Malta and the Jewish Connection
With some degree of acceptance, one may state that St Paul, who, while journeying to Rome was shipwrecked on Malta’s shores in 60 A.D., is the most prominent Jew ever to set foot on the islands. Born in Tarsus, Turkey, his family had moved to Jerusalem, where he was raised as a student of the Jewish scriptures. In 2 Corinthians 11:22, he claims that he is Hebrew, an Israelite and a descendant of Abraham. In Philippians 3:5, he also claims to having been a ‘Hebrew born of a Hebrew’ meaning his parents were Jews of Palestine. He also says he had been a Pharisee.
Following the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D. and the rebellion of Bar Kohba in 132 – 134 A.D., the Jewish people were compelled to disperse from their homeland and seek new settlements in Europe and elsewhere across the Mediterrenean. Sicily, North Africa and Malta where regional commerce thrived must have lured some to stay and settle here. Then again some may have settled in Malta even earlier. But for the present this is all plain conjecture.
In his collection of essays on Maltese Palaeo-Christian catacombs, (2014), Mario Buhagiar states that in the 4th / 5th centuries A.D., a Hellenised Jewish community was well established in Malta, headed by a council of elders (gerousia). A gerousiarch – (the leader of the council) is mentioned in an inscription found in catacomb no. 13, inside the St Agatha underground cemetery at Rabat, Malta. Indeed, in the St Paul and the St Agatha complexes of catacombs there were found six burial units that belonged to Jewish families. These units, each containing a dozen or so tombs, are amidst a cluster of some thirty units of varying sizes, hewn out of the rock on what was once virgin land located just outside the peripheral walls of Malta’s capital, Melita. In each of these catacombs there is a single graffiti of a menorah, the seven branched candlestick, an ever present Jewish symbol that symbolises ‘eternal light’. The presence of such Jewish burials, lying side by side with Christian and pagan ones, attests to the social convivance of these three faiths during the late Roman and Byzantine period. One may assume that this status quo lasted at least from the 3rd to the 7th centuries A.D. Buhagiar estimates that the Jewish community in Malta at this time might have hovered at around 300 persons in all.
During the Arab period, that is, in between 870 A.D. and the mid-twelfth century, there is no mention of Jews living in Malta in the scanty documentation of the period. Nevertheless, the present negative evidence does not totally exlude such possibility. In order to obtain some inkling as to the situation in Malta at the time, one must refer to the archives in Palermo, and note what the situation was like in Sicily, Malta then belonging to the Sicilian domain. In his opus, A History of Muslim Sicily, Leonard Chiarelli, tells us that, under Arab rule, both Christians and Jews co-existed peacefully. Like the Christian subjects, Jews were regarded as dhimmi (protected people) and they paid their poll tax – the jysiah, and their kharaj, the land or income tax. Their dhimmi status allowed the Jews and Christians to practice their religion, do business and own landed property.
When the Norman Count Roger conquered Sicily in 1072, the status of Christians and Arabs in Sicily was reversed, while that of the Jews remained the same. The Jews still paid taxes but to the new overlord. When in 1091, Count Roger landed in Malta in a show of force meant to intimidate and subjugate the local leaders, he simply liberated the Christian slaves. Otherwise life in Malta remained the same. It was only in 1127, when Roger’s son, Roger II, enforced a direct Norman rule on the Maltese islands, that Christians and Jews were to abide to the Norman administrative system. Nevertheless, the majority of the Maltese population adhered to their Muslim faith and practices for a long time afterwards. Any contemporary documentation or archaeological finds related to the presence of a Jewish community at this time is conspicious by its absence.
Following the Norman period, for the next half century or so, between 1198 and 1250 A.D., Malta was under the Swabian Emperor Frederick II, (stupor mundi) who similar to his predecessors ruled Malta from Palermo. In 1241, Gilibertus Abbate, an administrative secretary in charge of finance and landed property, claimed that there were a mere 25 Jewish families in Malta and 8 other in Gozo. This was a negligible amount when considering that there were 681 Muslim families in Malta and 155 in Gozo. Christian families (debatably) totalled 1,047 in Malta and 203 in Gozo.
