabitants” (Isaiah 24:4,5); “And it shall respond to the earth and the earth shall respond.” (Hosea 2:23–24). This lexical information that has been culled from the Masorah Magna is then overcast with kabbalistic imagery. Modena states: “The creation of the world from chaos was an act of undiluted mercy.…The people have contaminated the earth, but the earth will respond. Thus, if Israel repents, they will be answered and the earth will return to its former strength when our Messiah comes to build the Temple speedily in our days. May it be Your will.”

Towards the end of the sermon, after speaking of the tears which should be shed for “our calamity,” Modena states that he has fulfilled the aim of the sermon. He has assembled the arguments as to whether the good or evil of the individual is of greater moment than that of the general community. He does not offer any response to the question. Nevertheless, his interpretation of the ma’amar does implicitly answer his proposed question. The individual is inextricably linked with the universal. The actions of the individual Adam and likewise those of the individual people Israel had universal consequences.

Modena based his arguments on his own interpretation of various aggadot which were not explicitly concerned with the question he poses. And yet, there are various other aggadot and midrashim that deal with the question he raises in terminology strikingly similar to his own. In tractate Moed Katan in the Babylonian Talmud (14b) two views are given as to the meaning of the phrase “baẓar lakh” (“in your distress”) in the verse “when you are in distress…He will not fail you” (Deut. 4:30–31): “Any distress that is confined to the individual is real distress, but any distress that in not confined to an individual is not real distress.” The other opinion states: “Any distress shared by Israel and the nations is real distress, but any confined to Israel is not.”[68] These two contradictory opinions sum up Modena’s quandary. There is yet another rabbinic text which seems to underlie more than one aspect of the sermon. In tractate Yebamot (43b) of the Babylonian Talmud a practical legal problem is raised as to whether public mourning for the destruction of the Temple takes precedence over personal bereavement. Rav Ashi uses the same terminology as Modena when he refers to the mourning for the destruction of the Temple as “old bereavement” and the opinion is put forward that an individual who is in mourning for a personal loss is subject to more stringent regulations than those governing public mourning for the Temple. The implications of the halakhic question raised in the Talmud are exploited to the full by Modena.[69] He explains to his congregation that they should not entertain the idea that the past has no relevance for the present. Mourning for the loss of the Temple is not outdated, but has direct bearing on each individual and on the entire community. Even he, Modena, who had recently suffered the loss of his mother, participated in his community’s suffering and prayed for the rehabilitation of the people in their own land.

Modena’s sermon is constructed on the basis of rabbinic texts which he fashioned and transformed into a question of crucial relevance for his community. His adaptation of rabbinic materials demonstrates both his interpretative and preaching skills, while the structure of the sermon is clearly modeled on Panigarola’s guidelines. Panigarola gives detailed instructions for the construction of the sections, each of which should constitute a sermon in miniature (predichetta).[70] The prologhino should be like the opening of a madrigal, free-moving, leading up to the main body of the sermon but independent of it.[71] It should not be longer than half a page. The introduction to the first section should contain a proposition which is then developed by a series of arguments that are marshaled in such a way that the audience is not conscious of the formal logical principles underlying the discussion. The transitions between the various sections should be artfully constructed, like concealed hinges, to enable the listener to progress almost unaware from one point to the other.[72] The rigors of the first part should be alleviated in the opening of the second section by recapitulating or by producing proofs that contain entertaining or pleasurable narratives.[73] The end of the second part should sum up the whole sermon, and the epilogue should give expression to devout sentiments and sometimes, according to the occasion, exhort or castigate.[74]

In Modena’s sermon, the short prologhino functions as a prelude. The first part begins with the arguments for giving priority to the individual’s case. The introduction of the popular saying, “The affliction of the many is semi-solace,” which as it were presents an intermediate stage in the argument, serves as a transition into the second half of the first section. The ending of the first section anticipates the subject of the second part. The second section opens with a striking passage that, after the complexities of the first section, is less taxing on the listener’s attention. The interpretation of the ma’amar ties together the different elements in the discussion and brings the main point of the sermon, the reason for mourning for the Temple, into relief. The peroration exhorts the people to repentance.

