One of the really interesting books which everyone should read is the Historia de' riti Ebraici by R. Yehuda Aryeh Mi-Modena of Venice (1571-1648), otherwise known properly as Leone Modena.1 The book was written in Italian in 1614 (download here, 1728 ed.) at the request of Sir Henry Wotton, the British ambassador to Venice, but translated to other languages soon after it was published (1637).2 The first English version was by Edmund Chilmead (1650). The second was by Simon Ockley (1707; "The history of the present Jews throughout the world," read it here). Ockley,3 a professor of Arabic at Cambridge, doesn't mention Chilmead's version and claims to have translated it from the Italian, but he obviously also made great use of Richard Simon's French translation (1681), including some of Simon's notes and adding translations of two appendices concerning the Karaites and Samaritans, written by Simon. A third translation is included in the first volume of the English version of Bernard Picard's Ceremonies et Coutumes Religieuses de tous les Peuples du Monde (1733). This version is less literal than the other English ones.
Although it seems to have been commissioned for the British king, there is another motivation which informed this work. Not long before he wrote it, Johann Buxtorf I wrote a highly detailed German book about contemporary Jews and Judaism called Synagoga Judaica (read an English translation by Alan D. Corré here). Although not exactly an antisemitic screed, certainly not by the standards of the time, it did contain much that was negative about Jews, reflecting Buxtorf's jaundiced view of Judaism, and some that simply wasn't truthful. (Corré begins his introduction "Is Buxtorf's Synagoga Judaica an anti-Semitic text? My first answer would be: No. My alternative answer would be: How could it be otherwise?").4
For example, in Chapter 30 (on yibum and chalitza) Buxtorf claims that during the chalitza ceremony the sister-in-law will spit in her brother-in-law's face. This is derived from Deut. 25.9 , וְיָרְקָה בְּפָנָיו, which is understood by Christians to mean "spit in his face." However, Jews understand it to mean "spit in front of him," and so that is how the chalitza ceremony actually is conducted, and so Modena writes "spit before him" (In Ockley translation; Ockley actually includes a personal note saying that both translations are possible, but affirming that in point of fact the Jews act as Modena describes, and even believe it to be הלכה למשה מסיני. His view, however, is that "it is a common thing with them, to perform things after the most easy manner, and so as to give the least Offence to the Person the Punishment is to be inflicted upon".)
Therefore Modena was in a unique position to write a Jewish description of Judaism, in the vernacular, printed entirely in the Latin alphabet, for gentiles. He stresses that he is completely truthful, as he indeed almost is. His biggest sin in this regard consists of slight omissions5 and apologetics,6 but there are no untruths, and certainly contains material that his audience would be incapable of respecting, yet he does not lie.
In the introduction to the book he explains that he was asked to write this book, despite two things. The first is that such a work already existed (i.e, Buxtorf's). The second is that, as a Jew, his partiality must be questionable. To the first objection he noted that what already existed was imperfect and unsatisfactory to "the Learned World," and in need of correction. Furthermore, what existed was "not seldom, written with a design only to render the People Ridiculous and Contemptible by interlarding [sic?] their Relations with some unaccountable and fantastical Fopperies, rather to divert their Reader, than inform him." Thus, he could correct those mistakes and divert the reader back to what is true and important and away from antisemitic distractions. To the second objection, he relays that he is known to very learned people as a man of integrity and probity, and the reader should rest assured that his impartiality is unimpeachable, and that he will write with "great sincerity and candour."
At the start of the book itself he divides the worldwide Jewry of his time into three parts, and Jewish practices into three parts. The Jews consist in the main of German, Levantine and Italian Jews. The religion consists of three kinds of practices, Torah laws (Mizvod de Oraita) , Rabbinic laws (Mizvod de Rabanan) and customs (Minhagim). The first two kinds are observed in almost identical fashion by all three societies of Jews. It is only in the latter where they differ greatly.7 What strikes the reader, particularly if he or she is a traditionally observant Jew, is how much his description of Judaism accords with how it is presently practiced. The differences are few, but notable (e.g., in his time malkos / lashes were a common practice between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur) or minor (see n. 4 below, where he writes that the Jews recite the early morning berachos at home, rather than in the synagogue as is most commonly done today). His slightly (or some would say extremely) rationalist perspective comes through where he is willing to dismiss certains customs as superstitious (e.g., writing verses about Lilith and angels to protect a newborn baby, or the rite of kapparos ; both are still widespread).
The following about marriage deserves a little attention:
(Image is presently not loading, so in the mean time, see below)
Now, this isn't as prurient as it sounds. First, I checked the original Italian, as well as the French translation and various English dictionaries of the time and "visit[ing] his Mistress" and "dally[ing] and toy[ing] with her," as long as he does not "lie with her" simply means that the engaged man may flirt and have light conversation with his bride-to-be; however they must not sleep together. (Childmead's 1650 translation is "the Man hath liberties to visit, and to sport and toy with his betroathed Mistresse, but he must not know her Carnally.") Still, this certainly goes against present mores among some Orthodox Jews, at least officially. What I mean by that is that while really the following extreme point of view (see below) is not representative of even much of right-wing Orthodox[ies], you're just unlikely to see an official sanction by a rabbi of "dallying and toying" between an engaged couple, although in an unofficial way this is no less tolerated than it was in Modena's time. (It also needs to be pointed out that for Modena engagement meant signing a semi-official document, the tena'im. Many, perhaps most, Orthdox Jews today don't sign such a document until the night of the wedding itself. In that sense, engagement was more official in his time or among those who sign it months before the wedding today. However, this doesn't at all relate to formal betrothal, or erusin.)
