Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean, S.W. of the Italian peninsula.
There were probably Jews living in Sicily in the period of the Second Temple; the great Jewish rhetorician *Caecilius of Calacte moved from Sicily to Rome about 50 C.E., and the epigraphic records start in the third century. Even later than this, records are scarce. In 590 Pope *Gregory the Great ordered the ecclesiastical authorities to reimburse the Jews of *Palermo for the damage suffered by the expropriation of their synagogue. Following the conquest of *Syracuse , the Arabs, in 878, took many Jewish captives to Palermo. In a privilege granted after the Norman conquest by Roger I in 1094, Jews are mentioned as residents of Naso. In subsequent records Jews are mentioned in Syracuse, *Messina , and *Catania . *Benjamin of Tudela (c. 1171) mentions the existence of Jewish communities in Palermo and Messina. *Frederick II protected the Jews from persecution during the Crusades and entrusted them with some state monopolies, such as silk weaving and dyeing; he also freed them from ecclesiastical jurisdiction. An edict of 1310 issued by Frederick II of Aragon (1296–1337) prohibited Jews from practicing as physicians and holding public office; they were also forbidden to have Christian servants. A decree of Frederick III (November 1375) limited the jurisdiction of the *Inquisition over the Jews of Syracuse and stipulated that Jews could not be tried by that tribunal unless a secular judge was present. If a Jew was sentenced, he could not be detained in the prisons of the Inquisition but only in a state prison.
Although King Martin V of Aragon, who ruled Sicily from 1392 to 1410, was well disposed toward the Jews and restrained any outrage against them, he could not prevent the forced conversion of the Jews of Monte San Giuliano in 1392, when some of them were massacred; however, he punished those responsible. Jews in Sicily were frequently blamed for fictitious crimes and had to make amends by paying large sums of money, as happened in Catania in 1406. During the reign of Alfonso V (1416–58) the Sicilian Jews prospered. The restrictive regulations confining Jewish residence to ghettos and forced conversions were repealed by the sovereign, who also allowed Jewish physicians to practice their profession among Christians, confirmed the right of Jews to own real estate, and forbade the preaching of compulsory conversionist sermons to the Jews. In 1474 360 Jews, including men, women, and children, perished in a bloody massacre at Modica. Another massacre took place in Noto, where 500 Jews are said to have lost their lives. Subsequently acts of violence against the Jews alternated with measures to protect the communities.
Under the Saracens the Jews lived in conditions of semi-liberty and were subject to the payment of special taxes, the kharāj and jizya. Under Norman rule (from the second half of the 11th century) they enjoyed judicial autonomy and could settle their disputes in accordance with Jewish law; they were permitted to own property (with the exception of Christian slaves); at times the sovereign ceded his rights to the bishops.
Although the Jews of Sicily enjoyed civil rights, they were formally considered *servi camerae regis ("servants of the royal chamber") under Frederick II Hohenstaufen, and they enjoyed royal protection. In 1395, under King Martin, Jewish jurisdiction, with limited competence, was extended to the whole of Sicily by the appointment of a Jewish chief judge ( *dienchelele ). The first two chief judges were members of the Syracuse community: Joseph *Abenafia and Rais of Syracuse. Following repeated protests by the Jewish communities on the island, who vigilantly guarded their juridical independence, this office was abolished in 1447, and judicial functions were finally conferred on the heads of the Jewish communities. The Jews of Sicily were obliged to pay taxes as citizens, apart from those which they paid as Jews. The communities were held responsible for the payment of the collective taxes. Limitation of civil rights or the imposition of taxes was varied at times by privileges granted to individuals or to communities.
In general, 12 notables or proti acted as leaders of the community, assisted by councillors who were in charge of administration. The latter could take action against those who were slow in paying taxes and could impound their possessions; they authorized weddings and divorces, ritual slaughterers, and the holding of offices in synagogue. In conjunction with the rabbi and the almoners of the community, the proti supervised all communal religious and administrative services and guarded against transgression of the directives contained in the regulations of the individual communities. Relations between the community and the government were a matter for the civic authorities, the representatives, and the special envoys.
