Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh (Leon) mi-Modena was born in Venice in 1571.
A prodigious child, he studied Bible, Hebrew language, poetry, letter writing, voice, music, dancing, Italian, and Latin. At the age of 13, he wrote a short book, sur me-ra', on compulsive gambling and its destructive power.
Modena was commissioned to write for James I a description of Judaism, the Riti Ebraica, the first vernacular description of Judaism written by a Jew for a non-Jewish audience, first published inParis in 1637 and subsequently republished and translated many times.
From his ordination in 1609 until his death, Modena served as the chief Hebrew translator for the government and Cantor of the Italian synagogue. He ordained candidates for the degree rabbi, including medical students in Padua. He approved the decisions of other rabbis, and authorized books for publication, with the result that by 1618 he was referred to as a gaon, and an excellent, well-known, honored and brilliant preacher. By 1627 Rabbi Modena signed his name first in order among the Venetian rabbis. In 1628 he was maestro di cappella for a Jewish academy of music, Accademia degli Impediti, which was popular both inside and outside the Venetian ghetto.
He also produced an autobiography, Chaye-Yehuda which was recently translated into English, documenting in poignant detail the turbulent life of his family in the Jewish ghetto of Venice. The book also contains accounts of Modena's sorrow over his three sons: the death of the eldest from the poisonous fumes of his own alchemical laboratory, the brutal murder of the youngest, and the exile of the remaining son who traveled as far as South America.
Rabbi Modena died in 1648.
Click here to read the book sur me-ra', a philosophical dialogue against gambling, written by Rabbi Modena at the age of 13. This is the version published in Vilna in 1896.
His writings include:
Magen va-hereb, where Rabbi Modena criticizes Christians interpretations of Hebrew scriptures, refuting their claims and dogmas.
She'elot u-Teshubot Ziqnei Yehuda, Collected Responsa on various 'modern' subjects.
Bet Lechem Yehuda, an anthology of statements of Talmudic Rabbis organized around 'en ya'aqob.
Tzemach Tzadiq, an Ethical Treatise.
Leb ha-Aryeh, a monograph on memory improvement and mnemonics, in which he greatly extols the use of memory techniques to remember the 613 commandments.
Pi ha-Aryeh, an Italian-Hebrew dictionary of all difficult words in the Tanakh