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Bible Encyclopedias

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

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Sichel, Nathaneel
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Large island in the Mediterranean Sea, southwest of Italy, to which it belongs and from which it is separated by the Strait of Messina. The earliest trace of Jews in Sicily dates from the end of the sixth century, when, at the request of the Sicilian Jews, the Roman community complained to the pope of the cruelty of the Christians toward the Jews of the island. Thereupon Gregory the Great ordered the restitution of stolen property or its full monetary value, and strictly prohibited baptism by force. Nothing further is heard of Sicilian Jews until the eleventh century, with the exception of a story of Jewish fanatics corrupting the morals of women in Catania. Jews of Naro are mentioned in a patent of King Roger I., dating from the year 1094. Frederick II. endeavored to save the Jews in Sicily from persecution during the Crusades by the decrees of 1210 and 1224, in which he placed the Jews under ecclesiastical jurisdiction and ordered that no difference be made between their treatment and that of others.

Council of Piazza.

The council held at Piazza on Oct. 20, 1296, was of great importance for the Jews. Among other enactments it decreed that a Christian might not be treated by a Jewish physician, and that any breach of this order would entail severe punishment for both. On May 22, 1327, ecclesiastical government was abolished in certain cities, including Mazzara. The old custom of compelling Jews to clean both public and private stables on certain days of the year was abolished by Louis in a patent of protection dated Nov. 23, 1347. The external decoration of synagogues was prohibited by Frederick III. on Oct. 12, 1366; in consequence of this law old synagogues that had already been decorated were pulled down. The wearing of a special badge was ordered by the same monarch on Dec. 25, 1369. The badge consisted of a piece of red material, not smaller than the largest royal seal; men were required to wear it under the chin, and women on the breast. The communities of Marsala and Syracuse, however, obtained certain concessions. The former, on April 18, 1375, received permission to build a new synagogue; the latter was freed from ecclesiastical jurisdiction and received the right to appeal to the royal tribunal in difficult legal cases.

Persecutions of 1392.

Under Martin V., of Aragon, who showed favor to the Jews in several instances, conditions underwent little change. The monk Julian, as royal commissioner,was ordered in 1392 to confine the Jews to ghettos. In the summer of the same year severe persecutions broke out in San Giuliano, Catania, and Syracuse; many Jews fell victims, and every Sunday especially the Jews in those cities were in deadly fear of fresh cruelties. Martin finally was induced to issue a decree, July 11, 1392, ordering the punishment of those who had taken part in the disturbances. In the following year strict decrees were directed against private ceremonies. Thus, on May 12, 1393, the Jews were forbidden to use any decorations in connection with funerals; except in unusual cases, when silk was permitted, the coffin might be covered with a woolen pall only. In Marsala the Jews were compelled to take part in the festival services at Christmas and on St. Stephen's Day, and were then followed home by the mob and stoned on the way. At the beginning of the fifteenth century oppression had increased to such an extent that in 1402 the Jews of Marsala presented an appeal to the king, in which they asked for: (1) exemption from compulsory menial services; (2) the reduction of their taxes to one-eleventh of the total taxation, since the Jews were only one-eleventh of the population; (3) the hearing of their civil suits by the royal chief judge, and of their religious cases by the inquisitor; (4) the delivery of flags only to the superintendent of the royal castle, not to others; (5) the reopening of the women's bath, which had been closed under Andrea Chiaramonte. This appeal was granted on Dec. 6 following.

In comparison with other Jewish communities of Europe, the Sicilians were happily situated. They even owned a considerable amount of property, since thirteen of their communities were able, in 1413, to lend the infante Don Juan 437 ounces of gold. This was repaid on Dec. 24, 1415; in the same year, however, the Jewish community of Vizzini was expelled by Queen Blanca, and it was never permitted to return.

Under Alfonso V.

