If we have no written eulogy of R. Meir Katzenellenbogen by his son and successor, we do have one by the noted scribe and itinerant teacher R. Abraham of Sant’Angelo, which was delivered in Bologna, where he then resided, before a local Jewish confraternity known as “Ḥevrat Nizharim.” Two other eulogies by the same R. Abraham have survived, both delivered during his stay in Bologna, where the presence of a sizable group of Iberian Jews may have helped to create a demand for formal funerary sermons.
Earlier than these, however, is the text of a eulogy copied by R. Abraham which had been delivered by his father-in-law, R. Isaac de Lattes, in nearby Pesaro during the winter of 1557–58, shortly after he had been invited to head a yeshiva there. This would appear to be the earliest known text of a Jewish funeral sermon preached in Italy, predating that of R. Samuel Judah Katzenellenbogen on the death of R. Moses Isserles by some fifteen years, and bringing the beginnings of the hesped as a literary genre in that country closer to where we might expect them—among the Jews of Mediterranean origin (Spanish, Provençal, or native Italian) rather than among the Ashkenazim of the Veneto. R. Isaac de Lattes had come to Italy from southern France in the late 1530s and had spent a decade in Rome, where there were no less than three congregations of Spanish Jews, before moving north. It is therefore likely that he had encountered along the way, if not actually practiced himself, the more formal and textually based style of funerary preaching favored among his contemporaries in the Sephardic diaspora, which rendered the sermon, parallel to the epitaph, as a lasting verbal monument to the memory of the deceased. The importance of being eulogized well in public may have been perceived, moreover, as part of the general importance of dying well in public, which was receiving increasing emphasis among Italian Jewry of the mid-sixteenth century.
R. Abraham Sant’Angelo’s eulogizing style sometimes drew heavily, as we shall see, upon that of his father-in-law, although his sermon on the death of R. Elhanan Yael (Angelo) Fano, the first we shall discuss, exhibits little such influence. Fano had been a banker in Florence early in the sixteenth century but eventually moved to Bologna, where he quickly became one of the Jewish community’s leaders. During the 1530s he was referred to by such figures as R. Azriel Diena of Viadana as “a prince of God” (cf. Gen. 23:6), and Gedalia ibn Yaḥya was later to pair him with Don Samuel Abravanel as one of the two wealthiest Jews in Italy. As befitted his status, R. Elhanan Yael was eulogized in Bologna upon his death not only by R. Abraham of Sant’Angelo, but by three other local rabbis. His funeral, of which we unfortunately have no account, was probably quite a spectacle and undoubtedly included many torches, whose processional use was not yet prohibited for the Jews in the Papal States.
Of the four sermons delivered in Fano’s home, only R. Abraham’s has been preserved, though not in its entirety. Thus his comparison of R. Elhanan Yael with the patriarch Abraham, both of whom received, according to the preacher, four major gifts from God, remains incomplete. We are told of the wealth they both shared, and the children (the second gift) as well as the grandchildren (the third) they lived to see, but the fourth gift which they held in common is revealed on a leaf which has been lost, and can only be conjectured. R. Abraham had elsewhere in his eulogy compared the late R. Elhanan Yael to the patriarch Abraham, seeing the former’s death as having left the community of Bologna without its leader and helmsman. One wonders whether the association between the two was not prompted in some way by the prominent references to the deceased during his lifetime as “a prince of God,” the title acquired by the biblical Abraham, as the preacher R. Abraham’s contemporaries would have known, as part of his real estate deal with the Hittites. The eulogist may also have been struck by R. Elhanan’s near uniqueness in his generation, declaring that “there is hardly one like him in the land, from the rising of the sun to its setting,” making him thus similar to Abraham who, in the words of the prophet Ezekiel “was one,” and was regarded in later Jewish tradition as having been unparalleled in his time. Thus, although there was no obvious connection between the name of the deceased and the biblical patriarch, various textual associations may have been responsible for Rabbi Abraham’s decision to use the figure of Abraham (his own namesake!) as a frame for the former’s eulogy.
