The Jews of Malta

By Barbara Kingstone

From what Stanley Davis OBE., the Jewish community’s secretary, tells me, Jewish travelers are always phoning to learn about the Jews of Malta, that island with a population of 300,000 and a stepping stone between Europe and North Africa. I, too, wanted to discuss Jewish life in this predominantly Catholic country known for its close association with the Knights of the Order of St. John, The Knights of Malta, who were not know for their fondness of Jews.

Abram Ohayon, the recently elected prescient of the Jewish Community ( was visited the island in 1998) wasn’t available so Mr. Davis, agreed to a telephone interview since, “it really didn’t merit a meeting.” Nothing put me off but their indifference was somewhat disconcerting.

By the early 19th century about 100 Jews had settled in Malta but by 1927 only six families remained. Now with approximately 25 families, may not observant, regular activities such as morning prayers are not possible. Years ago there was a synagogue in the center of the capital, Valletta, But due to re-appropriation of the land on the main thoroughfare, Republic Street, the synagogue disappeared with the harsh pounce of the destruction ball. It has been replaced. Then instead, various members’ homes were used for High Holidays get-togethers. Shabbat services take place the first Saturday of each month. The good news is that not too long ago, there was one Bar Mitzvah held in a member’s home followed by the traditional Kiddish.

“It’s a Jewish wilderness and quite a job getting a minyin,” Mr. Davis tells me. Once a Sephardic community, now Askenazi are part of the picture which include Orthodox, Conservative and Reform denominations. “We’re so small that we’re just happy to be together,”

As for the British born Mr. Davis, he tells me he came to Malta a few decades ago and the reason had nothing to do with religion. “I liked the climate,” he says mater-of-factly. As far as he’s concerned since his arrival, there have not been any incidents of anti-Semitism. “they don’t even know the difference here or for that matter know what a Jew is.: The conservation ends but not before he tells me there has been a strong fundraising effort to build a much-needed synagogue. Obviously, it was a most successful drive.

All this just didn’t seem enough for me so I set up a meeting with Maltese born Prof. Godfrey Wettinger at his office at the University of Malta. An historian and author of “The Jewish in Malta in the late Middle Ages”, Wettinger was able to have access to original Hebrew documents from the 13th century. In the archives of the old capital City, Mdina, the documents show that in the second half of the 15th century, approximately a third of the population in Mdina were Jews. A non-Jew, Prof. Wettinger’s interest in the Jewish faction was an accident of research and a lingering curiosity. “The records show that archaeological remains in a cemetery included a menorah which is still visible,” he tells me. In his paper, The Jews of Malta, published in 1928, the late Dr. Cecil Roth suggested that Jews had a presence during the Roman occupation period. And “certainly came to Malta with the ancient Phoenicians.”.

In his historical vignette, the Maltese historian Dr. Paul Cassar, mentions the presence of Jews in the first centuries AD and refers to Jewish burials in the catacombs of Rabat, a suburb of the old capital of Mdina. A Jewish cemetery was eventually established in 1784 by the English based Leghorn Fund which also funded the ransoming of Jewish slaves. This cemetery was replaced in the 19th century by Ta’Braxia in Pieta.

Cassar says with certainty, that in the 13th century, Jews formed an important element of the Maltese community as physicians. The earliest known Jewish doctor was Braccone Safaradi of Gozo, an island part of Malta, only five nautical miles from its bigger sister. It also seems that at that time, the Maltese Jews were in frequent contact with the Sicilian Jews, Sicily being only 58 miles away. Other Jewish physicians, Abraham Saba and Zema Girbi were colleagues and the latter was elected President of the Jewish community in 1486.

When the Knights of the Order of St. John arrived in 1530, persecution became intense as Jews were considered “a curse” and often held for ransom. By the end of the 15th century, all Jews were compelled to wear a wheel-shaped badge made of red cloths. The animosity towards them reached a climax the same time the Spanish royalty expelled or made their Jewish population convert to Christianity in 1492. The Jews returned to Malta in the 15th century as slaves for the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. Since Jewish slaves could be ransomed, the community in London England in 1768 sent the large sum of 80 pounds sterling for the freedom of ‘no fewer than 14 Jews.’

However, all that changed with the surrender of the Knights to Napoleon Bonaparte in 1789 who gave Jews their freedom. Then the population prospered as jewellers and manufacturers. “By the mid 18th century, there were two classes of Jews in Malta, “Cassar reports. “Those who came for short stays as traders but only with the consent of the Order and those who were captives from captured Turkish and Barbary corsairs by the Order’s galleys.

On my visit I was shown areas where Jews had been restricted to live and world. There are still small remnants in Valletta, Birgu and Senglea and some streets (in Valletta and Birgu) still bear the names of prominent Jews. An important fact that Cassar points out is that the English poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe’s. ‘The Jew of Malta’ has no historical basis. It seems a shame that this sun-drenched island hasn’t attracted more Jews to override the often painful history. But in the meantime, the few who have opted to settle in Malta, have continued as much as possible, the continuity of our long heritage.