An outstanding Jew that is referred to by historians from this period is Avraham ben Shmuel Abulafia (1240 – d. after 1291), a 13th century mystic rabbi from Zaragoza, Spain who founded the school of the ‘Prophetic Kabbala’. During his missionary wanderings in Europe he claimed to be a Jewish prophet and a messiah. In 1280, he even went to Rome to convert Pope Nicholas III to Judaism! In response, the Pope issued an edict to burn the heretic to death. The latter fled the scene. After a ten year stay in Messina and condemned by the Jews of Palermo, Abulafia was exiled to Malta where he lived as hermit on the island of Comino for many years. There he wrote his book of philosophical thoughts – the Sefer haOt – ‘Book of the Sign’.
Turning the clock fast forward to the first two decades of the 15th century, we come across a very precious document that provides an insight into the set-up of the Maltese population at the time. This is the so called Militia List of 1419 – 1420, a register in which there are listed all the names of all males, aged between 16 and 65, in Malta, (but not those of Birgu and the island of Gozo), who were to carry out military duty in the defence of the island. In the register there is a column titled, Civitas / la Giudecca (a reference to the Jewish community living inside Mdina), where there are the names of 57 conscripted Jews.
The fact that the list of Jews was sub-headed as la Giudecca is revealing, insofar that it infers that the Jews living in Mdina were treated as a distinct ethnic group. At the same time, their eligibility for conscription for military duty confirms that Jews were not treated much differently than the rest.
Were the number of conscripts to be multiplied by six (1: 6 is the favoured ratio by Wettinger in drawing a realistic estimate for the average family unit) then one may assume that the Jewish population of Malta was somewhere in the region of 350. This from an estimated figure of c. 1,667 families, and so a total population of some 10,000 .
The names and surnames on the Giudecca list are very traditionally Jewish. There are surnames such as Ibrahimi, Meyr or Mejr; a Melj, a Nefusi and a Levi to mention a few. Other names such as Catalanu and a Ruben de Marsilia, infer to the diversity of the countries of origin wherefrom such families might have originated, possibly generations earlier. A Cohen appears in the Militia List of 1425.
Ellul is another surname that could be attributed to Jewish families. In Hebrew this is a first name, as well as the name of the sixth month of the Jewish calendar (August – September). The militia list contains ten Ellul or Hellul families, hailing from various towns and villages but none from Mdina, except one Xellul, which in Spanish might have been similarly pronounced. The fact that these individual families were living in rural areas, strongly hints that they were not Jewish. This does not exlude that some Jews were involved in agriculture and related trades.
In 1492, the Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille, (consanguinal cousins married in 1469) issued an edict that demanded that all Jews in their domain convert to Christianity or else face banishment. Malta, then ruled by these Iberian monarchs through their viceroys in Sicily, was not spared and thus, most, if not all Jewish families were exiled from the Maltese archipelago.
The Jews and the Order of St John (1530 – 1798)
In 1530, the Order of St John, which had originated in Jerusalem, was ceded the Maltese islands by Charles V of Spain. From now on, the Jews mentioned are those that were captured from time to time during corsairing raids, conducted by the Order against Ottoman vessels and coastal towns. Jews that were captured alongside, Turkish and Moorish ones were meted out similar treatment, that is, chained from their ankles and so on. They were either kept in one of the bagnos (prisons) in Valletta, Birgu or Senglea, to serve the Order, or else sold to rich individuals. More than the Moors, captive Jews were considered as potentially prized commercial assets, not so much for the local slave market value, as much as the ransom price they would fetch were their purportedly rich families to buy back their freedom.
Many Jews and Muslims were given a Christian name and allowed to roam free in the towns and villages, as they ran errands for their masters. Such slaves were renouned for plying their trade by offering their services as healers, (but not as licensed doctors), and as vendors of magic potions, cum, sourcerers, by reading prayers from their own literature. Indeed, these peddlers were repeatedly reported to the Inquisitor and punished for practising and spreading beliefs alien to the Catholic faith.
Throughout this period there were plenty of Muslim and Jewish slaves who were subsequently freed. Such freedom was more often than not conceded to them by their masters as an act of generosity, as the latter lay on their death bed; a conscientious act prior to meeting their Maker.
