Judaism in Malta
Arrival of the first Jews
The history of the small Jewish Community of Malta goes back to the arrival of the Semitic Phoenician settlers over three thousand five hundred years ago. It is believed that they were accompanied by Israelite mariners from the seafaring tribes of Zevulon and Asher.
At the time in the city of Tyre lived Princess Jezebel, who in 906BCE married the Jewish Sultan Omri’s Ohab. After this marriage relations between the Jews and the Phoenicians grew so warm and cordial that they began to sail the seas and occupy various lands together. Some of them stayed in our islands.
The First Evidence
We have evidence that at the time the Phoenicians were occupying Malta, the first Jews landed on Gozo and there they left behind the first signs of their presence. You can find this near the inner apse of the southern temple of Ggantija in Xaghra, one cannot fail to notice that on the ground under your feet is scratched the first Jewish evidence on Gozo.
This Jewish evidence is an inscription in the Phoenician alphabet, discovered and made known in 1912 by Ms N. Erichson and Ms. R. Cleveland. This inscription is in two lines and has ten words: seven in the first line and three in the second. Translated this inscription reads,
“To the love of our Father Jahwe”.
On the other hand the discovery of carved menorahs (candlesticks with seven branches) and Hellenistic inscriptions in a number of Jewish catacombs at Rabat and Tabja attests to a community living here in Grecian and Roman times.
The most renowned Jewish visitor to our islands was none other than St. Paul, a Jew from Tarsus, who lived in Malta for some three months. Making Malta famous with the Christian world and bringing the new religion to the inhabitants.
One of the most remarkable figures in Medieval Jewish history, Avraham Ben Shmuel Abulafia, lived for many years in Malta, to be exact on the small rocky isle of Comino. Born in Saragossa, Spain, in 1240, Abulafia, visionary and prophetic cabbalist, proclaimed himself the Messiah and predicted the messianic era would begin in the year 5050 (1290). Abdulafia dreamed of dissolving the differences between Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
On the day between Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), 5040 (1280) he set out to Suriano to convince Pope Nicholas III to heed his ideas and ease the suffering of the Jews. His efforts ended with the Pope sentencing him to death by fire.
With the pyre prepared, the pope suddenly died of a heart attack and Abulafia was subsequently freed. He settled in Malta, where he wrote many cabalistic, philosophical, and grammatical works, including Sefer Ha’ot (Book of the Sign), many mystical essays on prophetic cabbalism and his greatest book Imre Sefer (Goodly Works). He died some time after 1291.
Mdina seems to have harboured an important Jewish community until the expulsion edict of 1492. During the Muslim occupation (870 – 1090) under the rule of the Abbasside and Aghlabide caliphates, members of the Jewish Community are known to have served as civil servants and one was even elected to the highest rank of Vizier.
When the Normans seized the archipelago, in 1090, there was a mixed population in our islands, consisting of Muslims, Christians and Jews. From 1091, the Jewish community of Malta ‘s history, now integrated with nearby Sicily, can be clearly traced. For example in 1240 according to the Abbot Gilbert’s report to the Emperor Frederick II, there were in the Maltese islands.
47 Christian Families and
25 Jewish Families
Whilst in Gozo there were
200 Christian Families and
8 Jewish Families
Which makes a total of approximately 250 Jewish persons. Although the majority of the population up to 1249 was still Muslim. In 1282 the Maltese islands became a Spanish possession. That the Jewish Community prospered there is no doubt, their number increased and this is evidenced by the nominations of the new bishop of Malta at the time.
In 1370 Francesco Papalla (the new bishop) from Messina was elevated to the dignity of “Custos Rotellea”, so that he would follow more closely the orders and commands of Frederick II, that of “Contra Judeos ut in Differentia Vestium Et Gestorum Discernatur”. This order was well laid down by Bishop Papalla, as he was able to order Jews (as Frederick desired) to wear a “Red Badge” on their clothes, and all Jewish men had to remain unshaven to distinguish them from Catholics.
In 1390 a number of Gozitans Catholics and Jews were taken as slaves after Tunisian corsairs launched a sudden attack on the island of Gozo. Among the captives were six poor Jewish persons. There were a certain Machullaf or Micallef, Sadum or Sajdum, Coftura, Jakobb, David and Sabbeus.