Under Alfonso V. (1416-56) the Jews remained comparatively unmolested. The first event recorded as seriously affecting them in this reign was a decree of Feb. 5, 1428, ordering the Jewish communities throughout Sicily to attend conversionist sermons. A large deputation, however, bearing a large sum of money, appeared before the king at Naples, with the result that, on Jan. 1, 1430, the decree was repealed. The rise to influence of Capistrano, the Sicilian monk, occurred in the reign of Alfonso V. The result of his inflammatory sermons in Sicily was that a certain Giacomo Sciarci was appointed to investigate the charges of usury and other wickednesses made against the Jews. In spite of the negative result of this investigation the Jews were made to pay a fine of 2,000 ounces of gold. One of the last decrees of Alfonso was that prohibiting emigration to the Holy Land. Some Jews from Africa who were bold enough to attempt it were made to pay a fine of 1,000 ounces of gold.

The end of the fifteenth century was distinguished in Sicily, as elsewhere, by persecutions of the Jews resulting from accusations of desecrating the host and of murdering boys. Especially severe were those in Modica (1474), Noto and Caltagirone (1475), and Syracuse (1487). The tide of misfortune continued to rise. During the prayer-week before the Christmas of 1491 a procession was passing through the streets of Castiglione; an arm of the crucifix was broken by a stone, thrown, it was said, by the rabbi Biton from the open window of his dwelling; the rabbi was at once killed by the two brothers Crise, who then betook themselves to Spain for protection. They were highly praised by Ferdinand the Catholic, and, when asked what reward they desired for their deed, they requested the expulsion of the Jews from the whole of Sicily.

Decree of Expulsion.

When the decree of banishment, dated March 31, 1492, reached Sicily, there were over 100,000 Jews living in the island, in the fifty-two different places named in the following table:

Town.Jews First Mentioned.
Aderno14th cent.
Alcamo14th cent.
Bivona14th cent.
Calata Bellota1454
Caltanisetta14th cent.
Cefalu14th cent.
Giuliana14th cent.
Messina(see art.)
Milazzo14th cent.
Palazzuolo14th cent.
Palermo(see art.)
Paterno14th cent.
Piana del Greci
San Giuliano1298
San Marcomo1450
Santa Lucia1415

Ferdinand's decree was proclaimed in each town with a blare of trumpets; the Jews were ordered to pay all their debts, both to the towns and to private citizens, before their departure. Three months' grace, to which forty days were added, was given them to prepare for their exile; after that time any Jew found in the island was to be liable to the penalty of death. On June 9 they were forbidden to depart secretly, sell their possessions, or conceal any property; on June 18 the carrying of weapons was prohibited; their valuables were appraised by royal officials on behalf of the state, packed in boxes, and given into the care of wealthy Christians. On Aug. 13 came the order to be ready to depart; the following articles might be taken: one dress, a mattress, a blanket of wool or serge, a pair of used sheets, a few provisions, besides three taros as traveling money. After numerous appeals, the date of departure was postponed to Dec. 18, and later, after a payment of 5,000 gulden, to Jan. 12, 1493. The departure actually occurred on Dec. 31, 1492.

The exiles sought refuge in Apulia, Calabria, and Naples. When Charles VIII. conquered Naples in1494, a serious disease, known as "French fly," broke out in that region. The responsibility for this being fixed upon the Jews, they were accordingly driven out of Naples. They then sought refuge in Turkish territory, and settled chiefly in Constantinople, Damascus, Salonica, and Cairo. In a proclamation of Feb. 3, 1740, containing thirty-seven paragraphs, the Jews were formally invited to return; a few came, but, feeling their lives insecure, they soon went back to Turkey.