The extreme example below is from R. Pesach Eliyahu Falk's 2001 book Choson and kallah during their Engagement which sought to codify and create restrictive norms of behavior for engaged Orthodox couples, although this is how I -- not the author -- understands it. It seems that one of his ideas is that after a young man and woman get engaged, the kind of loosening of standards permitted to them so that they may discover who it is they want to marry, must tighten up until they are married. Thus, although he suggests "light enjoyable talk" (pg. 135) in his chapter on what is appropriate for a dating couple to talk about, this no longer applies once they are engaged. Furthermore, they should limit face time and phone time. I'm not sure which is the kal and which is the chomer, but in his view flirting is inappropriate both before and after engagement. Similarly, all types of signs or terms of endearment are off (he permits beginning a letter "Dear . . . " but not "To my dear . . . ") Perhaps surprisingly, he does not take issues with letter-writing itself! Indeed, "the choson may write very friendly letters to his kallah" because "this must be done in order to maintain and even bolster good relations he has with his kallah." However, he recognizes that an alternative might be to have a phone call . . . once a week.
But all in all "it is ossur to laugh and joke light-headedly with an ervah" and whatever Modena meant, he certainly mean "laugh and joke light-headedly!" What might R. Falk have said when confronted with apparent evidence that his norms do not cross generational and cultural lines, and that it is specifically contradicted by a rabbi who lived 400 years before him who wrote learned she'elos u-teshuvos? I imagine that he might suggest that "dally and toy" by the standards of Modena's time meant nothing more and nothing less what he suggests. Or perhaps he might not contest it and simply dismiss it as an apologetic aimed at gentiles, not a halachic source, or else as irrelevant in view of sources he marshals. I doubt he would say "I am not a 17th century Venetian rabbi and he is," but that is also true. See for yourself:
All in all, the Riti is very well organized, thoroughly readable and familiar, and he does not shy away from many things which his Christian readers of the time would most certainly find distasteful,8 but probably succeeded in good measure in humanizing, in all senses of the term, the Jews as a pious, learned, humane, joyful and charitable people. Indeed, his book was much quoted as an authority on Jews and Judaism in the century-and-a-half that followed.
1 He is known by different variations of this; Leon, Leo for his first name, and "da Modena", "de Modene" or "of Modena" for his last. Leone was his Italian name, the others being acceptable translations. However, in his autobiography Chayei Yehuda he emphasizes that people are mistaken that his surname is "da Modena/ of Modena." In fact, he says, his surname is simply Modena. He was from Venice, not Modena, where an ancestor of his presumably lived (hence the surname). In Italian he signed his name "Leone Modena da Venezia." On the title page of his Novo dittionario hebraico et italiano he is called "Leon Modena Rabi Hebreo Da Venetia" and יהודה אריה ממודינא in Hebrew. However, there is no doubt that his Hebrew surname was ממודינא, from whence might have arisen the error of "da Modena." Yet others wrote of him during his lifetime as "of Modena." Indeed, when he refers to R. Menasseh ben Israel referring to himself in one his Spanish works as "II doctissimo, Rabbi Yudah da Modena" he quotes him verbatim without correcting his last name. I don't know which Spanish book he refers to, but you are welcome to peruse them and find it.
An extensive discussion of this point is on pg. xx of the Preface to the English translation of the Chayei Yehuda, The autobiography of a seventeenth-century Venetian rabbi.
2 Actually, Modena only writes that he wrote it for "an English lord" who wished the book written for the benefit of King James I. However, it is known that he knew Wotton, and he is almost certainly the one.
3 In Ockley's dedication he apologizes to Modena in case he didn't translate faithfully, but assures him that the book is dedicated to such a fine figure as Henry James of Queen's College that Modena would be pleased!
4 Stephen G. Burnett's PhD thesis on Buxtorf, or the book version From Christian Hebraism to Jewish studies is essential reading on this topic and question.
5 An example of an omission is that in discussing blessings he mentions a couple of the morning blessings:
There is nothing that is not true, but "and many such like" ("e molt altri simili") does not even bring up the one beracha which would be of interest to the non-Jewish reader. For his part, Buxtorf writes "Praise &c. that he has made me an Israelite or Jew, or, as some books say, he has not made me a heathen. (They mean the Christians by this, whom they consider to be faithless, godless people, cursed by God.)"
6 An example of an apologetic is his discussion of usury. He chooses to interpret Deut. 23.21 ("Unto a foreigner thou mayest lend upon interest; but unto thy brother thou shalt not lend upon interest.") in the following manner:
7 In his introduction Ockley gives this rationale for why Christians should be interested in such a book as describes the religion of contemporary Jews. Although the rabbinic tradition about much earlier times cannot be taken seriously, thus the description of the sacrifices and other happenings in the Temple are unreliable and likely projections of later rabbis onto the past, the practices in common of Jews all over the world should be taken as evidence that in these the Jews reliably maintain ancient traditions and behaviors. Since these are reliable, they shed light on the commandments of the Old Testament, and most importantly, on many passage of the New Testament. This argument for the value for Christians of studying Judaism was quite commmon (and contested!) in those days.
8 I am not sure to include his description of mezizah be-feh in this category. On the one hand one would simply assume that the reader, 17th century or no, would find it distasteful to suck the wound of the newly circumcised penis. On the other hand, there is no hint that Modena felt even a little uncomfortable about it, and perhaps this is due to the state of medicine in the 17th century, where it would surprise no one to suck blood from a fresh wound. If so, all he was doing was describing a medical procedure. On the other hand, the very rite of circumcision itself must have revolted the contemporary reader, and perhaps mezizah was but a minor detail or simply paled in comparison to the rite itself, and of course there was no way or reason to omit a description of circumcision. That said, his account includes a description of the type of bandaging uses at the time that is almost poetic, or at least Harry-Potteresque: