28 January 2022

An Elizabethan play and
finding the Jews’ Gate and
the Jewish legacy of Valletta

The Jews’ Gate in Valletta … a reminder of the restrictions placed on Jews in Malta in the 16th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

This week, Holocaust Memorial Day was marked yesterday (27 January 2022). While I was in Malta last week, I went in search of the stories of the Jews of Malta, visiting the site of the mediaeval synagogue in the ancient capital of Mdina, and asking questions about the treatment of Jews in Valletta in the years immediately after the Inquisition.

The Jew of Malta is a play by the Elizabethan dramatist Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), written in 1589 or 1590. The full title of the play is The Famous Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta and the plot primarily revolves around Barabas, a Maltese Jewish merchant.

The original story is set on the island of Malta and combines religious conflict, intrigue, and revenge, set against a backdrop of the struggle for supremacy between Spain and the Ottoman Empire in the Mediterranean.

Of course, The Jew of Malta is often referred to in discussions about antisemitism and there is much debate about the play’s portrayal of Jews and how Elizabethan audiences viewed it. Did Marlowe intended to promote antisemitism in The Jew of Malta?

Some critics suggest Marlowe was falling back on antisemitic feelings of the day and made the Jews incidental to the social critique he offered. In other words, they say, he used antisemitism as a rhetorical tool rather than advocating it. But Marlowe fails to stand back from antisemitism and so becomes its advocate.

Barabas is characterised in expressions of antisemitism found throughout history, including many references to his large nose.

Marlowe could never have known Malta, still less could he have known whether it had a Jewish community. So, after searching last week for the remains of the mediaeval synagogue in Mdina, the ancient capital of Malta, I went in search of evidence of the presence of a Jewish community in the Valletta, where I was staying.

Valletta was founded in 1566 and was established as the capital of Malta in 1571, less than two decades before Marlowe wrote The Jew of Malta. By the late 16th century – at the time Marlow was writing his play – many Jewish merchants were living in Valletta, and there is evidence of this in the special gate for Jews in the city wall, called the Jews’ Sally Port.

But the Jewish presence in Malta predates the arrival of the Order of Saint John or the Knights of Malta. An important writer in Jewish culture, Rabbi Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia (1240-1291), the founder of the school of Prophetic Kabbalah, lived on the island of Comino, between Gozo and Malta, as an exile or prisoner about 750 years ago. He was the author of over 50 books, including, Imrey Shefer and Gan Na’ul, both written while he was a prisoner on the island.

Rabbi Abulafia was born in Zaragoza in Spain, and in his early life he lived in Sicily, where he developed and refined a trend of Kabbalah, giving it the name ‘prophetic stream.’ The Rabbi Rashba, who was the leaders of another trend of Kabbalah, imposed a boycott on Rabbi Abulafia and his followers.

Rabbi Abulafia moved from Sicily to Acre, where he had a vision to convert Pope Nicholas III (1225-1280) to Judaism. The Pope was in Suriano when he heard of the plan, and he issued orders to ‘burn the fanatic’ as soon as he arrived. A special platform was prepared for burning him to death publicly.

The stake was erected in preparation close to the inner gate. But Rabbi Abulafia continued his journey to Suriano and reached there on 22 August, the evening of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year in 1280. But, as he passed through the outer gate, Rabbi Abulafia learned that Pope Nicholas had died from an apoplectic stroke the night before.

The cardinals were stunned. Could this be a sign of God? They did not dare to kill him, yet they hesitated to release him. Rabbi Abulafia returned to Rome, where he was thrown into prison by Franciscan friars.

He was freed after four weeks in detention, and was next heard of in Sicily. He remained active in Messina for a decade (1281-1291), presenting himself as a prophet and messiah. He had several students there as well as some in Palermo. The local Jewish congregation in Palermo energetically condemned Abulafia’s conduct, and around 1285 they addressed the issue to Shlomo ben Aderet of Barcelona, who devoted much of his career to calming the various messianic hysteriae of the day.

Shlomo ben Aderet later wrote a letter condemning Abulafia. This controversy was one of the principal reasons for the exclusion of Abulafia’s Kabbalah from the Spanish schools.

Abulafia had to take up the pilgrim’s staff anew, and under distressing conditions he compiled his Sefer haOt (‘Book of the Sign’) on the island of Comino, near Malta, between 1285 and 1288. Comino served as a kind of open prison, and there in 1291, he wrote his last, and perhaps his most intelligible work, the meditation manual Imrei Shefer (‘Words of Beauty’).

All trace of him is lost after this. He probably died on Comino in 1291, but his burial place is unknown.

Free Jews who wished to visit Malta had to enter Valletta through one small port known to this day as the Jews’ Sally Port (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Later, as Malta was ceded to the Order of Saint John or Knights of Malta by the Spanish kings of Sicily, Sicilian conversos or secret Jews moved to Malta, attracted perhaps by the liberal policy of the Knights towards the Jews of Rhodes. However, they had to continue practicing Judaism in secret.

Malta is frequently referred to in Jewish literature of the period for its large enslaved Jewish population. The Knights would capture Jews and Muslims during pirating raids against Ottoman merchant ships and coastal towns, and keep them hostage in the bagnos or prisons of Birgu, Valletta or Senglea, to extort ransom.

Jewish Societies for the Redemption of Captives (Pidion Shevuim) raised the ransom demands among Jewish communities across Europe, including those in Livorno, London and Amsterdam. The practice was so widespread that the Jewish community of Livorno in Italy had a full-time representative in Malta who dealt only with the redemption of prisoners. The negotiations often lasted several months. Some Jewish prisoners died in captivity and were buried in a special section in the cemetery in Kallkara.

Jews who were not rescued were often sold as indentured servants and given a Christian name, to be freed by their masters only on their deathbed. Those Jews – particularly women – who practised as healers and diviners often faced the Inquisition.

Free Jews who wished to visit Malta needed a special permit from the Grand Master of the Order of Saint John and had to enter Valletta’s walls through one small port near the Auberge de Baviere, known to this day as the Jews’ Sally Port.

South-east of Valletta, the small city of Birgu once had a Jewish ghetto and a Jewish community of about 400 people. One of the three gates in the city walls there is also known as the Jews’ Sally Port, and Jews could enter and leave Birgu only through this gate. The steps from the Jewish Sally Port lead up to the area where the Jewish ghetto once was, and a sign on one house reads Triq tal-Lhud, ‘Jewish Street.’

The Jewish community in Malta today has about 250 members, but the president of the community, Reuven Ohayon, thinks there may twice that many Jews who prefer to hide their Jewish identity. Two synagogues are active in Malta and there are three Jewish cemeteries, including the cemetery in the town of Kallkara.

The Chabad House in San Julian was opened by Rabbi Haim Segal, and includes L’Chaim, a kosher restaurant, although it seemed to be closed last week when I was passing through San Julian.

Meanwhile, about 500 years after his death, the boycott of Rabbi Abulafia and his works was cancelled by Rabbi Haim Yosef David Azulai ben Yitzhak Zerachia (1724-1806), commonly known as the Hida, a Jerusalem-born rabbinical scholar and a pioneer in the publication of Jewish religious writings.

Shabbat Shalom

A sign at the Jews’ Gate in Valletta points to the small harbour known as the Jews’ Sally Port (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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