These six Jews, because of poverty, had to remain in captivity as slaves for at least 13 years. The fact that they were not extradited during those 13 years in slavery, does not mean that there were no initiative to free them.
In fact three years after being captured as slaves, the Jewish Community of Trapani was able to collect a sum of money for their freedom. Yet in spite of this, for reasons unknown, the six unfortunate Jewish slaves were not freed. Another appeal to free them was attempted later on by Moses Mason who pleaded with King Martin I for their freedom. The King offered 300 Doubloon if their freedom would be met. Whether these six poor Jews were released or not remains a mystery.
In the year 1393, the Bishop of Malta, Bishop Giovanni De Pino from Catalan was nominated as “Bishop Rotellae” for the Maltese islands. King Martin’s attitude towards the Jews was sympathetic, in fact in 1400 he pardoned all Jews on these islands and ordered the Bishop and his inquisitor not to meddle in the Jews’ affairs in Malta and Gozo. Consequently the Jews of our islands began to make a lot of progress.
In fact, in 1403, they were able to lend the Viceroy the sum of 30 ounces of gold to equip militarily a new galley. In 1435, we have indication about a certain rich Jew called Mose` Arnocrani living in Gozo near the church of St. Paul.
In the same year (1435) the Universita demanded the abolition of a tax which was due to be imposed on the Jews. This was well appreciated by the Jewish Community in Malta and Gozo, since the Universita released them from the tax burden, and as time passed the relations between the Jewish Community and the Maltese grew cordial and a certain Gozitan Jew named Xilorun was chosen as an ambassador of the Maltese Deputies to the court of Sicily.
However, relations between Jews and Maltese had not always been so happy: since the islands were dependencies of the Aragonese crown, Jews had been officially expelled from them in 1492, and their property confiscated:
It appears from a notarial deed of 2 June 1496, that the monastery of St. Scolastica had just been founded…The monastery was then occupying what had once been the synagogue of the Jews that had been expelled from the island only four years earlier. The monastery of St. Scolastica eventually moved to Birgu.
Jewish Place Names
During the early part of the middle ages, the Jewish population of Mdina constituted roughly a third of the inhabitants of that city. Where they were regarded as citizens, occupying a comfortable position, having fields and properties in the countryside. To a lesser extent this also holds true for the smaller community of Jewish inhabitants of Birgu, the port. In both Mdina and Birgu one can still find reference to the Jews’ stay in our islands. At Mdina one finds the place where the “Jewish Silk Market” was and there is a Jews’ Gate and Jews sally port in both towns. At Birgu one can also find “Jewry Street”, whilst at Zejtun there is “Jewry’s square”. Whilst at Valletta there is to this day a place known as “Jews Sally port” very near to where the Jewish Slave prison was to be found. We also still have “Jewish Caves” at BinGemma and “Jewish Caves” at Xatt il-Qwabar as the wharves of Marsa were previously known by.
In neighbouring Gozo, they lived mostly in the suburbs of the Citadella, the small capital of this island primarily rural and poorer that its larger sister island of Malta. But in none of the islands did they live confined in Ghettos or enclosed neighbourhoods. but their houses were situated next to those of Christians. This all changed later on.
The presence of the Jewish Community on the island of Gozo is also indicated by the number of nicknames or names which still exist. For instance, “Ghajn Lhudi” (Jew’s Cave) near Wied Sansun (Samson’s Valley), “Wied Sansun” (Samson’s Valley) itself, “Ghajn Lhudin” (Jewish Fountain), and “Misrah Lhudi” Jew’s Square. About Ghajn Lhudin we know that it existed at Xaghra, but there is no evidence exactly where it might have been.
Further names such as “Wied il-Gharab” in the areas around Xlendi, – That up to 1555 was still known as “Wied il-Lhudi” (Jew’s Valley) and the hill known as “Ta’ Gordan” are a good testimony of the Jewish Community’s presence in Gozo.
Old Jewish notarial manuscripts written in the colloquial Maltese of those days but using the Hebrew alphabet from the XV century preserved in the Cathedral library of Mdina confirm the above.
When compared to other Catholic lands, for long periods during the Middle Ages the Jews of Malta, who had settled here from Sicily, Sardinia, North Africa and Spain, lived a fairly independent and prosperous life.