The eulogy for R. Mordecai Canaruto, whose death is described as having been both sudden and untimely and who evidently left behind him neither sons nor grandsons, was apparently delivered sometime after 1560, and is as different from that for Fano as were the lives of the two men themselves. It addresses not the community of Bologna as a whole, but the members of its Nizharim confraternity in whose study hall it was delivered. Among them it singles out especially the sons of the “royal princess” (see Ps. 45:14) Fiammetta and the late R. Abraham Pisa, whose teacher and apparently constant companion R. Mordecai had been for more than seven consecutive years. R. Abraham mentions explicitly (though not, perhaps, without some rhetorical exaggeration) that he had been not merely invited but forcefully pressured by the members of the Pisa family (“those glorious ones, my masters and patrons”) and by the Nizharim confraternity to eulogize the deceased, and that he was doing so as an act of obedience. Consequently, he asserted, if his words were to prove unequal to the occasion only they were to blame. In order to be sure that these somewhat delicate phrases came out in actual delivery in precisely the way they were intended, R. Abraham made sure to insert in the margins of his Hebrew text some of the Italian words (in transliteration) that he planned to use: provocato, obbedienza, incolparsi. These were not the only Italian words he inserted in the margins. No less than a dozen such instances occur in the eulogy for Canaruto, although none, curiously, is to be found in the Hebrew text of R. Abraham’s eulogy for R. Elhanan Yael Fano. It would appear then that the latter was transcribed after its delivery, which apparently took place, with little notice, on the day of Fano’s death, whereas the former was written in advance, perhaps for the regular weekly lesson of the Nizharim confraternity which, according to its inaugural statutes, all members were required to attend. Italian would appear, then, to have been the language of actual delivery on both occasions, to which the written text bore a different relation in each instance.
Another readily observable difference in the texts of the two sermons is that the one for Canaruto contains not only references to the teachings of the kabbalists but extensive quotations from the Zohar itself. Both R. Abraham and his father-in-law, R. Isaac de Lattes, had been instrumental in the controversial publication of the Mantua edition of the Zohar (1558–1560) a short time earlier, so his familiarity with the work is hardly surprising. What might surprise us more, however, is the act of launching texts regarded as esoteric into the realm of public preaching. Prior to the publication of the Zohar, as Robert Bonfil has noted, even rabbis of avowedly kabbalistic orientation, such as R. Isaac de Lattes, avoided explicit references to its teachings in their sermons. After its publication, however, the work gradually lost much of its esotericism, and even such intellectually conservative preachers as the Ashkenazic R. Samuel Judah Katzenellenbogen, were, before the century’s end, to make liberal use of the Zohar in their public (and published) sermons.
This would help to explain why he refrained from overt Zoharic references at the more public and official occasion of his eulogy on the death of R. Elhanan Yael Fano, where, as we recall, three other Bolognese rabbis were prominently present, presumably in the company of the local communal establishment. In the more intimate surroundings of the Nizharim confraternity’s study hall, where, moreover, he seems to have taken over the late Canaruto’s position, R. Abraham may have felt freer to break the obsolescent taboo by quoting from the newly published work. Nonetheless, if the eulogy for Canaruto constituted his inaugural lecture before the members of the confraternity, the act required not only a certain amount of daring (unless Canaruto had begun quoting from the Zohar in the sermons he delivered prior to his death) but also some commitment, though not necessarily messianic, to the spread of kabbalah as a form of exoteric wisdom, a commitment for which there is ample evidence from other quarters. His sermon before Ḥevrat Nizharim was, among other things, an act of self-presentation, and in quoting amply from the Zohar R. Abraham was, in effect, saying to its members, “this is what you can now expect from the likes of me.”