This sermon is representative of the majority of the sermons in the Midbar Yehudah. Modena adapts some of the most characteristic elements of Jewish preaching to the recommendations of an Italian bishop. By the end of the sixteenth century there was a glut of Christian works on the art of preaching. Modena chose to model himself on Francesco Panigarola, who was one of the most famous preachers of the time and whose sermons became a model of style for both religious and secular litterati.[75] The Christian preacher had official status in post-tridentine Italy and the sermon was used as a vehicle for expressing the views of the establishment. For the Jewish preacher, there were no official rules and regulations. From Modena’s statements, it would appear that it was the demands of the audience that partly dictated the kind of sermon that was to be delivered. And yet, the role which Modena consciously assumes as preacher does bear affinity to that of his Christian counterpart. Modena prides himself on his sermons, which are composed with a fine eye to structure and style.[76] If Panigarola composed sermons to combat the heresy of the Reformers, Modena interspersed his interpretations of rabbinic literature with discussions that were aimed at challenging Christian views or simply posing fundamental questions that were intended to underline the meaning of Jewish tradition in contemporary society. His consciousness of the responsibility of the preacher to his congregation was derived in no small measure from what he had learned from his Christian neighbors.


1. An overview of Modena’s life and work with full bibliography is given in Howard E. Adelman’s Success and Failure in the Seventeenth-Century Ghetto of Venice, The Life and Thought of Leon Modena 1571–1648, Ph.D. diss. Brandeis University, 1985. Mark Cohen’s translation and edition of Modena’s autobiography, The Autobiography of a Seventeenth-Century Venetian Rabbi: Leon Modena’s Life of Judah (Princeton, 1988), with introductory essays by Mark R. Cohen, Theodore K. Rabb, Howard E. Adelman, and Natalie Zemon Davis and historical notes by Howard E. Adelman and Benjamin Ravid, is also a mine of useful information. All references to the Autobiography will be to Cohen’s translation. [BACK]

2. See, for example, Cecil Roth, The Jews in the Renaissance (Philadelphia, 1959), who makes constant reference to Modena throughout the book as a typical Jewish representative of the Renaissance. See also Giuseppe Sermoneta’s analysis of Modena’s tract on memory, the Leb ha-Aryeh (The Heart of the Lion) (Venice, 1612), Italia Judaica (Rome, 1986), vol. 2, pp. 17–26, which stresses the essentially medieval orientation of the work and its author. In contrast, see Robert Bonfil, “Change in the Cultural Patterns of a Jewish Society in Crisis: Italian Jewry at the Close of the Sixteenth Century,” Jewish History 3, no. 2 (1988): 19–20, who argues that Modena’s use of magic and alchemy together with classical knowledge had a mediating function in its Jewish context. He further claimed that Modena’s translation of foreign works including the medieval moralistic tract Fiore di virtù was not indicative of medieval sensibilities, but rather indicative of a modern thrust in Jewish society to narrow the gap between Judaism and Christianity. [BACK]

3. See Howard E. Adelman, “Towards a New Assessment of Leon Modena,” The Autobiography, pp. 38–39. For a detailed account of Modena’s attitude to and defense of rabbinic tradition, see Ellis Rivkin, Leon Modena and the Kol Sakhal(Cincinnati, 1952), pp. 40–79. [BACK]

4. See Howard E. Adelman’s essay, “Towards a New Assessment of Leon Modena,” The Autobiography, pp. 38–49. [BACK]

5. The Autobiography, p. 95 (11a). [BACK]

6. Ellis Rivkin, “The Sermons of Leo da Modena,” Hebrew Union College Annual 23, no. 2 (1950–51): 295–317. [BACK]

7. Israel Rosenzweig, Hogeh Yehudi mi-Keẓ ha-Renesans: Yehudah Aryeh Modena ve-Sifro Midbar Yehudah (Tel Aviv, 1972). [BACK]

