Romaniote Jews


Members of the Romaniote Greek Jewish Community of Volos: rabbi Moshe Pesach (front left) with his sons (back)
Regions with significant populations
 Greece 1,500+
 Israel 45,000
 United States 6,500
 Turkey 500
Greek, Hebrew, Yevanic
Related ethnic groups
Greeks, Jews

The Romaniote Jews or Romaniots (Greek: Ρωμανιῶτες, Rōmaniṓtes; Hebrew: רומניוטים, Romanyotim) are a Jewish community with distinctive cultural features who have lived in Greece and neighboring areas for more than 2,000 years. Their distinct language was Yevanic, a Greek dialect, and is today modern Greek or the languages of their new home countries. They derived their name from the old name for the people of the Byzantine Empire, Romaioi. Large communities were located in Thebes, Ioannina, Chalcis, Corfu, Arta, Preveza, Volos, Patras, Corinth, and on the islands of Zakynthos, Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Rhodes, and Cyprus, among others. The Romaniotes are historically distinct from the Sephardim, who settled in Ottoman Greece after the 1492 expulsion of the Jews from Spain.

A majority of the Jewish population of Greece was killed in the Holocaust after Axis powers occupied Greece during World War II. They deported most of the Jews to Nazi concentration camps. After the war, a majority of the survivors emigrated to Israel, the United States, and Western Europe. Today there are still functioning Romaniote Synagogues in Chalkis which represents the oldest Jewish Community on European ground, in Ioannina, Athens, New York and Israel.


The name Romaniote refers to the medieval Eastern Roman Empire, which included the territory of modern Greece, and was for centuries the homeland of this Jewish group. Historically, the Empire was commonly referred to as Rhomania (Ῥωμανία) and its citizens Romans.


Moshe Pesach, Chief Rabbi of the Romaniote Greek Jewish community of Volos, Greece in 1939.

The earliest reference to a Greek Jew is an inscription dated c. 300-250 BCE, found in Oropos, a small coastal town between Athens and Boeotia, which refers to "Moschos, son of Moschion the Jew", who may have been a slave.[1]

Mosaic Floor of a Jewish Synagogue in Greece - 300 CE, Aegina.

On the Island Aegina a Hellenistic Jewish synagogue was discovered in 1829 in the capital of the Island, near the ancient military port. The synagogue was originally discovered by the German historian Ludwig Ross, from the royal court of Otto. The floor was covered in order to be protected and was studied again by Thiersch in 1901, Furtwängler in 1904, E. Sukenik in 1928, and finally by the German archaeologist Dr. G. Welter, in 1932. The studies were completed by the National Archaeological Service. Based on the quality of the floor's mosaic, the building is believed to have been constructed in the 4th century CE (300-350 CE) and was used until the 7th century CE. The mosaic floor of the synagogue still survives (see photo below) and is made up of multi-colored tesserae, that create the impression of a carpet, in a geometric pattern of blue, gray, red and white. Two Greek inscriptions were found in front of the synagogue's entrance, on the western side of the building. Today, only part of the synagogue's mosaic floor is extant, and it has been moved from its original location to the courtyard of the island's Archaeological Museum.

The Romaniotes are Greek Jews, distinct from both Ashkenazim and Sephardim, who trace back their history to the times of the greek-speaking Byzantine Jews and can be subdivided in a wider sense in a Rabbanite community and in the Greco-Karaite community of the Constantinopolitan Karaites which still survives to this day.[2][3][4][5] A Romaniote oral tradition tells that the first Jews arrived in Ioannina shortly after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE.

The Romaniote Rites represent those of the Greek-speaking Jews of the Byzantine (or former Byzantine) empire, ranging from southern Italy (in a narrower sense the Apulian, the Calabrian and the Sicilian Jewish communities) in the west, to much of Turkey in the East, Crete to the south and Crimea (the Krymchaks) to the north.[6]

The Sefer Yosippon was written down in the 10th century in Byzantine Southern Italy by the Greek-speaking Jewish community there. Judah Leon ben Moses Mosconi, a Romaniote Jew from Achrida edited and expanded the Sefer Josippon later.[7][8] This community of Byzantine Jews of southern Italy produced such prominent works like the Sefer Ahimaaz of Ahimaaz ben Paltiel, the Sefer Hachmoni of Shabbethai Donnolo, the Aggadath Bereshit and many Piyyutim.[9][10][11][12][13] The liturgical writings of these Romaniote Jews, especially the piyyut were eminent for the development of the Ashkenazi Mahzor, as they found their way through Italy to Ashkenaz and are preserved to this day in the most ashkenazi mahzorim.[14]

