generally recognised chief authority concerning the history of the Jewish
presence in Malta was the late Dr. Cecil Roth, and the most comprehensive
work is his paper "The Jews of Malta", which he read to the Jewish Historical
Society of England in March 1928, and which was published in the volume
of transactions of that Society for the years 1923-31. This volume will
be found in most libraries which have a Jewish section.
Roth suggests that the Jews will almost certainly have come to Malta with
the ancient Phoenicians, the ruins of whose settlements are found throughout
the Maltese Islands. There is no question that there were Jews here during
the Roman occupation period, as burial catacombs in Rabat, bearing carved
representations of a Menorah and other Jewish symbols have survived to
the present day. In the same area, a medieval gravestone has been unearthed
with incised Hebrew lettering, though not identifiable.
on the latter period has recently been published by local historian Prof.
Godfrey Wettinger, entitled "The Jews of Malta in the late Middle Ages",
(Mid Sea Books Ltd., Malta). Prof. Weflinger has had access to original
Hebrew documents dating back to the thirteenth century, in the archives
of the old capital city Medina, which show that in the second half of
the fifteenth century roughly a third of the population of that city was
Jewish, and that these Jews owned land and property throughout Malta.
he example set by the expulsion
of the Jews from Spain in 1492 was unfortunately followed by many Christian
countries bordering the Mediterranean and after some delays and postponements
the Jews of Malta were ordered to convert to Christianity or leave the
island, in 1496. A number did in fact convert and stayed on, these, and
their descendants, being, as far as is known, the only inhabitants of
Malta of Jewish origin, between the expulsion and the development of slavery
for ransom by the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, a few years after
they took over Malta as their headquarters in 1530.
rom that point on, until the
surrender of the Knights to Napoleon in 1798, there nearly always were
a number of Jewish slave/prisoners in Malta awaiting payment of ransom.
At the beginning, these were kept in a slaves' prison in the original
Knight's headquarters city of Vittoriosa, but a larger one was built later
in the new city of Valletta. Able bodied Jews were allowed out to work
or to act as street traders during the daytime, but they had to return
to the prison at night.
n Inquisitor was appointed
to Malta and the original records of the Court of Inquisition from 1580
until 1780 are still held in the Cathedral Museum in Mdina. Around one
hundred of the cases on record involve Jewish defendants from the slave/
prisoners of the Knights, charged with such offences as blasphemy and
apostasy down to sorcery. Sentences by the Inquisitors in Malta were usually
fairly mild, the worst seem to have been short terms of imprisonment or
a few lashes. Unlike the Spanish Inquisition, no one seems to have been
sentenced to death.
he Jewish communities of Venice
and Leghorn in the neighbouring country of Italy, were the main channels
through which negotiations for the release of these prisoners were conducted,
and money collected from other communities all over Europe was paid for
their ransom. This seems to have become a highly organised arrangement,
well before the end of the sixteenth century, and these two communities
maintained a resident agent in Malta whose responsibility it was to bargain
with, and make payment to, the Knights, and to arrange for the safe conduct
from Malta of the redeemed prisoners. Although these agents were not themselves
Jewish, the Communities entrusted to their care equipment for religious
observance. This, according to Dr. Roth, included such items as Prayer
Books, Tephiliniin, and Talitim, (Phylacteries and Prayer Shawls). There
was also a Sepher Torah or scroll of the law, but this they were only
empowered to release when a minimum of ten male Jewish prisoners was being
held captive, this being a Minyan or the quorum required for the holding
of a full Jewish religious Service.
ith 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
t 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.
hey 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.
t 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.
n 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
n 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.
his 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.
he Jewish Community of Malta
today consists of twenty-five families, many elderly and some with only
one remaining member. There have been no new immigrants for several years,
but we have several small children, including a set of quadruplets, (the
first ever recorded in Maltese Jewish History), and in these children
lies our hope for the future. We hold Morning Services on Shabbat and
on the first days of the main festivals.
he present President of the
Community is Mr. Abraham Ch. Ohayon, a Maltese manufacturer, and the Hon.
Secretary is Mr. Stanley L. Davis, a retired British business man who
has lived in Malta for over 30 years. We are an unusual mixture of Sephardi,
Askenazi, Orthodox, Reform, and Liberal, which manages to co-exist quite
happily, in an atmosphere of tolerance towards our differences. We import
Matzos and kosher wine for Pesach.
he Community owns a cemetery
dating back to the middle of the last century, and there are the remains
of two earlier ones. We do not have a Minister nor indeed any paid staff,
but we are fortunate in having members who can conduct our Services.
Stanley L. Davis,O.B.E.