8. In chap. 7, in particular, Rosenzweig analyzes Modena’s concept of covenant in the background of Modena’s debates with Christians. The substantial evidence of Modena’s meeting with English Protestants postdates the publication of his collection of sermons. See C. Roth, “Leon da Modena and England,” Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England 11 (1924–1927): 206–207. However, it is certainly true that on occasion, Modena offers interpretations of Scriptural passages which are intended as refutations of well-known Christian views. See, for example, his interpretation of Is. 52: 13–14, “Indeed, My servant shall prosper, be exalted and raised to great heights. Just as the many were appalled at him . . .” (Midbar Yehudah, p. 34a), in which he stresses that although the expression “My servant” is in the singular, it refers to the people of Israel (and therefore not to Jesus) and he cites other passages which indicate that the use of the singular form in designating Israel is a convention of biblical language. [BACK]

9. Rosenzweig treats the subject in an appendix to his book (pp. 132–138). He cites, for example, Modena’s interpretation of the passage in the Babylonian Talmud (Menaḥot 53b) in which Abraham bemoans the fate of “my children” with God (Midbar Yehudah, p. 13a). In the course of his defense of the people, Abraham entreats God to remember the covenant of the circumcision to which God replies with a quotation from Jeremiah 11:15, “The hallowed flesh has passed from you.” Modena focuses on this reply and infers that the loss of the land of Israel is the result of the failure of the people as a whole to fulfill the commandment of circumcision. Rosenzweig suggests not implausibly that Modena pinpoints this element in the passage in order to make a veiled reference to those conversos who had chosen not to revert to Judaism.[BACK]

10. Joseph Dan, Hebrew Ethical and Homiletical Literature (The Middle Ages and Early Modern Period) [Hebrew] (Jerusalem, 1975), pp. 199–200. Dan analyzes one of Modena’s sermons for a Bar Mitzvah (Midbar Yehudah, pp. 94b–96a). He expresses the same view, but gives it a more general application in “The Aesthetic Elements in Hebrew Homiletical Literature” [Hebrew], Ha-Sifrut 111 (1971–72): 566. In his opening note to the sermon, Modena states that he is going to keep the sermon short “because the child is just a child.” As far as I can see, Dan’s thesis can only be applied to the two sermons in the collection which Modena wrote on behalf of the boys who were becoming Bar Mitzvah.[BACK]

11. Aristotle, Rhetoric, 1358;xa, 36–38. [BACK]

12. One might assume that he also adapted his sermon, which he would give in Italian, to the needs of the non-Jewish members of his audience. [BACK]

13. See Modena’s statement in his Zikne Yehudah, responsum 26, ed. Shlomo Simonsohn (Jerusalem, 1957), p. 43, “Here in Venice, although the main community consists of individual communities, when they come together, they follow the majority decision”; cf. Bonfil’s discussion of the pluralistic society of the Venetian ghetto in “Cultura e mistica a Venezia,” in Gli ebrei a Venezia secoli XIV–XVIII, ed. Gaetano Cozzi (Milan, 1987), pp. 469–506. [BACK]

14. For details of the chronology of Modena’s preaching activities, see The Autobiography, pp. 203–204. [BACK]

15. See The Autobiography, p. 96 and n. g, p. 204. [BACK]

16. Midbar Yehudah (Venice, 1602), p. 81a. [BACK]

17. In his Autobiography (p. 102) for the entry June–July 1602, he writes that after putting together the Midbar Yehudah, he still had four hundred sermons in his possession. [BACK]

18. See Midbar Yehudah, p. 4b; The Autobiography, pp. 101–102; and the letter to his teacher Samuel Archivolti in Iggerot R. Yehudah Aryeh Modena, ed. Yakob Boksenboim (Tel Aviv, 1984), letter 40, pp. 83–84, which is translated by Marc Saperstein in Jewish Preaching 1200–1800: An Anthology (New Haven, 1989), pp. 411–412. [BACK]

19. Midbar Yehudah, p. 7b. [BACK]

20. The opening lines of Modena’s introduction are difficult to translate, owing to the gushing stream of rhetoric which perhaps intentionally obfuscates the meaning. The gist of the first two paragraphs is that Modena’s need to publish stems from his anxiety that his name will be forgotten. Modena’s concern for posterity, which is given such exaggerated expression in his introduction, seems to me to be uncharacteristic of Jewish writers. According to Ephraim Shmueli, Between Faith and Heresy: An Essay on Leon da Modena and Uriel da Costa [Hebrew] (Tel Aviv, 1963), p. 13, Modena’s desire for posterity is due to his doubts about the afterlife. [BACK]