In spite of many adverse royal decrees, and of frequent popular persecutions, in no other state did the Jews of the Middle Ages enjoy such freedom and independence as in Sicily. It was the policy of the rulers to allow the heterogeneous nationalities thrown together upon the island an autonomous government, in which, however, the Jews did not share. Besides general state taxes, the Jews were required to pay an annual capitation-tax of a quarter of an ounce of gold, called "agostale" (those who failed in this payment were placed under ban by the community itself, according to a decree of Sept. 4, 1004); and one Roman paolo or one forty-eighth of an ounce of gold per head every year (after 1224) to the inquisitor for his traveling expenses. They were required furthermore to supply flags for the royal castles and standards for the galleys (only Syracuse was exempt from the levy) and to clean the royal castles and palaces. The capitation-tax of the Sicilian Jews in the fifteenth century amounted on an average to 123⅔ ounces of gold per year. The Jews of Syracuse were obliged in addition to contribute an ounce of gold daily toward the expenses of the royal table. The community of Mazzara paid the bishop from 2½ to 5 pounds of pepper annually.

Among the civil disabilities of the Jews it should be mentioned that they might not testify against a Christian before a court, though neither might a Christian testify against a Jew; and Jews might not have Christian slaves, though they were permitted to own real estate.

Communal Organization.

The internal administration of the communities in the larger cities was conducted by a number of officials. There were twelve presidents ("proti"), three of whom administered affairs for three months, and were then succeeded by the next three. The six "auditori di conti" had charge of the treasury of the community. A board of twelve members, the "dodici," or "dodici nomini probi," reviewed the decisions of the "proti." The "conservatori degli atti" was composed of several scholars, and had charge of the archives. The nine "sogetti" apportioned the taxes among the individual members of the community. Besides these there were a "percettori" (tax-collector), the "sindachi" (public syndics and charity administrators), and a "balio," or "guvernadore," an executive officer. The religious administration was vested in the following officers: the "dienchelele" (), chief judge, or chief district rabbi (this office was in existence from 1405 to 1425, the appointment being in the hands of the king); the "manigliore," or "sacristano," who was the guardian of the synagogue and was appointed by the "proti"; the "idubi," public communal scribes, who drew up documents of marriage and divorce; the "limosinieri," special officers for distributing alms; the "giudici spirituali," consisting of the "proti" and the rabbi, who watched over religious observances in general. The prayer-leaders and ritual slaughterers were called "presbyters"; the synagogue itself, "meskita" (Arabic).

The personal names adopted by the Jews were often local in origin, or were Latinized Jewish names, as Angelo, Donato, Benedictus (= Baruch), Gauden (= Simḥah). The intimacy between the Jews and some of their Christian fellow citizens is shown, for instance, by the fact that in Castrogiovanni a Christian acted as godfather at the circumcision of a Jewish boy.

Map of Sicily Showing Places Where Jews Resided


The Jews were the chief representatives of commerce and industry. They were very active in financial transactions, and excelled also in agriculture; the grove of date-palms near Favara was planted by them, while their farming near Gerbi was very successful. That they applied themselves also to all kinds of manual labor may be gathered from the protest raised by the Sicilians at the departure of the Jews. At the time of their expulsion many Sicilians stood on the roofs and galleries of their houses to bid them farewell.

  • La Lumia, Gli Ebrci Siciliani 1492, Palermo, 1870;
  • B. G. Lagumina, Codice Diplomatico dei Giudei di Sicilia, ib. 1885, 1890;
  • Giovanni de Giovanni, L'Ebraismo della Sicilia, Palermo, 1748;
  • I. V. Bozzo, Note StoricheSiciliane del Secolo XIV. ib. 1882;
  • R. Starrabba, Aneddoti Siciliani, ib. 1878;
  • Zunz, Z. G. pp. 484-534;
  • Güdemann, Gesch. pp. 268-299, Vienna, 1888;
  • Brüll's Jahrb. 6:106 et seq.;
  • Brüll, in Populär-Wissenschaftliche Monatsblätter, 1882, Nos. 8, 9;
  • Güdemann, in Ha-Asif, 2:232-335;
  • Leone Luzzatto, in Il Vessillo Israelitico, 26:286, 33:146, 35:247;
  • De Lattes, ib. 22:342.
S. O.
Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Sicily'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tje/​s/sicily.html. 1901.
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