The Jews of Malta
Aline P’nina Tayar
Aline P’nina Tayar, who describes herself as a Maltese Jewish Australian Englishwoman, is the author of How Shall We Sing? A Mediterranean Journey Through a Jewish Family (Sidney: Picador Pan Macmillan Australia, 2000). She contributed this article and accompanying photographs to the Website of Beit Hatfutsot.
Two thousand years ago, when the disciple Paul (still a Jew called Saul) was shipwrecked on a tiny rock off the coast of Malta, he dismissed the local inhabitants as being nothing more than pagans. But a carved menorah in the catacombs of Rabat as well as a Phoenician inscription discovered at the Ggantija temple in Xaghra point to a Jewish presence, which is thought to date back to the Hebrew seafaring tribes of Zebulun and Asher, some one and a half millennia before the future saint’s shipwreck.
That presence remained continuous throughout the centuries during which the archipelago was ruled first by Rome and then by Byzantium. The Arabs, who held Malta from 870 CE to 1090 CE, eradicated Phoenician and gave the Maltese a new Semitic language. During their long rule, Jews often held posts as civil servants and a member of the Jewish community was once appointed Vizier, the highest rank possible.
In 1090, the Normans drove the Arabs out and Malta became a dependency of the Kingdom of Sicily. In the next three hundred years of Norman rule, the Jewish population of the archipelago reached a peak it was never to attain again, with five hundred members living in Malta (one third of the capital Mdina’s population was Jewish at the beginning of the Middle Ages) and three hundred and fifty on the smaller island of Gozo.
Most Jews were shopkeepers or traders, but it was not unusual for them to own agricultural land, and many prospered. They lived side by side with their Christian neighbors and were not confined to ghettos. But they were burdened by the obligation to provide rich gifts each year to high office-holders. The Normans assigned to the Jews of Malta the specific task of providing banners for their royal galleys and lamps for the loggias of the Sicilian palaces.
Arguably the most famous resident of Malta in the Middle Ages was the Spanish-born Jewish mystic Avraham Abulafia. He made his home on barren Comino.At the beginning of the fifteenth century, the Crown of Sicily was combined with the Crown of Aragon and the relative tolerance shown to the Jewish community of Malta was gradually eroded in parallel with the growing antagonism towards Jews in the Iberian Peninsula.
In 1492, when the Edict of Expulsion was issued in Spain, the Royal Council tried to argue that Malta was a special case since the expulsion of the Jews would radically reduce the archipelago’s total population. But, if anything, the Jews of Malta were treated with even less mercy, actually having to pay the Crown compensation for the loss of tributes caused by their forced departure. Upon leaving, each person was allowed to take just one suit of common clothing, a mattress, a pair of worn sheets and a little food for the journey.
No one knows where these exiles went to, but they may have become a part of the Sicilian community, which remained a separate group throughout the Levant. What remains of their presence in Malta are echoes in place names : Bir Meyru (Meyr’s Well), Gnien Lhud (The Jew’s Garden) and Hal Muxi (Moshe’s Farm).
The Knights of Saint John
In 1530, against the payment of an annual rental of one white falcon, The Knights of the Order of Saint John replaced the House of Aragon as Malta’s rulers. As part of their continuous war against the infidel, the Knights would seize ships and take their crew and passengers as hostages. Among these captives there was always a high proportion of Jewish merchants. These prisoners were taken back to Malta and held until such time as a ransom could be raised for their release.
To deal with the Knights’ depredations, Jewish Societies for the Redemption of Captives, the Pidion Shevuim, were now given a more formal status than they had once had in the Middle Ages. From Venice, Livorno and as far away as Amsterdam, these fraternities would send an agent to Malta to provide Jewish prisoners with a small allowance while the Pidion set about bargaining for the prisoners’ release. The Knights practiced a form of extortion, holding out sometimes for years in order to obtain the highest possible ransom. Malta thus became uniquely notorious for having a Jewish population made up principally of slaves. Free Jews wishing to visit the island had to seek permission from the Grand Master of the Order of Saint John and could only enter and leave through what is still known today as the Jews’ Sallyport in the modern capital, Valletta.
