5756 Norbert Normand Lecture
Rabbi David ben Judah Messer Leon

     I Background of Italy in Late 15th Century

          A Three major components, each with different minhagim and        
          educational traditions

               1. Native Italians (Papal states and north central area)
               2 Ashkenazic Jews from Germany and France (north)
               3 Sephardic Jews in Kingdom of Naples

          B Italian Jewish communities very small but influential

               1. Many of them had one or two prominent bankers who were    
               vital for Italian  commerce
               2. Wealthy bankers helped develop Italian Jewish culture,    
               reflecting the Humanist Renaissance approach to culture      
               developing in Italy at the time
                    a. Supported Jewish scholars and artists
                    b.  Established educational institutions or academies   
                    designed to prepare Italian Jewish gentleman, Haham     
                    Kollel, similar to Christian academies that trained the 
                    homo universalis, the Renaissance gentleman
                    c. Italian Jewish curriculum integrated secular studies 
                    with Jewish studies. Similar Jewish curricula only in   
                    Spain and Provence.  The secular studies consisted of   
                    the 7 liberal arts
                         i) quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music/art and 
                         ii) The trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric)
                    d. These liberal  studies were pursued in application   
                    to both Hebrew and classical languages (Latin and       

          C Rabbinic authority differed in the Ashkenazic and Sephardic     
          traditions.  Rabbi Judah and  his father, Rabbi David, believed   
          that rabbinic ordination by itself grants political authority     
         to the rabbi wherever he may be.

     II Father, Rabbi Judah ben Yehiel Messer Leon

          A. Name Messer is short form of "mio serro" (My Lord) and Leon    
          means lion, alluding to  his name Judah .  The honorary title of  
          Messer was awarded to him by the German  Emperor Frederick III    
          during his visit to Italy.  Only two other Jews are known to      
          have held this title.

          B  Early Years

               1. He was born in Montecchio around 1420.  His father Yehiel 
               was a doctor so we assume his family was well off and that   
               he received the typical Italian Jewish education of the      
               elite,combining rabbinic training with secular disciplines
               2 R. Judah was ordained as a rabbi and received a diploma in 
               medicine when in his early 20s

          C Various Positions in Italian Jewish Communities

               1 Headed yeshiva in Ancona in 1450s  and then moved on to    
               Bologna where he again conducted his Jewish academy.  By ten 
               years later he had moved on to Padua where he spent most of  
               his time as a physician.
               2 Moved on to Venice where he remained for short time.  It   
               was in Venice that his wife gave birth to his son David
               3. By 1473 R. Judah had moved on to Mantua where he again    
               operated his academy.
               4 He spent his last years in Naples which he chose because   
               of the privileges accorded to the Jews by the King of Naples
               5. In each case, when he moved, his wealth, elevated status  
               as rabbi and physician, and his academy moved with him.

          D. Highlights of his Career

               1. Jewish Educator/Writer
                    a. His academy combined secular and Jewish studies.
                    b. In order to prepare proper curriculum R. Judah was   
                    lead to compose translations and several books that     
                    were used in his school
                         i) Livenat haSapir (Sapphire Stone) grammar book
                         ii) Miklal Yofi (Perfection of Beauty) a logic     
                         iii) Noefet Zufim (Honeycomb's Flow) Hebrew        
                         rhetoric book, the  first Hebrew book published    
                         while its author was still alive

               2. Rabbinic Authority
                    a. Held opinion that his decisions in one city, e.g.,   
                    Ancona, were applicable to all the Italian Jewish       
                    b His decision banning the perush of the Ralbag on the  
                    Torah.  In this case, he correctly perceived the great  
                    importance of the printing press, invented in 1454, and 
                    its future effect on learning in the Jewish community
                    c) R. Judah considered himself to be the head of        
                    Italian Jewry and gave himself the title of Meor        
                    Hage'ulah (Light of the Exile)