It is striking, therefore, that in his third and last surviving eulogy (as well as his longest), also delivered before the members of Bologna’s Nizharim confraternity on the death in 1565 of R. Meir Katzenellenbogen, R. Abraham abstained from quoting the Zohar or any other kabbalistic work. This was probably intended as a diplomatic gesture in the direction, however, not of his audience, which had presumably already become accustomed to hearing him use such sources, but of the deceased, who had been one of the most prominent opponents in Italy of the Zohar’s publication. Yet it is curious that in his eulogy R. Abraham made a point of stating, among the praises of Maharam (whom he knew personally), that the latter had achieved perfection in opinions and in the highest forms of wisdom “ascending to the highest level,” and that through religious study “the secrets and hidden meanings of the Torah were revealed to him.” This would seem to suggest that Italy’s great Ashkenazic rabbi, “Maharam Padovah,” was more kabbalistically inclined, though not necessarily in the direction of Zoharic kabbalah, than some scholars have been willing to acknowledge, and to lend support to the previously disputed testimony that he had compiled a work on practical kabbalah during his lifetime.
The testimony is that of R. Elazar Altschuler of Prague, who early in the seventeenth century claimed to have copied such a work. He asserted that it bore the name of Maharam and contained more than five hundred entries, including medical remedies and discussions of the seventy-two-letter divine name. The work, he claimed, was composed “mostly of practical kabbalah from the delightful book Berit Menuḥah, which is known to the kabbalistic elect” and which, as described more recently by Scholem, combined ecstatic with theosophical mysticism. Yet one modern scholar has seen the attribution of such a work to R. Meir as “nothing other than the invention of a practical kabbalist seeking to lend credence to his craft” and another has been equally skeptical, citing in this connection R. Samuel Judah Katzenellenbogen’s description of himself (in a responsum to Isserles) as “neither a kabbalist nor the son of a kabbalist.” The latter statement, however, which clearly drew upon Amos (7:14, “I am no prophet, nor the son of a prophet”), was obviously intended with some irony, since its immediate continuation (“but I have [in my possession] a kabbalistic commentary on the Song of Unity”) considerably undermines its beginning. It needs qualification, moreover, in light, not only of the familiarity with sephirotic symbolism evinced by its author later in the same passage, but of the no less than thirteen references to the Zohar in R. Samuel Judah’s twelve published sermons. The statement’s truth regarding the father may be roughly equal, therefore, to its degree of veracity regarding the son—and to the truth of its biblical antecedent as well. It would appear, as we shall see further, that historians would do better to accept at face value Altschuler’s straightforward testimony concerning Maharam’s compilation of an essentially derivitive work on practical kabbalah than to treat naively R. Samuel Judah’s clearly ironic statement about his own and his father’s kabbalistic proclivities.
Evidence for such a tendency on the part of Maharam may also be seen in a recently published letter to him by one the sons of Ishmael Rieti, written evidently in 1564, a year before Maharam’s death. The letter, which refers to its recipient in royal terms and speaks also of the great respect which the late Ishmael (a difficult man to impress) harbored for Maharam (and graphically demonstrated to the members of his household) mentions among his many merits that “those who know the [divine] names put their trust in you.” Although the words contain a clear allusion to Psalm 9:11, it seems neither necessary nor appropriate to emend the phrase to read “those who know Your name,” as in the biblical original. Rather, there would appear to be here a reference to Maharam’s expertise in the various versions and vocalizations of the divine name and the uses to which it could be put, described in such works as the Berit Menuḥah, as well, perhaps, as an allusion to his being an actual “master of the name” (ba’al shem). As to how the members of the Rieti family might know about this generally concealed aspect of Maharam, it should be noted that their household tutor during the mid-1550s was R. Isaac de Lattes, who in late 1557 became the father-in-law of their relative (and our preacher) Rabbi Abraham Sant’Angelo.