In mid-2018, the first synagogue to exist in Palermo, Sicily for 500 years, was opened. The archbishop of Palermo, Corrado Lorefice, granted the Jewish community permission to rebuild their synagogue in an unused Baroque oratory known as Santa Maria del Sabato, located in what used to be the city's Jewish Quarter. The building's interior and exterior were refurbished, with the costs being covered by the city.
Occasional references in documents and manuscripts make it certain that Jewish learning flourished in Sicily, particularly in the Middle Ages. The first known European Jewish writer was the Sicilian Caecilius of Calacte (see above) who wrote rhetorical, historical, and critical works in Greek, of which only a few fragments have been preserved. The dayyan Maẓli'aḥ b. Elijah ibn *Al-Bazak was probably the teacher of the celebrated talmudist *Nathan b. Jehiel of Rome. Learned Sicilian Jews knew Hebrew, Italian, Greek, and Arabic, and some of them also Latin. Hence they could take part in the important task of translating scientific works, particularly from Arabic, into Hebrew or Latin. *Faraj (Ferragut) b. Solomon of Agrigento wrote a commentary to Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed and translated for King Charles of Anjou the great
The last Jewish scholar to come from Sicily was Joseph Saragossi, kabbalist and talmudist, who founded the neo-mystic school of Safed; he probably was not a native of Saragossa in Spain, but of Syracuse in Sicily. The records of Jewish culture in Sicily – now dispersed in libraries the world over – are contained mainly in manuscripts written in the 14th and 15th centuries in Sciacca, Palermo, Noto, Polizzi Generosa, and Syracuse.
On May 31, 1492, a decree was issued ordering the expulsion of the Jews from Sicily, similar to that promulgated in Spain shortly before; this decree was given final effect within the month of January 1493. It is estimated that 37,000 Jews had to leave Sicily.
In 1695, again in 1702, and again determinedly in 1740–46, attempts were made by the government of the kingdom to attract Jewish settlement to Sicily again, but without success. In the period between the two world wars a small number of Jews settled in Palermo. There were about 50 Jews living in Sicily in 1965.
Europe's Oldest Mikveh
In 1987 the discovery of an ancient abandoned Mikveh underneath what was going to be constructed into a hotel revived interest in the Jewish community of the Sicilian town of Syracuse. This Mikveh dates back to the Byzantine era and was discovered on via Alagona in Ortygia, Syracuse's historic Jewish quarter. It is believed that during the Jewish expulsion at the end of the 15th century Jews living in Ortygia buried the Mikveh in an attempt to save a part of their heritage. The Mikveh had been wonderfully preserved, and when it was discovered in 1987 there was still fresh water from natural sources pouring into the baths. The discovery of this Mikveh has excited archaeologists and individuals interested in Jewish history and has sparked a semi-renaissance of the Jewish community in Sicily, headed by Rabbi Stefano Di Mauro.
Rabbi Di Mauro worked as a doctor in the United States for over 50 years before migrating back to his birthplace of Sicily in 2007, dedicating the remaining years of his life to reviving the Sicilian Jewish community. The Rabbi has a community of Jewish individuals and enjoys helping people discover their long lost Jewish heritage. Rabbi Di Mauro has even performed multiple conversion ceremonies.
G. di Giovanni, L'Ebraismo della Sicilia (1748); Zunz, Gesch (1845), 484–534; G. and B. Lagumina, Codice Diplomatico dei Giudei di Sicilia (1884–95); Ch. Senigaglia, in: Rivista Italiana di Scienze giuridiche, 41 (1906), 75–102; S.M. Stern, in: JJS, 5 (1954), 60–78, 110–3; A. Milano, in: RMI, 20 (1954), 16–24; C. Roth, in: JQR, 47 (1956/57), 317–53.
[Sergio Joseph Sierra]
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
Sicily’s ancient Jewish presence revived with discovery of Europe’s oldest Mikveh, Haaretz, (June 15, 2014).
500 Years After Expulsion, Sicily’s Jews Reclaim a Lost History, New York Times, (April 24, 2017).