21. See n. 15. I have followed Saperstein’s translation, but made some changes where necessary. [BACK]

22. The reading here is unclear. Modena may be using the word epiloghino. [BACK]

23. See Saperstein, Jewish Preaching, pp. 63–79. [BACK]

24. The inventory is published by Clemente Ancona, “L’Inventario dei beni appartenenti a Leon da Modena,” Bollettino dell’istituto di storia della società e dello stato veneziano 4 (1962): 249–267. [BACK]

25. This is unquestionably a reference to Panigarola’s Modo di comporre una predica. Scholars have tended to disregard this reference to Panigarola, while usually noting that the inventory lists the sermons of Savonarola. One cannot detect any influence of Savonarola on Modena. [BACK]

26. A detailed discussion of the life and work of Panigarola with particular attention to his position as the major representative of sacred oratory in the Counter-Reformation is given by Frederico Barbieri, “La riforma dell’eloquenza sacra in Lombardia operata da S. C. Borromeo,” Archivio storico lombardo 15, no. 38 (1911): pp. 231–262. See also, Roberto Rusconi, Predicazione e vita religiosa nella società italiana (Turin, 1981). For a short analysis of Panigarola’s style, see Giovanni Pozzi, “Intorno alla predicazione del Panigarola,” Italia sacra: Problemi di vita religiosa in Italia nel Cinquecento. Atti del convegno di storia della chiesa in Italia, Bologna 1958 (Padua, 1960), pp. 315–322. [BACK]

27. See Biographie Universelle (Paris, Leipzig, 1932), s.v. Panigarola, vol. 32, pp. 70 col. a–71 col. a. [BACK]

28. The Autobiography, p. 86. [BACK]

29. There is no complete list of the many editions of his works. [BACK]

30. Il Predicatore overo parafrase commento e discorsi intorno al libro dell’elocutione di Demetrio Falereo (Venice, 1602).[BACK]

31. See Peter Bayley, French Pulpit Oratory 1598–1650 (Cambridge, 1980), p. 39. [BACK]

32. Modo di comporre una predica del Rev. Panigarola Vescovo di Asti con l’aggiunta di un trattato della memoria locale(Padua, 1599). The work was dedicated to Marco Cornaro, the bishop of Padua. I consulted this edition of the work. The first edition was printed in 1584 and there were several subsequent editions including translations into Latin and French.[BACK]

33. See Salvatore Battaglia, Grande dizionario della lingua italiana (Turin, 1988), s.v. prologhino, vol. 14, p. 580. [BACK]

34. Midbar Yehudah, pp. 5a–8a. This was the first sermon he preached in the Great Ashkenazi synagogue (see The Autobiography, p. 95). It was delivered in 1593. The entire introduction deals with the problems of effective preaching. Modena explains that he made the introduction longer that the other introductions in the collection because it was the first sermon. Modena seems to have conceived it as an excursus on the nature of preaching and the difficulties of the preaching profession, presumably to justify any shortcomings his critics might discover in his sermons. [BACK]

35. Midbar Yehudah, pp. 6b–7a. I have used Saperstein’s translation, Jewish Preaching, pp. 409–410. [BACK]

36. Modena makes these claims in his letter to Samuel Archivolti, p. 412. [BACK]

37. These Ciceronian genera dicendi were adapted by Augustine. In his De Doctrina Christiana, IV, 17, he recommends the moderate style, the genus temperatum, which is neither unornamented nor ornamented in an unbecoming way. Its object is to entertain the listeners while leading them to obedience. [BACK]

38. Midbar Yehudah, p. 3b. I have presented a synopsis of his main ideas. [BACK]

39. Modena was not the first Jewish preacher to stress the importance of the homiletical art for preaching. In the earliest known tract on Jewish preaching, the En ha-Kore, the fifteenth-century Spanish philosopher Joseph ibn Shem Tob states: “Thus the best of the arts for preaching is the art of rhetoric. The more the preacher masters this art, and the more at home he is in the techniques of speech and argumentation that will persuade the listeners to accept what he says, the greater will be his stature in the category of rhetoric.” Cited from Saperstein, Jewish Preaching, p. 300. [BACK]