In 1792, Napoleon banished the Knights from Malta and the way was now open for free Jews to settle on the island. When he and his army were in turn driven out by the British, more Jewish settlers arrived from Gibraltar, England, North Africa, Portugal and Turkey.
The modern Jewish community of Malta dates back to these times. It is a community that has never reached the population levels of the pre-Expulsion community. In 1846, however, it had grown large enough to invite a Tripolitanian, Josef Tajar, to become the island’s first official rabbi since the days of the Inquisition. His synagogue was located on the main street of Valletta but later moved to premises on Spur Street. A Jewish cemetery dating back to before the Great Siege of 1565 was located at Kalkara.
The community remained mostly poor. When the 1848 revolutions in Hungary, France and Germany brought an influx of indigent Jews to Malta, Rabbi Josef and his congregation, unable to meet the needs of a thus enlarged Jewish population, appealed for funds from the Rabbinate of London. The still extant Pidion also provided money from time to time. As did Sir Joseph Montefiore who had visited Malta with his wife Judith in 1835 when just five Jewish families were living there. At the time, a minyan could only be constituted by rounding up a number of visiting merchants from Morocco, but Lady Judith alone graced the women’s gallery.
For the overwhelmingly Catholic population of Malta, Jews remain a bit of a mystery. Although there are Maltese family names such as Ellul that indicate a Jewish origin, that Jewish connection remains often unknown to its bearers. In the 1890s when a pamphlet was published with the backing of the Archbishop’s Palace re-casting the Blood Libel against the Jews, the Maltese police were quick to intervene to ban the pamphlet, finding its contents repugnant and thus demonstrating a lack of ill will among ordinary people towards the Jewish religion.
From the beginning of the twentieth century, because the community was so small, the island did not always have a rabbi of its own. In the1920s and 30s when the Jewish population rarely exceeded fifty members, a rabbi would be brought in from Sicily for High Holidays, Bar Mitzvahs and other ceremonies celebrating rites of passage. The island occasionally had a shochet, but when such services were not available a semblance of kashrut was maintained by housewives washing meat until it was completely leached of all traces of blood.
As in the nineteenth century, a number of the community’s members were successful businessmen with connections all over the Mediterranean region. A Maltese Jew was British Consul in Sana’a, Yemen in the 1930s. Before World War II a number of Jews fleeing Nazism made their homes in Malta and during the war Maltese Jews fought with the British Army.
In more recent times, the community found itself without a synagogue when the old synagogue in Valletta was demolished as part of a slum clearance scheme in 1979. The cemetery at Tal-Braxja is overgrown with weeds and sorely neglected. Of the island’s twenty-five resident Jewish families, many are very old, their children and grandchildren having left to settle in other parts of the world.
But, there are signs of renewal. In January 2000, thanks to the support of donors in the UK and US, a new Synagogue was consecrated and this as well as a Jewish Centre are now managed by The Jewish Foundation of Malta (President: Robert Eder). Morning services are held on Shabbat and on the first days of the principal Jewish festivals.
Abraham Ohayon is the current President of the Community. The Treasurer is Stanley L. Davis, OBE. In 2013 the Chabad Jewish Center in Malta was founded by rabbi Haim Shalom and rabbi Haya Moshka Segal.
- ROTH, Cecil, The Jews of Malta. Paper read to the Jewish Historical Society of England, 28 March, 1928
- TAYAR, Aline P’nina Tayar, How Shall We Sing?: A Mediterranean Journey Through a Jewish Family, Pan Macmillan/Picador Australia, 2000
- WETTINGER, Godfrey, The Jews of Malta in the Late Middle Ages, Midsea Books Limited, Malta, 1985