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by R.W.Bro. LEON ZELDIS
LEON TEMPLO - Rabbi Jacob Judah Leon
Rabbi Jacob Judah Leon (1602-1675), known as Leon Templo, occupies a particular place in Masonic history. Although there is no proof that he was a Mason or that he ever visited a lodge his work, described further down, so impressed Laurence Dermott, the first Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge of the Antients, that he took a design by Leon Templo as the basis for the coat of arms of his Grand Lodge. When the two Grand Lodges of England merged to form the present United Grand Lodge in 1813, this design was incorporated in its coat of arms.
An interesting historical enigma is the possible existence of a Masonic organization in Amsterdam which Jews were allowed to join before the creation of the Premier Grand Lodge of London. There are two indications that point to that possibility.
Dermott, in the second edition of Ahiman Rezon - the Book of Constitutions of the Antients Grand Lodge - published in 1764, called Templo “the famous and learned Hebrewist [sic], Architect and brother”. Historians have generally dismissed the ‘brother’ appellation as either an error or a friendly sobriquet. However, we know that Leon had contacts with the Jewish community of Livorno. His daughter, Elisebah, was married to a Jew characterized as “from Livorno”. A flourishing Jewish community lived in that Italian city that became a refuge for Sephardic Jews fleeing from the Spanish Inquisition, and who returned to practicing Judaism openly, as was the case with Leon's family. One indication of the importance of the Jewish community in the city is that in 1765 fully one third of the commercial houses were Jewish-owned. When Freemasonry arrived in Italy, Livorno became a center of Masonic activity in the peninsula. To give an example, among 34 lodges active in Italy between 1815 and 1860, no less than 19 were located in Livorno, that is, over 50% of all Italian lodges. [i] A document from the lodge Les Amis de la Parfaite Union dated 3 May 1797 lists nine Jewish members from a total of 56. [ii] This proves that the local lodges were open to Jews.
This unusual interest in Freemasonry in a relatively small town indicates the possibility that certain Masonic organizations already existed there, which served as the fertile ground for the rapid growth of Speculative Freemasonry when it arrived from the British Isles.
Jacob Judah Leon was born in 1602 in a Portuguese town near Coimbra. Three years later his family escaped from Portugal and arrived in Amsterdam, where they returned to practice Judaism openly. Jacob studied to become a rabbi but his learning was not confined to theological writings. A letter from the Dutch poet and statesman Constantin Huygens reveals that he studied Hebrew literature with Leon. It is possible that through Huygens the Jewish rabbi established contacts with the Dutch and British royal houses.
Leon became the chief rabbi of Hamburg in 1628, but returned to Amsterdam in the 1630's. He then moved to Middleburg, working as the local rabbi. There he befriended the Christian theologian Adam Boreel, who belonged to an international group of scholars that included Comenius, Serrarius, and others. This group also maintained contacts with Menasseh ben Israel. Boreel was a Millenarian, who believed in the approaching second coming of the Messiah, a precondition for which was the reconstruction of Jerusalem's Temple.
Leon, probably under the influence of Boreel, was inspired to build a model of the Temple based on the descriptions in the Hebrew Bible, the writings of Flavius Josephus and rabbinic literature. The work was financed by Boreel. Jacob also wrote a booklet on the subject in Spanish, Retrato del Templo de Selomo, which was very well received and was translated into several languages.
Leon returned to Amsterdam in order to supervise the publication of his version of the Mishnah [iii] , and was appointed to teach at the Talmud Torah, or rabbinical academy of the Portuguese Jewish community. Leon also had engravings of the model made for sale. He exhibited the model in his home, and later made another model of the Tabernacle. He took his models to be shown in fairs around Holland, and even presented them at the court of the Prince of Orange.
In 1675 he took his models to London, bearing letters of introduction from Huygens to, among others, the architect Christopher Wren, who is reputed to have been Grand Master of Masons at the time.
The exhibition of his models produced great expectation in London. We must remember that there were few public entertainments at the time, no movies, radio, TV or magazines, even newspapers were inexistent. The first daily newspaper only appeared after a century, in 1769, so the exhibition of the Temple and the Tabernacle provided a welcome diversion for the English public.
This interest on Jewish matters was further
few years later, in 1684, when Knorr von Rosenroth published Kabbalah
Denudata (Kabbalah Unveiled), a translation of passages from the Zohar
and essays on the meaning of Kabbalah (including portions of Cordovero's Pardes
Rimonim) examined from a Christian point of view. Rosenroth's work was the
most important non-Hebrew reference book on the Kabbalah until the end of the 19th
century and it became the major source on this subject for non-Jewish scholars.
We can see in these developments some antecedents
to the development of Masonic ritual in the early 17th century, with
its prominent use of Hebrew words and the focus on Bible events.
In the summer of that year Leon returned to Amsterdam, and died soon after, on 19 July, 1675. He was buried in the Ouderkerk cemetery, where his tombstone bears a Hebrew epitaph mentioning his models.
The model of the Temple built by Leon Templo was exhibited again in London by a Mason, Bro. M. P. de Castro, who claimed to be a relative of Leon Templo.
A.K. Offenberg, "Jacob Jehuda Leon (1602-1675) and his Model of the Temple" in J. van den Berg and Ernestine G.E. van der Wall, edit. Jewish-Christian Relations in the 17th Century. Studies and Documents (Dordrecht etc. 1988), pp 95-115.
Leon Zeldis, "Some Sephardic Jews in Freemasonry", in Masonic Symbols and Signposts, Anchor Communications (Lancaster, VA 2003), pp.141-152.
Polo Friz, Luigi, “Logge in Italia dal 1816 al 1870”, Massoneria
Oggi, Year V, No. 4, August-September 1998, p. 27.
Stolper, Ed., “Contributo allo studio della massoneria italiana
nell’era napoleonica”, Rivista Massonica, September 1977.
[iii] A collection of rabbinical commentaries on the Jewish Bible, compiled about 200 CE and which became the basis for the Talmud.