||Zemah Zaddik is an ethical work, translated by Modena from the popular Italian Fior di virtú (Flower of the Virtuous), with moral sayings taken from Bible and Talmud. In his autobiography he describes Zemah Zaddik as being concerned with the improvement of ethical qualities, stating, although not completely accurately, that, “I substituted a saying of the Talmud for every reference from their Scriptures or saints. It was printed in 300 [1599/1600], and there too, my name is mentioned in an acrostic only.” The volume begins with a front piece with a portrait of Modena, followed by English and Hebrew title pages, a preface from Jacob Druckerman, who edited and brought this edition to press, a biography of Modena and then the text. There are numerous small illustrations throughout the book. The English title page describes Zemah Zaddik as, “A small treatise on ethics and morality, with explanatory illustrations by Rabbi Leon Modena. Reprinted from and edited from the first (Venice 1600), with additional references and notes, revised and supplemented with the authors biography and portrait.”
R. Judah Aryeh (Leone) Modena (1571–1648), Italian rabbi, scholar, and writer, is one of, if not the most fascinating Jewish personality of the Italain Renaissance. He was a child prodigy in both Jewish religious studies and music, becoming a scholar of stupendous productivity and a famous rabbi of the Venetian community. He wrote many books, in Hebrew and Italian, and his fame spread far beyond Venice. His eloquent sermons gained popularity even among non-Jews. Priests, diplomats and princes listened to them and were eager to receive his instruction. In the manner of his age, Leone also practiced a number of other occupations, such as teacher, interpreter, musician, editor-printer, proof-corrector, bookseller and letter-writer. His writings seem to express the conflict between Jewish tradition and the rational criticism of a seventeenth-century humanist. His life was marred by personal instability and ill fortune. Not only was he in perennial difficulties because of gambling, he also lived to see three of his five children die and his wife become insane. Despite these tribulations, he was a prolific writer. His works include religious poems, biblical exegesis, a defense of traditional Judaism, an attack on traditional Judaism, a Hebrew-Italian dictionary, and one of the earliest autobiographies written in Hebrew.
Modena’s sermons, collected in Midbar Yehudah, are also unrivalled examples of the rhetorical and homiletical art which developed in Renaissance Italy. Although not always original in content, they are consummate in form and influence later Hebrew homiletics. However Modena's main contribution to Hebrew literature was in polemics. In Magen ve-Zinnah he attacks systematically the views of Uriel da Costa, and defends the oral tradition and talmudic literature; the Kol Sakhal, on the other hand, which is attributed to him, makes the most bitter and complete case against oral tradition to be written in Hebrew until the Reform movement of the 19th century, when many of the arguments were repeated. In Ari Nohem Modena followed the tradition of anti-kabbalistic polemic started in Italy by Elijah Delmedigo in the 15th century. His Magen va-Herev is one of the most effective anti-Christian polemics to be written in Hebrew (even in the incomplete form in which the work has been preserved). Modena used contemporary scientific and historical critical methods, as well as traditional exegesis, to show the superficiality of the Christian interpretation of Scripture and the illogicalities in its dogma. Modena regarded his life as a failure, especially because he felt that he had lost the battle against his own shortcomings. However, his literary achievements disprove his own evaluation. Modena's published writings, many of them embodying the word aryeh ("lion") or Yehudah in the title in reference to his name, include: Beit Lehem Yehudah, an index to the Ein Ya'akov (Venice, 1625); Bat Yehudah (Venice, 1635, subsequently incorporated in the Ein Ya'akov, to which it is a supplement); Zemah Zaddik, a translation of the Italian ethical work Fior di Virt - (Venice, 1600); Galut Yehudah (Novo dittionario hebraico e italiano; Venice, 1612; Padua, 1640); Midbar Yehudah, sermons (Venice, 1602); Lev Aryeh, mnemotechnical (Venice, 1612); Sur me-Ra, against gambling (Venice, 1595); Hayyei Yehudah, autobiography (see above; ed. A. Kahana, Zhitomir, 1911); Historia de' riti Ebraici (in Italian), written at the request of the English ambassador in Venice for presentation to King James I (Paris, 1637).