40. Modena sometimes used allegorical and kabbalistic interpretation of the aggadot and midrashim in his sermons. In the introduction to his Responsa, the Zikne Yehudah, which is dated Venice 1630 (ed. Shlomo Simonsohn, Jerusalem, 1957), he first states that he was the best preacher that ever was “as is well known,” and then states that he had a fine grasp of legal matters and did not spurn “iyyun,” that is, he did not adopt casuistic interpretations. [BACK]

41. See Robert Bonfil, Rabbis and Jewish Communities in Renaissance Italy (Oxford, 1990 [translation from the Hebrew, Jerusalem, 1979]), pp. 298–316. [BACK]

42. John W. O’Malley, Praise and Blame in Renaissance Rome, Rhetoric and Reform in the Sacred Orators of the Papal Court c. 1450–1521 (Los Angeles, Berkeley, 1979). [BACK]

43. John W. O’Malley, “Sixteenth-Century Treatises on Preaching,” in Renaissance Eloquence (Los Angeles, Berkeley, 1983), pp. 238–252. [BACK]

44. See John M. McNanamon, Funeral Oratory and the Cultural Ideals of Italian Humanists (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1989), p. 31. [BACK]

45. Modena suggests another play on words for the conclusion of the passage. “There is no creator [yoẓer] like our God.”[BACK]

46. Moshe Idel, “Differing Conceptions of Kabbalah in the Early 17th Century,” Jewish Thought in the Seventeenth Century, ed. Isadore Twersky and Bernard Septimus (Cambridge, Mass., 1987), p. 174. [BACK]

47. See, for example, the story about the reaction of the philosophers to Alexander’s death recounted in the section entitled “Del vizio della tristizia e della morte di Alessandro” (Ẓemaḥ Ẓaddik, chap. 9), which Modena applies in his eulogy of Samuel Judah Katzenellenbogen (Midbar Yehudah, p. 69a). [BACK]

48. Of the twenty-one ma’amarim with which he begins his sermons, ten are taken from aggadot of the Talmud and eleven from midrashim. [BACK]

49. The Responsum is n. 55 of his collection of his Responsa entitled Zikne Yehudah (pp. 76–78). A partial translation of the letter is given in Saperstein, Jewish Preaching, pp. 406–408. Modena writes (Saperstein’s translation): “To my distress, the truth is that I do not know a single book from that discipline which today they call “Kabbalah” and “true wisdom.” Nevertheless, I was able to appear publicly in my sermons as if I too knew a little of it. This was like those preachers who need to preach about the talmudic tractate Erubin in order to placate the confused minds of their listerners.” [BACK]

50. Robert Bonfil, “Cultura e mistica,” pp. 492–493, states that Modena’s response should not be taken at face value. Modena had been conscious of the growing appeal of kabbalah and realized that he should be discrete in revealing his true opinions about kabbalah. [BACK]

51. See Idel, “Differing Conceptions.” [BACK]

52. In treating this theme, he often is implicitly referring to the realities of ghetto life. See his first sermon (Midbar Yehudah, p. 10a–b) where he discusses the three conditions which determine the greatness of a nation: numbers, the qualities of virtue and wisdom, and a good geographical position. With regard to the question of numbers, he asserts that when the Jews lived in the land of Israel they were numerous but appeared few in number, but now being in exile, “we are few, but appear many such that five Jews together make a greater impression than ten people of any other nation.”[BACK]

53. Modena often attacks the Christian notion of original sin, stressing that Adam bequeathed physical, but not spiritual sin to subsequent generations. This subject, which had been treated in previous centuries, acquired more urgent solution in light of the dogmatic rulings given at the Council of Trent. In his anti-Christian tract Magen ve-Ḥereb, ed. Shlomo Simonsohn (Jerusalem, 1960), p. 20, he even refers to Paolo Sarpi’s Istoria del Concilio Tridentino, lib. 2, chap. 4, ed. Renzo Pecchioli (Florence, 1965), vol. 1, p. 213. Sarpi lists the propositions discussed at the sessions of the Council, the second of which seemed to imply that Adam’s sin was not transmitted, but simply imitated by his descendants: “Che il peccatto d’Adamo si chiama originale perchè da lui deriva nella posterità, non per trasmissione, ma per imitazione.” The Council unanimously rejected the proposition as heretical. [BACK]