Although some Jews held prestigious posts, such as Avraham Safardi, the islands’ Chief Physician, (a profession monopolised by the Jews of Malta at that time) and Xilorum, a diplomatic envoy to the court of Sicily others were agricultural land owners and import-export agents, Whilst the majority were shopkeepers and itinerant merchants.
There were times when the community at large was subjected to restrictions. Yet a degree of tolerance and privilege also prevailed. Jews in prison for civil debts were allowed home for the Sabbath and Holy Days. On Friday nights Jews were exempted from carrying mandatory torches, a precaution required of all citizens to protect the island against surprise attack after dark. Whilst Jewish communal elections were conducted with no outside interference by the local authorities.
1492 – Expulsion
This situation changed in the second part of XV (15th) Century, when the religious authorities, of Spanish origin, worried about the joint ownership of certain houses inhabited by the Jews next door to the churches, appealed to the Spanish throne to do something about the Jews. This reaction developed with the rise on the throne of Spain of Ferdinand d’ Aragon (1479).
The Inquisition struck the Jews and the Moslems who still lived the archipelago.
The decree of expulsion was signed in Palermo on 18 June 1492. It gave three months to the Jews of Sicily and Malta to leave the country (or else to convert to Christianity and forfeit 45% of their possessions). In Spain, they were considered with suspicion, as well as the Moslems in the midst of which they lived and also spoke their language.
In Palermo, the local government sent a protest to the Spanish sovereigns making the point that if one expelled the Jews of the kingdom, where they were many and commercially active, in particular in Malta and Gozo, the economy would be adversely effected and the islands would be depopulated.
A rather significant number of Sicilian Jews accepted the edict proposed by the Spanish royalty and converted. The Maltese historian Profs. Godfrey Wettinger thinks that, on their side, it would be astonishing that no Maltese Jew succumbed to this temptation. In fact, in the years which followed the application of the decree of expulsion, Malta counted several tens of conversos whose names were found in the files.
The surnames of our archipelago carry the trace of this heritage; thus, Attard, Ellul, Salamone, Mamo and Meli would be names of Jewish origin. It appears that Azzopardi, a very widespread name in Malta, would mean Séphardi (One who originated in Spain (Sefarad).
As already said the Jews were known as an intelligent people. Since early Temple times it was a Jewish tradition that all Jewish males must begin learning Hebrew from the age of 3 so as to be able to read from the Torah Scrolls during synagogue services – hence giving them an edge on their contemporaries.
Among the intelligent Jewish families living in Gozo was the popular Safaradi family, a well respected family on the island not only for goodness but also for its intelligence. In fact in 1446, the family Safaradi boasted two doctors, one was Bracone Safaradi and the other was the already mentioned Rabbi Abraham Safaradi. The latter was a famous doctor paid from Mdina in Malta.
Bracone was also famous as a doctor, and later on he was nominated a Deputato of the “Dienchele Joshua Banartini” for Malta and Gozo to execute the “Mosaic Law”. Evidence of this nomination of Bracone is the following (edited) letter:-
But proof exists that this Safaradi family continued to take care of all the Jewish Spiritual interests in Gozo. In 1485, apart from being a Rabbi (Teacher), Abraham Safaradi was also nominated by the Viceroy as the most preferred Jewish person in the islands in Medicine and for the interpretation of Mosaic Law. Apart from being a doctor, Abram Safaradi served also as a well known public notary up to the expulsion of the Jews from the Maltese islands in 1492.
The Coming of the Knights
To defend the archipelago threatened by the Ottoman Turks, Charles V of Spain offered Malta to the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem (1530). Remembering the relatively liberal policy followed by the Knights towards the Jews of Rhodes, many of the (Jewish) Sicilians “conversos” as the forcibly converted Jews were known – who kept the Jewish religion at home but outwardly appeared acted as Catholics – decided to settle in Malta.
After their installation in Malta, the Knights who had a fleet of galleys, launched out, like the Turks, in the taking of hostages and their release against ransom. The Jewish merchants, who were about the only ones to ensure their risk and dangers the exchanges between two banks of the Mediterranean, were particularly aimed.
During the reign of the Knights of St. John, the only Jews (with a few exceptions) who lived in our islands were slaves. A prison to hold these Jewish slaves had been built with this intention in Valletta. The Knights waged continual maritime warfare, hardly distinguishable from piracy, against the Moslem powers. Seaports were raided and their inhabitants carried off.