The aforementioned eulogy written by R. Abraham provides further evidence of Maharam’s “practical” kabbalistic tendency, which, according to his account, seems to have possessed a strong messianic streak as well. After mentioning the great rabbi’s access to the “secrets and hidden meanings of the Torah,” the eulogist goes on to report an incident which occurred while Maharam was on his deathbed. An hour or so before “the expiration of his pure soul” after seventy-eight years, he summoned one of his students named Joseph and instructed him to take a wife who would soon, he claimed, give birth to a male child. The boy was to be named Judah, “and he shall be the Messiah son of Joseph.” R. Abraham seems to have taken this story quite seriously, noting that “a man does not jest in his dying hour” (Baba Batra 175a) and expressing the hope that Maharam’s prophecy would prove correct. What R. Samuel Judah Katzenellenbogen, Maharam’s son and successor who was presumably present at his father’s deathbed, made of this story is less clear, for he, as noted above, either never eulogized his father or, if he did, never saw fit to include his eulogy among the others later published in Shneim-Asar Derashot. One might surmise, if the former was the case, that besides finding the formal eulogy still (in 1565) a bit too richly Italianate for his taste, R. Samuel Judah may have found his father’s dramatic death scene a difficult act to follow.
R. Abraham Sant’Angelo, in tactfully avoiding overt references to, or quotations from, the Zohar in his eulogy for Maharam, may have intended thereby to show respect for a person he regarded not as an antikabbalistic opponent of the Zohar’s publication, but as a figure whose opposition, like that of R. Moses Basola and even R. Jacob Israel Finzi, derived from a position essentially sympathetic to the kabbalah. The motives of Maharam and Basola in their respective oppositional stances during the late 1550s controversy have been discussed in the scholarly literature, with the former generally being regarded as the stauncher and more principled opponent of the Zohar’s publication than the latter, a prominent kabbalist whose reservations seem to have been related primarily to the matter of timing. Yet, as has been noted, Maharam was surprisingly timid in his public stance, clearly waiting for Basola to take the initative in the matter of the proposed ban on the publication or purchase of kabbalistic works.
Although the possibility has been raised that Maharam saw no possibility, on pragmatic grounds, of instituting a ḥerem to halt the publication and sale of kabbalistic works without the support of Basola (who had previously supported their dissemination), it now seems equally possible that the Ashkenazi rabbi’s respect for the great kabbalist was genuine rather than merely tactical, and that he felt it best to defer to his judgment in matters of kabbalah, especially the Zoharic variety. Whatever Maharam’s true motives were, R. Abraham Sant’Angelo, in his 1565 eulogy, could certainly regard him as having been (like Finzi, as well as his own teacher Basola) a “sympathetic” rather than “hostile” opponent of the Zohar’s dissemination, whose position, even after it had been rendered obsolete, was not to be slighted on the occasion of his eulogy.
Although the condition of the manuscript does not allow us to determine with certainty where R. Abraham’s eulogy for Maharam ends, it seems to have concluded with a verse-by-verse gloss, most likely extemporaneous, of the alphabetical section, “Eshet Ḥayyil,” at the end of the final chapter of the book of Proverbs. Read “creatively,” it was a paean not to the biblical “good wife,” but to the soul of the late great rabbi. Although only the presentation of the plan, rather than its actual execution, has been preserved in the written text of the eulogy (which, like that delivered on the death of Canaruto, contains some transliterated Italian words in its margins in order to facilitate smooth delivery), it is likely that R. Abraham, who may not have finished writing his sermon on time (or may not have really tried), managed to carry it off reasonably well. This is because he had already followed the same formula in the conclusion of his earlier sermon on the death of R. Mordecai Canaruto. There, too, however, the written version breaks off before the end, suggesting that the preacher felt that a partial text would suit his needs, but not before he managed to demonstrate the style of “biographical exegesis” to be followed, and to provide some useful information concerning the deceased.