     III Rabbi David ben Judah Messer Leon

          A. Early Years
               1. Born in Venice about 1470.
               2. Early education was from his father, first at home, and   
               later in father's academy     
               3. Example of sample curriculum from R. Yohanan Alemanno,    
               one of R. Judah's students and assumed to be similar to that 
               in R. Judah's school
               4. R. David was one of his father's best students.  He       
               received ordination at age of 18 (usually this was by 35-40  
               years old)
               5. Because R. Judah viewed ordination as a source of         
               political power, he refused to grant his son his own Smicha, 
               but rather R. David was ordained by the other rabbis in R.   
               Judah's academy
               6. After his ordination he was sent to Padua where he        
               studied with R. Judah of Minz who had established an         
               Ashkenazi-style yeshiva there.  R. David gained great        
               proficiency in tosafot and Ashkenazic halachic codes.
               7. It is in Padua that he is assumed to have been introduced 
               to Kabbalah, awayfrom his father's academy, probably through 
               his association with the Kabbalist R. Elijah del Medigo who  
               was in Padua at the time.  
                    "I engaged in Kabbalah for many years and I have seen   
                    its mysterious and difficult book ever since I was 18   
                    year old... Though most philosophers and physicians     
                    rejected the science, I do not share their view.  For   
                    all sciences...are compatible with one another  "
               8. It is likely that while in Padua he furthered his medical 
               9. During this time R. David wrote to R. David Provenzali of 
               Naples asking about  the status of secular science within    
               traditional Judaism
                    "Were these (secular disciplines ) desired or rejected  
               by our sages?"
                    R. Provenzali, typical of the educated Italian Jew,     
               responded that each of the 7 liberal arts was praised and    
               appreciated by the sages who embraced  them wholeheartedly :
                    (Sh'ayin safek sh'kall chacma mai'hashevah chochmos     
                    hamidi'ut hen  mshubachot v'na'arachot b'iny'inai       
                    chochmaynu vahavu otah ahava  g'murah.)           
               He encouraged R. David to continue his secular study while   
               affirming the superiority of Torah study over all other      
               intellectual pursuits.
               10.  R. David left Padua for Florence where he remained for  
               a few years.  Here he  furthered his interests in various    
               aspects of secular studies that  were developing through the 
               Renaissance Humanism movement (grammar, poetry, music,       
               etc.).  He was influenced in these areas of study by         
               non-Jews such as Pico della Mirandello and  in Kabbalah by   
               R. Yohanan Alemanno.
               11. R. David returned to Naples and his father's house in    
               about 1492 where he taught in his father's academy and       
               served as a doctor.  This was also the time that exiles from 
               Spain were welcomed into the country.
               12. Naples was good for Jews until the ruler  Ferrante I     
               died in 1494 which  brought on an invasion by France. By     
               early 1495 the army of Charles VIII of  France conquered     
               Naples and the Jews were attacked.  Most of the Jews escaped 
               to the Ottoman Empire which is where R. David went.

          B. Rabbi David in the Ottoman Empire

               1. Unhappy Status in Istanbul

                    a. He thought of himself as nobleman among the nobles   
                    of the land (atzil matzilai ha'aretz); however because  
                    he had no money he wasn't regarded as such
                    b. His medical practice wasn't as successful as in      
                    Naples so he was forced to support himself as a rabbi. 
                    c. In addition, he attempted to obtain financial        
                    support from a patroness in Italy, who is assumed to be 
                    Laura, wife of Samuel ben Yehiel of Pisa (rich banker)
                    d. He did this by writing a book entitled Shevah        
                    Ha'nashim (In Praise of Women) which is a commentary on 
                    Proverbs 31, Eshet Hayil
                         i) In it R. David uses many classical, i.e.,       
                         non-Jewish sources so he first has to defend his   
                         use of these sources
                         ii) R. David held that because Torah is the        
                         revelation of divine wisdom, it contains in        
                         essence all branches of human knowledge. R. David  
                         emphasizes that the sequence of study is critical, 
                         that a Jew should first master the Torah before    
                         proceeding to secular studies, and he gives many   
                         examples in Bible and Talmud of the wisdom         
                         possessed by rabbis/leaders.  
                         iii) R. David exemplified Jewish humanism, an      
                         approach viewing the humanities as necessary       
                         studies for attaining religious perfection.  He    
                         applies this to the ideal woman.  To him, the      
                         illustration of exemplary women in the Bible, and  
                         also in non- Jewish mythology, are references to   
                         real women.  He rejects their  Biblical interpre-  
                         tation along allegorical lines.  He views the      
                         Eshet Hayil as a practical  guide for the proper   
                         conduct of the ideal woman

               B. Controversy with Istanbul Rabbis   
                    1. Haham Bashi of Istanbul was R. Eliyahu Capsali,      
                    chief of the Romaniot community who had been rabbi in   
                    Istanbul for more than 30 years and had welcomed the    
                    large influx of Sephardic Jews in 1492 with open arms

                    2. In 1497 the rabbinic leaders of the Sephardic        
                    congregations publicly challenged R. Capsali over the   
                    issue of wearing the suddar, an overcoat that had been  
                    worn in Spain.  R. Capsali had ruled that it shouldn't  
                    be worn because it violated the principle of imitating  
                    non-Jews in public.

                    3. The Sephardic rabbis upheld R. Capsali's authority   
                    to issue the decree, but opposed the specifics of his   

                    4. R. David was asked to support R. Capsali.  After some    
                    time he did,  writing a spirited defense of the action. To  
                    him it exemplified the views of himself and his father      
                     regarding authority of the recognized rabbinic seat
                    5. R. Capsali died soon after but by then R. David had  
                    alienated the Sephardic rabbis of Istanbul who were     
                    growing in importance as their congregations increased  
                    in size and influence.  Combined with R. David's view   
                    that scholarly pursuits were not highly valued among    
                    the Jews of Istanbul, it is not surprising that he left 