Shipping was preyed on indiscriminately, captured vessels being brought to Malta, and crew and passengers sold into captivity. Throughout the rule of the Knights, which lasted until they capitulated to the French in 1798, the islands were thus a last European refuge of slave traffic and slave labour
The victims were any persons, of whatever standing, race, age or sex, who happened to be sailing on the captured ships. Jews made up a large proportion of the Levantine merchant class and were hence peculiarly subject to capture. Because of their nomadic way of life, disproportionately large numbers were to be found in any vessel sailing the Eastern ports.
They also formed a considerable element in the population of the Moslem ports subject to raids. So, soon after the establishment of the Knights in Malta, the name of Malta begins to be found with increasing frequency in Jewish literature, and always with an evil association.
The islands became in Jewish eyes a symbol for all that was cruel and hateful in the Christian world. Whatever the truth of the contemporary rumour that the Jews financed the great Turkish siege of Malta in 1565, certainly they watched with anxious eyes and their disappointment at its failure must have been great. “The monks of Malta are still today a snare and trap for the Jews”, sadly records a Jewish chronicler at the end of his account of the siege. A messianic prophecy current early in the seventeenth century further expressed the bitterness of the Jewish feeling, recounting how the Redemption would begin with the fall of the four kingdoms of “ungodliness”, first amongst which was Malta.
A typical capture, and one of the earliest mentioned in Jewish literature, is related in the “Vale of Tears” by Joseph ha-Cohen: `In the year 5312 (1552), the vessels of the monks of Rhodes, of the order of Malta, cruising to find booty, encountered a ship coming from Salonica, wheron where seventy Jews. They captured it and returned to their island. These unhappy persons had to send to all quarters to collect money for the ransom exacted by these miserable monks. Only after payment were they able to continue their voyage.’ In 1567, large numbers of Jews, escaping to the Levant from the persecution of Pius V, fell victims to the Knights. “Many of the victims sank like lead to the depths of the sea before the fury of the attack. Many others were imprisoned in the Maltese dungeons at this time of desolation,” writes the chronicler. It was not only those who went down to the sea in ships over whom the shadow hung. Of the Marranos (Crypto-Jews) of Ancona who fell victims to the fanaticism of Paul IV, thirty-eight who eluded the stake were sent in chainsto the galleys of Malta, though they managed to escape on the way.
Arrived in Malta, the captives were only at the beginning of their troubles. A very graphic account of conditions is given by the English traveller, Philip Skippon, who visited the spot in about 1663:
`The slaves’ prison is a fair square building, cloister’d round where most of the slaves in Malta are oblig’d to lodge every night, and to be there about Ave Mary time. They have here several sorts of trades, as barbers, taylors &c. There are about 2,000 that belong to the order, most of which were now abroad in the galleys; and there are about three hundred who are servants to private persons. This place being an island, and difficult to escape out of, they wear only an iron ring or foot-lock. Those that are servants, lodge in their masters’ houses, when the galleys are at home; but now, lie a-nights in this prison. Jews, Moors and Turks are made slaves here, and are publickly sold in the market. `A stout fellow may be bought (if he is an inferior person) for 120 or 160 scudi of Malta. The Jews are distinguih’d from the rest by a little piece of yellow cloth on their hats or caps, &c. We saw a rich Jew who was taken about a year before, who was sold in the market that morning we visited the prison for 400 scudi; and supposing himself free, by reason of a passport he had from Venice, he struck the merchant that bought him; where-upon he was presently sent hither, his beard and head were shaven off, a great chain clapp’d on his legs, and bastinado’d with 50 blows.’
The mechanism of release was not always simple. The Jew was rarely as rich as he was reputed to be, but his reputation for wealth was greatest precisely were he was least known. The usual price standard of a slave was tended, therefore to disappear whenever a Jew was concerned.
He was worth not his value but whatever could be extorted from his brethren ransom degenerated into blackmail. Fifteen centuries earlier, the rabbis of the Talmud had realised that this was a case in which it was necessary to turn for once a deaf ear to suffering, lest a premium be put on the enslavement of Jews. They ordained, accordingly, that no captive be ransomed for more than his economic value. This was a rule to obey which was hard for Jews, ” compassionate sons of compassionate sires,” and generally the price paid for a Jew was higher by far than that of a Moslem. On occasion, the Jews were mercilessly exploited.