54. In chap. 2 of Modo di comporre una predica, Panigarola states that it does not matter whether the subject is put in the form of a proposition or a question since ultimately the question gets reduced to either a positive or negative proposition. [BACK]

55. The expression occurs in Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 10a: “Every man is considered a relation to himself and none can incriminate himself.” The choice of this opening phrase is revealing since there is a halakhic dimension to this sermon.[BACK]

56. Zohar, 1, 96b, ed. Reuben Margaliot (Jerusalem, 1940–1944). [BACK]

57. Nahmanides articulated the idea that “devekut” is an attainable ideal in the life of the individual. See Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York, 1961, 3d ed.), p. 233. See also, Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, bk. 3, chap. 51, where he states that the patriarchs attained this ideal in their lifetime. [BACK]

58. This saying occurs in many languages. It is found in Hebrew (e.g., in the Josippon); various versions are quoted in Erasmus’ Adagia; an Italian version of the proverb is “Mal commune mezzo gaudio.” Plantavit de la Pause, with whom Modena was in correspondence in later life, gives a Latin rendering in his Florilegium rabbinicum (Lodève, 1645), p. 322: “Afflictio multorum dimidiam consolationis.” [BACK]

59. See n. 51. For the purposes of the sermon, Modena does not adhere to his own Hebrew translation of the story in which he employed biblical phraseology and terminology. [BACK]

60. Ta’anit 24b: “R. Ḥanina ben Dosa was going on a journey…and it began to rain. He said: ‘Master of the Universe, the whole world is at ease, but R. Ḥanina is in distress.’ The rain stopped. When he reached home, he exclaimed: ‘Master of the Universe, the whole world is in distress and Ḥanina is at ease.’ The rain fell.” [BACK]

61. Shir Ha-Shirim Rabba 36:1. [BACK]

62. Bamidbar Rabba 1:3 (ad Num. 1:1). [BACK]

63. Ekhah Rabbati, proem XXIV. [BACK]

64. Ibid., ad Lam. 1:1. [BACK]

65. Ibid., proem IV. [BACK]

66. See n. 59. [BACK]

67. On the question of repentance, see Bereshit Rabba 22:16, ed. Theodor and Albeck (Jerusalem, 1965), in which Adam is confronted by Cain, who claims to have repented and to have had his punishment revoked, and cries out in amazement, “Such is the power of repentance and I did not know it.” [BACK]

68. In a parallel version in the Yalkut Shimoni, par. 827 (ad Deut. 4:30), the second opinion is reversed: “Any distress shared by Israel and the nations of the world is not real distress, but any distress confined to Israel is.” [BACK]

69. I am grateful to Rabbi James Ponet, who suggested to me the possibility of a halakhic dimension to Modena’s question. [BACK]

70. The predichetta should have “un poco d’introduttioncella in una sol clausula o due, la narratione dello stesso capo della prova e doppo lui, tutte quelle cose che lo amplificano e finalmente un picciolo epiloghetto al quale possa poi applicarsi l’introduttioncella dell’altra prova che seguita” (p. 56r). [BACK]

71. “Si come la ricercata non è parte del madrigale ma è solamente un preludio” (p. 43v). Panigarola recommends the use of analogies for the prologhino. On many occasions, Modena begins his sermons with analogies or images. [BACK]

72. “Questi Epiloghetti con le introduttioni seguenti vengano quasi ad essere gangheri sopra quali si volta l’oratione…che si faccia passare l’animo dell’ascoltante da una prova all’altra per ponto cosi coperto ch’egli non si avvegga pure d’haverlo passato” (p. 58r–v). [BACK]

73. Pp. 40v–41r. [BACK]

74. P. 41r. [BACK]

75. See Giovanni Pozzi, “Intorno alla predicazione,” p. 322. [BACK]

76. Modena’s style is not as ornate or as “baroque” as that of Panigarola, who is noted for his radical transformation of syntax and exaggerated use of synonyms. [BACK]

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