               C. Controversy Over Maimonides in Salonika

                    1. R. David's next stop was Salonika where he           
                    functioned as the Marbitz Torah of the congregation of  
                    Jews from Calabria (southern tip of Italy). He          
                    succeeded R. Yaakov ibn Habib, author of Ein Yaakov, in 
                    this post.
                    2. Each congregation had three rabbinic functionaries:  
                    a) Marbitz Torah  who was the congregation's teacher of 
                    Torah b) Rabbi who headed its  yeshiva and c) Dayan who 
                    acted as judge in religious matters
                    3. Salonika at that time had a large number of          
                    Sephardic scholars who  made it conducive for R. David  
                    to pursue his own scholarly activities
                    4.  In Salonika he wrote his major work, Ein Ha'Kore, a 
                    commentary on the Rambam's Guide for the Perplexed.  As 
                    the symbol of the philosophic approach to Judaism,      
                    Rambam was often attacked.  This was especially true    
                    when Jews from communities that held philosophy in high 
                    esteem encountered those from communities who did not.  
                    This was the situation in of the Ottoman Empire at that 
                    time which attracted Jews from all over. Such disputes  
                    over the Rambam/philosophic view were even more likely  
                    to erupt during times of catastrophe, such as the       
                    Expulsion from Spain
                    5. In R. David's time there were men like R. Meir ibn   
                    Gabbai and his own former student R. Meir ibn Verga who 
                    began to criticize the Rambam.  To set the record       
                    straight about the enormous positive impact the Rambam  
                    had on Judaism, R. David wrote his Ein Ha'Kore (Eye of  
                    the Reader)
                    6. R. David shows Rambam not a radical who replaced     
                    Jewish revealed laws with pagan logic, but one who      
                    defended Judaism against Aristotelian philosophy by     
                    turning it against itself.  R. David viewed Rambam as   
                    one who elevated Judaism to higher plane by showing     
                    Judaism is Truth, yet recognizing that human reason,    
                    without Divine revelation, cannot demonstrate the       
                    entire Truth
                    7. With the publication and acclaim of Ein Ha'Kore R.   
                    David's fame spread throughout Ottoman Jewish world and 
                    communities pursued him.

   D. Defense of Rabbinic Authority in Valona

               1. Although he spent some time on the island of Corfu, the   
               Italian Jewish  community of Valona pursued him and          
               ultimately got him as their rabbi.  Valona (known as Avilona 
               in Hebrew) today is Vlore, Albania, is ~180 miles due west   
               of Salonika on the Adriatic Sea.
               2.  Jewish community of Valona had 4 components: largest was 
               the Italian (Apulia, southern Italy), some Sephardim (from   
               Castile and Catalonia in Spain and Portugal) and a few       
               Romaniots.  By 1510 R. David was the chief rabbi of the city 
               giving Shabbat sermons in all four synagogues.  Later he was 
               able to unify the Spanish (Catalan) and Portuguese into a    
               single Sephardic congregation.
               3. During his 2nd year, when he served only the Apulians,    
               controversy arose.  
                    a. The Portuguese walked out of the unified Sephardic   
                    congregation.  The bylaws of this congregation          
                    indicated that any act of secession would warrant       
                    herem, excommunication from the entire Jewish           
                    b.The Spanish, Catalans and Castilians, remained behind 
                    and appealed to R. David to assist them.  R. David      
                    issued a comprehensive legal opinion concerning         
                    excommunication as a proper response for seceding from  
                    a congregation.  R. David was against the excommun-     
                    ication.  It was the first written opinion on this      
                    subject which was to occur many more times: internal    
                    conflict within an immigrant Jewish community, with     
                    various groups trying to maintain their own identity.   
                    This written opinion has been studied and expanded upon 
                    by rabbis over the generations
                    c. A wealthy Portuguese physician Don Solomon Krisanti  
                    took action to bring the two groups together.  He had   
                    recovered from an illness, and in gratitude he tried to 
                    get the two groups together on the evening of Yom       
                    Kipur at time of  Kol Nidre, when forgiveness is asked  
                    for transgressions during the previous year.
                    d. Krisanti suggested that during Kol Nidre R. David    
                    preside over an annulment of the Sephardic              
                    congregation's excommunication of the Portuguese.  The  
                    Sephardim rejected this so Krisanti appealed to R.      
                    David again, this time asking him to use his personal   
                    e. R. David preferred to convene a Bet Din on Yom       
                    Kippur morning, selecting the cantors of the Catalans   
                    and of the Apulians to serve with him. First Krisanti   
                    appeared to present the case of the Portuguese, and     
                    then the Castilians were summoned.  The Castilian       
                    leaders, including Meir ibn Verga and R. Abrahm Collier 
                    refused to appear.  This challenge to R. David's        
                    authority was too much. He personally summoned R. Meir  
                    ibn Verga to appear at R. David's synagogue for a       
                    public apology, but ibn Verga refused.  By now the      
                    controversy had disrupted much of the day of Yom Kippur 
                    and the other Castillian leaders had had enough.  They  
                    dragged ibn Verga to R. David's synagogue and there he  
                    and R. Abraham Collier publicly apologized, ending the  
               4. Sometime afterwards R. David left Valona, for Salonika    
               where he wrote his last book, Tehillah L'David, (Glory to    
               David) a vast summary of Jewish theology on the scale of an