A Crypto-Jewish Com­mu­nity in early mod­ern Malta (1602-1612)

Sarah Az­zopardi-Lju­bibratic, Swiss-born, mar­ried to a Mal­tese, was the speaker at a re­cent con­fer­ence held jointly by the Malta His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety, the Malta Univer­sity His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety and Palazzo Fal­son at Palazzo Santa Sofia in Md­ina.

Malta Independent - - LIFESTYLE & CULTURE - Noel Grima writes

It was, as a speaker said, a com­mem­o­ra­tive homage to God­frey Wet­tinger, the late fore­most scholar on Me­dieval Malta. It was a dou­ble-level homage for its con­clu­sion, if I un­der­stood right, showed there was a dis­con­ti­nu­ity not just be­tween pre-Mus­lim Mal­tese Catholics or Chris­tians and post-Nor­man in­va­sion but also one in the his­tory of the Jews in Malta.

The speaker her­self, mar­ried to an Az­zopardi, at the end rather played down the tra­di­tion that the Az­zopar­dis in Malta de­rive from the Sephardi Jews who came to Malta af­ter they were kicked out of Spain in 1492.

The speaker car­ried out her still un­fin­ished re­search on Wet­tinger’s book and also on the re­search by Prof. Frans Ci­ap­para and on for­eign sources.

The Jews were ex­pelled from Malta in 1492 but some tar­ried in Malta till 1495, be­cause of eco­nomic fac­tors, while oth­ers con­verted to Chris­tian­ity or made be­lieve so.

Nev­er­the­less, in Malta in the 17th Cen­tury, we find the phe­nom­e­non known as Mar­ranism, also found in Spain and Por­tu­gal af­ter the Re­con­quista.

It means Jews who pre­tended to be Chris­tians and were even bap­tised yet kept their Jewish re­li­gious prac­tices in se­cret. It shows a so­ci­ety which had a sort of re­li­gious plu­ral­ity, fol­low­ing the rites of the of­fi­cial re­li­gion in pub­lic but then keep­ing the re­li­gious ob­ser­vance of their former re­li­gion in pri­vate.

17th Cen­tury Malta was a mix of peo­ples, es­pe­cially in the har­bour area, with for­eign sailors, gal­ley slaves, traders, sol­diers of for­tune, etc. They spoke in var­i­ous lan­guages and di­alects but un­der­stood each other. It was thus easy to change one’s iden­tity ac­cord­ing to cir­cum­stances.

There were Jews in Malta in that time, but they were mainly slaves kept in a spe­cial prison in what is now the dock­yard, hav­ing even a syn­a­gogue there. There were three pris­ons in Malta at that time – one in Val­letta near MCC, one in Sen­glea and one as said in what later be­came the dock­yard.

But out­side the prison there were peo­ple who of­fi­cially were bap­tised Catholics but se­cretly were Jews. Ev­ery­body was watch­ing these Mar­ra­nos so they were care­ful not to leave traces they were any­thing less than Catholics.

In many re­ports of the In­qui­si­tion in Malta, the speaker found cases of peo­ple who were ac­cused of be­ing se­cret Jews.

Be­ing a Mar­rano meant be­ing al­ways sus­pected.

They had been bap­tised but no force was used, at least phys­i­cal force, but it was quite clear that if they were bap­tised, they would get a whole lot of ad­van­tages, from the work they were made to do, the wage they were given and the things they could do.

It is clear there was a cryp­toJewish com­mu­nity be­tween 1602 and 1612.

The Mar­ra­nos were es­pe­cially watched with re­gards to what were held to be Jewish items in their pos­ses­sion, such as icons, bells, scrolls, etc. They were also watched to see if they kept the Jewish hol­i­days such as the Shab­bat, Yom Kip­pur, Sukkoth and Passover.

The speaker men­tioned cases re­gard­ing Si­mone Spil­letto who seems to have been quite ac­tive in keep­ing con­tacts with Jewish slaves. Cases re­gard­ing him oc­cur in 1611 and 1612.

Af­ter 1624 such cases seem to dis­ap­pear, but that may be be­cause of an ex­em­plary case where an in­di­vid­ual was given life im­pris­on­ment.

Years later, in 1749, Joseph Co­hen, a Jew, who kept a bar, in­formed Grand Master Pinto of a plot he over­heard be­tween an African and To­mas de Ni­cola, a plot later known as the Re­bel­lion of the Slaves.

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