We learn, for example, of the generous sum of fifty gold scudi which, as a devoted son, the late R. Mordecai had sent his parents before the previous Rosh ha-Shana (linked to the words “and he will have no lack of gain” [Prov. 31:11]), and of his regular custom of rising at midnight for Torah study (linked to “She rises while it is yet night” [31:15]). The earlier phrase “and works with willing hands” (31:13) is glossed by R. Abraham as a reference to the novellae and sermons which his predecessor had delivered “in this honorable place of Ḥevrat Nizharim.” The beginning of that verse, “She seeks wool and flax,” seems also to be linked by the eulogist with R. Mordecai’s preaching (punning on the word darshah), but if so, it is the content rather than the locus of the sermon which is addressed: “the reasons for the commandments and the laws, the hidden explanation of ‘sh’atnez,’ [the mingling of] wool and flax, the secret of the [divine] attribute of mercy (‘sod midat ha-raḥamim’)…the secret of the [divine] attribute of justice (‘sod midat ha-din’).”
This would seem to suggest that Canaruto had sought the secret (kabbalistic) reasons for the commandments, and perhaps even preached publicly about them before the members of Nizharim. Yet it would be unwise to accept R. Abraham’s sermonic testimony at face value, for the same gloss of the verse in Proverbs may be found in another text upon which he clearly drew—the eulogy delivered some years earlier in Pesaro by his father-in-law R. Isaac de Lattes, which R. Abraham copied and preserved in his own collection of sermons. There the entire “Eshet Ḥayyil” was glossed as the sermon’s peroration, which helps to explain why R. Abraham was able to jot down only partial (in Maharam’s case very partial) notes concerning the biblical text for those sermons in which he was planning to conclude with it. When in doubt as to what to say about a particular verse, he could always fall back on his father-in-law’s version—which he did at least twice in the eulogy for Canaruto. In addition, then, to the actual “good wife” through whom R. Abraham Sant’Angelo and R. Isaac de Lattes were linked familially, their styles of speaking of the dead were textually linked through the Proverbial “eshet ḥayyil,” who, for a preacher in need, could be “more precious than jewels.”
It should be noted, moreover, that the exegesis of the words “she seeks wool and flax” in Proverbs 31 as alluding to the biblical prohibition of sh’atnez is neither original with R. Isaac de Lattes nor taken from Rabbinic literature, but is rooted rather in the Zohar, the very work in whose dissemination he and and his son-in-law played a vital role. There the “good wife” is the divine Shekhina whose inquiries concerning wool and flax relate to finding out “who it is that joins them together,” for the sake of meting out punishment. For “whoever tries to join them together,” according to the Zohar, “arouses a spirit that is not fit, which then comes over him, for one comes from this side and the other comes from that side. Therefore we are not permitted to join them together.”
The eulogies delivered by R. Abraham Sant’Angelo and R. Isaac de Lattes were joined together not only through their mutual references to those substances whose joining together was prohibited by biblical law, but also, if less directly, by that great work whose publication joined the two men together, the Zohar. Yet in sixteenth-century Italy, one did not necessarily have to consult the Zohar in order to gain access to its interpretations of the commandments. Many of these came to the attention of a wider audience through such commentaries on the Torah as that of R. Menahem Recanati, published in Venice in 1523 and 1545, and especially that of R. Baḥya b. Asher, first published in Naples as early as 1492, and then frequently republished in Italy through the sixteenth century. In the latter work, in fact, the Zoharic explanation for the prohibition of mixing wool and flax in a single garment is presented in extenso, without citation of source, as the kabbalistic explanation, and there too, Proverbs 31:13 is linked with the esoteric interpretation of the commandment. In introducing this teaching in a public sermon preached in Pesaro (where R. Baḥya’s Torah commentary had been published three times earlier in the century), R. Isaac de Lattes was hardly taking a decisive step in the dissemination of the kabbalah, and may even seem to have been carrying coals to Newcastle. There may, nonetheless, have been a deliberate edge to his remarks, which also included a description of the deceased’s soul as returning to the bosom of its “husband” in the garden of Eden.