In 1749, Giuseppe Antonio Cohen, a recently baptised Jew who owned a tavern near the slave prison in Valletta, rose to eternal fame. A brawl had broken out in his tavern between a Muslim slave and a Maltese, named Giacomo Cassar, then employed as a soldier by the Order of St John. The slave failing to bribe the latter as an accomplice in a plot to bring down the Order of St John, at one point flew into a rage and struck Cassar. This made Cassar confide to Cohen his knowledge about the plot to the Order’s officials. The plotters were to command hundreds of local Muslim slaves as well as to seek the military intervention of the beys of various Mediterrenean towns to take over the island. Cohen immediately reported this information to the authorities, and for his timely revelation he received a handsome reward in the form of a perpetual pension and a house in Strada San Giacomo (Merchants street).
British Rule (1800 – 1964) – up to Present
Throughout the British period, starting from the early 19th century, the number of Jewish settlers in Malta remained a constant two digit figure. The Jews known to have been living in Malta at one time or other hailed either from the United Kingdom directly, or else from its world wide dependencies. There was never a proper synagogue, always a private residence where the community met to pray. For a long time, the small Jewish community met for prayers inside a residence located in Triq l-Ixprun (Spur Street), a small alley not far away from the Valletta ring road close to Fort St Elmo. This may well be the reason why a short distance away there is an opening inside the city walls, that connects to the rocky beach below, known as ‘Jewish Sally Port’. The origin of this toponym however, requires further investigation.
Malta’s present Jewish community is made up of Sephardi, Askenazi, Orthodox, Reform and Liberal members. In spite of this small number of Jewish residents throughout the British period, there were three Jewish cemeteries in use at one time or another. The oldest is located in the harbour town of Kalkara; the second is tucked away in part of the Ta’ Braxia Cemetery, outside Floriana, and the third is in Marsa, located side by side with the so called Turkish Cemetery.
The present Jewish community remains small. Its members meet for prayers in a synagogue at Ta’ Xbiex. Presently there are three Rabbis, two of whom provide spiritual attention to the small Jewish community in one way or other, namely, Reuben Ohayon who is the acting Rabbi among the community members. Chaim Segal runs the Chabad Jewish outreach centre, the third is Rabbi, Dov Beer Riger Ha Cohen who is more of a temporary resident, as he is on and off the island.
The synagogue is regularly visited for prayers by foreign visitors, very often tourists, who profess the Jewish faith. For updated information on the services and activities held please click here:
14th August 2020
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Special thanks to Mr. Damon Camilleri Allan of the Tayar Foundation for Jewish Heritage in Malta, for his information on the Jewish community presently in Malta and for the photos of the Marsa Jewish cemetery.
Bibliography Buhagiar Mario, Essays on the Archaeology and Ancient History of the Maltese Islands - Bronze Age to Byzantne. Midsea Books Ltd. 2014. Cassar Carmel, ‘The Jewesses of Malta: Slaves, Peddlers, Healers, Diviners’, Studi sull’ Oriente Cristiano. 2013. Cassar Mario, The Surnames of the Maltese Islands-An Etimological Dictionary. Book Distributors Ltd, 2003. Chiarelli Leonard C., A History of Muslim Sicily. Midsea Books. 2010. Dalli Charles, Malta - The Medieval Millenium, Midsea Books Ltd. 2006. Davis Stanley, The Jews in Malta, http://jewsofmalta.org/history.htm Luttrell Anthony T., An Approach to Malta’s Medieval History. The British School, at Rome -London. 1975. Mallia Milanes Victor (Ed.) Hospitaller Malta 1530-1798. Mireva Publications, 1993. Testa Carmelo, The Life and Times of Grand Master Pinto. Midsea Books, 1989. Wettinger Godfrey, ‘The Militia List, 1419-1421’, Melita Historica, Vol VIII,1969. Wettinger Godfrey, ‘Distribution in Malta of Surnames in 1419 and the 1480’s’ Journal of Maltese Studies, 1968.
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You may be interested to read about another facet of Maltese social history …. and that is the history of humour in Malta …. plse click here:
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