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Italian Kabbalists and Anti-Kabbalists: Rabbi Da Modena and the Controversies Surrounding Him

Part II

Rabbi Da Modena did not experience much joy from his family, as he famously laments in his memoir. There was, however, one ray of joy in Modena’s life, and it came from the man who would marry his beloved daughter Diana. His name was Jacob ben Kalonymus and he was a trained Kabbalist. Interestingly enough, Jacob pursued other extracurricular 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.)

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 them is found in Modena’s introduction to Ari Nohem:

 וכך היה לי ממש עם חתני, חתן דמים למעלות, כמהר”ר יעקב מן הלווים זצ”ל, נבון דעת וכולל בלימודים,.. אשר גם אתה ידעת את האיש ואת שיחו בקבלה הזאת, כי מנעוריו גדל בה, ולמד אותה מפי הוותיק כמה”ו עזרא מפאנו ז”ל, ..ואצלך חבור חתני …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

In this eulogy of sorts to his son-in-law, Da Modena displays both his charitable side (disagreeing with his son-in-law while touchingly expressing his affection for him) and ingeniously adapts biblical verses in order to convey entirely new meanings (while retaining an echo of the original); Da Modena changes the words in Exodus 4:36 “chatan damim la-mulot” (a bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision) to “chatan tamim lema’alot” (a son-in-law of perfect virtues).

Jacob died young but he left a precocious child, a lad by the name of Isaac. Isaac was the apple of his grandfather’s eye, and followed in his father’s footsteps, immersing himself in Kabbalah. He gained some prominence in Venice and in the world of his Kabbalistic peers. His writings include an autobiography (writing it perhaps as an affectionate nod to his grandfather) named “Medaber Tahapuchot” (Dr. Daniel Carpi’s edition of this book was published by the Chaim Rosenberg School of Jewish Studies, Tel-Aviv University 1985).

As mentioned, Isaac was beloved by his grandfather and the feeling was mutual. But Isaac was faced with a bit of a dilemma when tasked with editing his grandfather’s voluminous writings. As a passionate devotee of Kabbalah, he must have cringed at some of the harsh rhetoric, and so he went about recreating his illustrious grandfather in a more “tolerable” image. Words were struck, passages and phrases inserted, etc.

A good example of this is the famous entry about Da Modena in Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai’s biographical work “Shem HaGedolim.” The Chida writes:

“I have seen the latter’s autobiography, ‘Chayei Yehuda’ in manuscript. The rabbi writes that in his early days he did not believe in gilgul [the transmigration of souls, a mainstay of Kabbalistic belief]; then something occurred that made him change his mind. His [Da Modena’s] neighbor gave birth to a son, and within a month the infant took violently ill… so the neighbor called him to the infant’s bedside to recite Psalms and read from the Torah—as was the custom in Italy at the time. While reciting the verses, the child opened his eyes wide and shouted “Shema Yisrael,” and his soul left his body. Henceforth, the rabbi changed his view on gilgul, for his own eyes saw an infant recite the words of the Shema like an adult!”

The 19th-century German bibliophile and book collector Chaim Michel mentions this strange passage in his work “Or Hachaim,” observing:

“Know that in the manuscript [of Modena’s autobiography] that I have in front of me, there is absolutely no mention of this story. It is also not found in the manuscript version of Rabbi Uri Chai Sarval. Therefore, Yashar [a 19th-century Italian rabbi and scholar] is certainly correct in his assertion that that particular manuscript that Chida saw, was undoubtedly edited by one of his disciples who was partial to belief in Kabbalah and he added it to the manuscript to show that in his later days Da Modena recanted.”

Da Modena and the Custom of Yom Kippur Katan

Yom Kippur Katan, literally, “Minor Yom Kippur” is the name given to the day before Rosh Chodesh in that this day is treated as one of fasting, repentance and supplication similar to Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur Katan originated among the Kabbalists of Safed in the 16th century and is not mentioned in any of the standard codes of Jewish law.

Its main piyut, “Yom zeh yehi mishkal,” was composed by none other than Rabbi Da Modena!

How his poem came to be associated with this Kabbalistic custom is puzzling, to say the least.

Indeed, some Kabbalistic rabbis of the 20th century avoided reciting this poem because they did not approve of its author (among them Rabbi David Jungreis of the Edah Ha-Charedit and Rabbi Yaakov David Charlap of Mercaz Harav).

Da Modena’s life and times are well documented, considering that he left us a wealth of writing; however, we know very little about who he really was. We may then have to conclude that he was something of a paradox wrapped in an enigma.

By Joel S. Davidi Weisberger

Joel S. Davidi Weisberger runs “Jewish History Channel,” a grassroots group dedicated to the dissemination of Jewish history and culture. He resides with his wife and son in Fair Lawn and would love to hear from you at [email protected].

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