The owner of one Judah Surnago, a man of seventy-five whose value in the open market was negligible, was unable to obtain the sum which he demanded in ransom. Thereupon he shut him up naked in a cellar for two months, giving him nothing to eat but black bread and water. The old man came out blind and unable to stand.
While waiting for their repurchase they were allowed to work downtown to make ends meet. They could sell in the streets, but before evening they had to return to the prison. This absence of community made up did not prevent the English writer Christopher Marrow from publishing, into 1590, the Jew of Malta, a topic close to the Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare, evoking a Jewish rich person of Malta. According to Profs. G Wettinger the Jews then present at Malta, prisoners for the majority, who as we said could devote themselves occasionally to trade, could not arrive to the point to constitute a fortune.
In her history of the Order of St. John, Claire-Eliane Engel comments that during the Great Siege, ‘les juifs de Malte avaient ete d’une loyaute au-dessus de tout eloge’ [the Jews of Malta had behaved with a loyalty above all praise].
In the last days of St. Elmo, the Grand Master allowed one final volunteer force to attempt to force their way to the relief of the doomed fort. Anyone who went on such a mission faced certain death, but nevertheless two Jews of the island chose to join the relief expedition, although in the event the boats carrying the would-be volunteers were unable to get past the Turkish cannon and were forced to turn back to Birgu. We must also not forget Joseph Cohen, a Jewish slave who was also a tavern keeper in Valletta. Who overheard Muslim slaves conspiring against the knights in his tavern. The mutiny was to start with the murder of the Grand Master. With great peril of his being found out by the conspirators, he gained an audience with the Grand Master and told him what he had overheard. For his loyalty he was set free from bondage and a house (Monte di Pieta) in Merchants street, Valletta awarded to him in recognition.
Rebirth of the community
With the overthrowing of the Knights by Napoleon in 1798, slavery in Malta was abolished and their prisoners were released. At the invitation of the Maltese, British forces helped them to drive out the occupying French army and Malta came under the protection of the British Flag at the commencement of the nineteenth century.
It then became possible for a free Jewish community to exist once again, and Jewish settlers began to arrive shortly afterwards. The earliest of these came from the British possession of Gibraltar, no doubt with the intention of providing the newly established British army and navy bases in Malta with supplies. There is a record of a small shipload arriving in 1804.
They were soon followed by Jews from other British Mediterranean bases and from North African countries, so that within twenty years or so there was once again a small but thriving community here. They had a small Synagogue at the lower end of the main thoroughfare of Valletta, and there is evidence of Jewish occupation of houses and buildings nearby for business and living purposes.
At that time the number of Jewish residents had risen to about fifty, at which approximate level it seems to have remained until the 1930’s when the last permanent Rabbi was appointed. The modern community was never large enough, either in numbers or means, to build a Synagogue, and there were several changes of rented premises during its nearly two hundred years of existence.
In 1979, in a road widening and slum clearance scheme, the lower tip of Valletta was demolished, including the Synagogue of that day, and for the next five years the community had no house of prayer. At that time Israel had an Embassy in Malta, and the Ambassador very kindly allowed Services on the main festivals to be held there.
In 1984, (On Rosh Has hana 5745), a replacement Synagogue was inaugurated in St. Ursula Street, Valletta, but sadly, due to erosion of foundations in this old part of the city, this too, with a substantial area of surrounding property, had to be demolished in the early part of 1995, and Services were subsequently held in the home of a member.
This was still the position at the start of 1998 when the Community decided to launch an appeal for funds for the acquisition of a replacement Synagogue. The response was fantastic; substantial contributions came in, not only from our members, but also from generous supporters in America and Britain. By the middle of 1999 we had sufficient to purchase a large flat, and to convert it into a Jewish Centre and Synagogue, in time for the High Holyday Services that year and it was consecrated in January 2000. This is the first Property to be owned by a Jewish Community in Malta for over 500 years, and to both comply with Malta Law regarding ownership, and to ensure that it remains within the Jewish sphere of influence for future generations, we have formed “The Jewish Foundation of Malta”, a legal entity, with Robert Eder as its first president.
The Jewish Community of Malta today consists of twenty-five families, many elderly and some with only one remaining member. The Community owns a cemetery dating back to the middle of the last century, and there are the remains of two earlier ones.