The Malta Independent 20 April 2024, Saturday
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Hidden traces of Jewish presence in mediaeval Malta

Malta Independent Monday, 10 February 2014, 09:00 Last update: about 11 years ago

Christopher Marlowe may have written about an (apocryphal) Jew of Malta but there are very few traces of a Jewish presence in Malta in the Middle Ages.

This was the thesis espoused by Charles Dalli, a lecturer in mediaeval history at the university, at a rather sparsely-attended event held at the Mediterranean Conference Centre last week to launch the joint Malta-Israel stamp.

Nevertheless, despite the dearth of written sources, it is still possible to find traces of a Jewish presence in the country all those years ago.

It would seem that in around 1492, when the Jews were being expelled from Spain, there were at least two Jewish communities in Malta, one of which was in Gozo, together with a smaller community in Birgu, with its own synagogue. At around that time, too, a quarter of the population of Mdina was Jewish.

Details about the Jewish presence emerge from court papers, some filed in Sicily and others with the church tribunal. Other details emerge from notarial archives.

There are also some archaeological remains of the Jewish presence such as their burial places which, in turn, imply some sort of community organisation. The Jews preferred hypogeal as their preferred method of burial and in 1372 they were given land outside Rabat for this purpose. According to recent studies, a menorah marks the tomb of a certain Dionysia/Irene. There is also what can be a reference to a council of elders.

It would seem that the majority of the Jews who came to Malta were from Tunis, especially the Djerba area where the Jewish presence is historical. But in reality, the Jews were mostly traders and travelled all over the Mediterranean, using the ports and trading centres.

The poll tax records of the late 13th century show that Jews were in a tiny minority, some three per cent of the 1,119 families in Malta. Having to pay the poll tax clearly demonstrates that they were treated as a minority, but at that point they were not treated as slaves. On the contrary, as a Royal Reply by Ferdinand II in 1240 stated, they were “in perpetual servitude” but were slaves of the King.

By the 15th century, they had come to be treated as citizens of Malta, to the extent of, in one case at least, owning slaves themselves.

Undoubtedly, the most famous Jewish resident of Malta was the Kabalist Abraham Abulafia who in 1291 escaped from Sicily and lived as a hermit on Comino where he wrote some of his most important books and where he taught his disciples.

By the 14th Century, the Jews in Malta had begun to trade with Sicily and some Jews in Sicily even had the ‘de Malta’ added to their name.

Interestingly and quite intriguing, we find traces of Jews asking for a divorce and this was decided by the Bishop of Palermo who was the highest churchman with Malta under his responsibility.

We also find that Jews were employed by the King of Sicily to collect taxes.

Court papers tell of legal conflicts between, for instance, a Jew and the Archdeacon of Mdina. Such cases would be dealt with in church tribunals and also by the King of Sicily.

As time went by, the situation of the Jews in Malta became worse and the pressure on them to convert to Christianity became more intense. We thus find the story of a Sephardi rabbi, a doctor and a nobleman who, in a legal case, was accused by a fellow Jew of being a “fallen Jew”, that is, one who had converted to Christianity. Ironically, this case was dealt with in the bishop’s court. The rabbi later used this same court to divorce his wife.

The Jewish presence in Malta can also be found in some place names such as Wardija or Hal Luqa. (In Malta, place names invariably relate to a person). Some surnames are also derived from this Jewish presence, such as Cassar, Vinci, Deguara, Said, Cohen, Meli, Lia, Tabone and, of course, Ellul (the seventh Jewish month). (Rather surprisingly, Mr Dalli did not mention ‘Azzopardi’ which is believed by many to be derived from ‘Sephardi’).

However, there is no real basis for the legend that the north of Malta was reserved for Jews, the central part for Maltese and other Christians and the southern part for Muslims.

Perhaps the strongest sign of the Jewish presence in Malta is the Maltese language itself, which, it is now clear, derives from the Siculo-Arabic spoken by the Jewish diaspora that flowed from Malta to Sicily.

In 1531, the Jews faced expulsion from Malta as this was one of the conditions for the Knights of St John being granted Malta, (“to free Sicily from heretics”). Like the Muslims, they were thrown into prison and Birgu prison even had its own synagogue.

In Mdina, the Jews used to live in the area known as ‘La Rocca’, on the north-western part of the city. But this was the area most affected by the 1693 earthquake. The property owned by the Jews was taken from them and given to the nuns of Santa Scholastica first of Birgu and later of Valletta.

Apart from Abulafia, the other most famous Jew of Malta was Rafel Khatib who, on his conversion to Christianity, took the surname ‘Caxaro’. He was directly related to Pietro Caxaro, the author of the Cantilena, the first known Maltese poem.

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