Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu ben Abba Mari Chalfan of Venice. Rabbi Chalfan is famous for a number of different things. First, he was apparently in contact with the false messiah Solomon Molcho, a Portugese Jew who escaped to Italy and after a number of escapades, was burned at the stake by the Inquisition. Second, at the behest of the Christian Cabalist Francesco Georgio, Chalfan provided Richard Croke a religious opinion in favor of King Henry VIII in his attempt to convince Pope Clement VII that his so-called “levirate marriage” to Catherine of Aragon should be annulled because she had previously been in a marriage (lasting only five months) to Henry’s brother Arthur and had not borne a son. Third, in a collection of responsa compiled by Joseph Graziano of Modena, Chalfan gives his opinion on the question whether a Jew may instruct Christians in Hebrew. Citing numerous passages from the Talmud, which he elucidates with logical acumen, Chalfan shows that elementary instruction may certainly be given, if only for the purpose of enabling non-Jews to comply with the seven laws given to Noah.
Dr. Eliyahu Chalfan was well-known by the important Italian author Pietro Aretino (1492-1556), whose partner Caterina Sandella received his medical treatment during a serious illness. Aretino’s letter of thanks to Dr. Chalfan praises him for his biblical knowledge and expertise, suggesting that “men could learn how to be Christian from you” and “the Pope himself . . . should listen to your inspired voice.” Aretino apparently enjoyed debating with Chalfan texts he viewed as allusions to the Virgin Mary in the Old Testament.
Eliyahu Chalfan’s father Abba Maria Chalfan went to Naples in 1492 to study astronomy. He authored explanatory notes on the Alphonsine Tables, which provided data for computing the position of the sun, moon, and planets relative to the fixed stars. Eliyahu’s mother was the daughter of the foremost talmudist of his generation in Italy Josef ben Salomon Colon (the MaHaRIK), an exile from Chambery France who lived in Mestre, near Venice, and was later rabbi in Bologna and Mantua, and died in Padua around 1480.