His sermon was delivered during the winter of 1557–58, just after the publication of the Tikkunei Zohar and the Ferrara edition of Ma’arekhet ha-Elohut (in which Lattes had played a role) but before the appearance, during the summer of 1558, of the first volume of the Zohar together with R. Isaac’s responsum supporting its publication. Moreover, Pesaro, where the sermon was delivered, was in 1557–1558 a community sharply divided on the issue of whether the esotericism of kabbalistic texts should be preserved, or whether they should be released into the open. Of the two leading figures in the community responsible for bringing R. Isaac there, R. Judah (Laudadio) de Blanis, his former teacher (and fellow physician), supported the exoteric tendency characteristic of the more philosophically inclined adherents of the kabbalah. R. Menahem of Foligno, however, the other parnas of the Jewish community, was against publication of the Zohar, and it was he who encouraged R. Jacob Israel Finzi, one of the prime opponents, to take his vigorous stand on the matter.
It is not clear, therefore, if the mystical allusions in R. Isaac’s eulogy, the first known to us in Italy, were part of an attempt to bring the kabbalah further into the open, or whether they were merely a slip of the tongue on the part of a (possibly extemporizing) preacher, in whose learned mind rabbinic and Zoharic teachings might, with equal ease, arise and there converge, and who might have gradually dropped his guard as the sermon approached its end. Unlike the eulogies of R. Abraham Sant’Angelo in Bologna, we do not know whether it was delivered before a general, communal audience, or before a more intimate one, such as the members of a yeshiva or confraternity. In the case of the latter, however, some caution would still have been in order, since among the members of the yeshiva/study confraternity which had invited R. Isaac to Pesaro was not only R. Judah de Blanis, who shared his position in favor of exotericism, but also R. Menahem of Foligno, who clearly did not. Politics aside, R. Isaac would not have wanted to jeopardize the extremely generous one hundred scudi a year contract (for three years) which had apparently been his primary motivation for leaving Bologna. By including in his peroration a kabbalistic gloss on “she seeks wool and flax” which originated with the Zohar but which had been widely disseminated in the published Torah commentary of R. Baḥya, R. Isaac may have been (or felt himself) able to please the proponents of exotericism without unduly upsetting its opponents. As was evident in the sermons of his son-in-law R. Abraham, who was present at a eulogy could affect its content as much as who was being eulogized.
Yet the human subject, as in the case of his sermon on the death of Maharam Padovah, was clearly of importance as well, for on that occasion R. Abraham, in evident deference to the deceased, omitted the overt quotations from the Zohar which he had earlier included in the eulogy for R. Mordecai Canaruto, delivered before the very same audience of Ḥevrat Nizharim. The 1565 sermon on the death of Maharam seems, as I have previously mentioned, also to have concluded with an improvised verse-by-verse gloss of the “Eshet Ḥayyil” section at the end of Proverbs, the sort of improvisation at which R. Abraham may well have become quite adept in the seven years since his father-in-law used that formula in Pesaro. We shall never know, however, whether in his peroration he continued to studiously avoid using Zoharic material, or whether upon reaching the verse “she seeks wool and flax” he dropped his guard and spoke of the secret reasons of the commandments and of the dangers of joining those things that should not be joined. Maharam, according to R. Abraham’s own testimony earlier in the sermon, had come to know “the secrets and hidden meanings of the Torah,” so a kabbalistically tinged gloss of “Eshet Ḥayyil” might have been an appropriate conclusion for his eulogy. But there was always the danger that it might have violated the late great Ashkenazic rabbi’s stand in favor of esotericism. Maharam had been so well known, if controversial, a figure among Italian Jewry of his day that R. Abraham may have decided simply in favor of audience participation—letting his confraternal audience, which had heard him go through “Eshet Ḥayyil” at least once before, decide themselves how to gloss each verse in the hope that they would, like the proverbial good wife, open their mouths in wisdom.