The History Of The Jewish Community Of Malta.

The Jews In Malta


he 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.

Dr. 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.


book 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.

The 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.

From 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.

The 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.

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.


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.

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.


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 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.


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 in 1979.

The 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.

The former 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.

The 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.