The Jews of Southern Italy continued to be Greek-speakers until the 15th century (where they were living together with their Greek-speaking Christian counterparts). When they were expelled and went to different regions of Greece, especially Corfu, Epirus and Thessaloniki, they could continue speak their Greek language, even if this language was somewhat different from that of Greece.[15]

In the 12th century, Benjamin of Tudela recorded details about communities of Jews in Corfu, Arta, Aphilon, Patras, Corinth, Thebes, Chalkis, Thessaloniki, and Drama. The largest community in Greece at that time was in Thebes, where he found about 2000 Jews. They were engaged mostly in cloth dyeing, weaving, in producing of silverware and making silk garments. At the time, they were already known as "Romaniotes".

Colonel Mordechai Frizis (1893-1940) from the ancient Romaniote Greek Jewish community of Chalkis[16] with his wife Victoria.

Waves of Sephardi Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492; many settled in Ottoman-ruled Greece. They spoke a separate language, Ladino. Thessaloniki had one of the largest (mostly Sephardi) Jewish communities in the world and a solid rabbinical tradition. On the island of Crete, the Jews historically played an important part in the transport trade. In the centuries following 1492 most of the Romaniote communities were assimilated by the more numerous Sephardim.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Romaniote community of Ioannina numbered about 4,000 people, mostly lower-class tradesmen and craftsmen. Their numbers dwindled after that due to economic out-migration; and on the eve of World War II, there were approximately 1950 Romaniotes left in Ioannina. Centered around the old fortified part of the city (or Kastro), where the community had been living for centuries, they maintained two synagogues, one of which, the Kehila Kedosha Yashan Synagogue still remains today.

A strong Romaniote community was present in Corfu until the late 19th century, when a pogrom sparked by blood libel charges forced most of the Jewish community to leave the island.

The Romaniote Nusach and Minhag

The Romaniote Prayer Rite as seen in the original Mahzor Romania and Romaniote commentaries on Jewish Exegesis and Jewish Law, vary from those of the Askenazi, the Sephardic and the Mizrachi Jews, and are closer to those of the Italian Jews: some of these are thought to have been based on the Jerusalem Talmud instead of the Babylonian Talmud (see Palestinian minhag). This Minhag was once widespread in Southern Italy, the Balkans, Greece, Anatolia and the Crimea.[17] The Romaniotes spoke recently Judaeo-Greek and many of them still use the Greek language. Tobiah ben Eliezer (טוביה בר אליעזר) a Greek-speaking Talmudist and poet of the 11th century worked and lived in the city of Kastoria. He is the author of the Lekach Tov a midrashic commentary on the Pentateuch and the Five Megillot and also of some poems. Romaniote scholars translated the Tanakh into Greek. A polyglot edition of the Bible published in Constantinople in 1547 has the Hebrew text in the middle of the page, with a Ladino (Judaeo-Spanish) translation on one side, a Yevanic translation on the other and the Aramaic Targum at the bottom of the page.[18]

In the early Romaniote Rite the Torah was subdivided in Sedarim while the whole Torah was read in the Palestinian way of the Triennial cycle. The order for reading the Haftarah followed an own custom.[19] The Romaniote Torah Scrolls are housed in "Tikim" where they never are taken completely out. The siddur (prayer book) for the Romaniote rite was known as the Mahzor Romania. It was actually the first Mahzor and represented the Minhag of the Byzantine Jews which is the oldest European Prayer rite. Later the first Mahzor was printed, the Mahzor Bene Roma, which was based on the Romaniote Mahzor.[20][21][22] The Jewish Museum of Greece also published in 2004 a Romaniote rite Haggadah (The Ioannina Haggadah (CD)). The Romaniote Term for the Passover ceremony (Seder) is חובה/Hova which means obligation. The Romaniotes are well known for their hymns in Judeo-Greek and Hebrew and for their special way of cantillation.[23][24] They also sang their Jewish-Greek folksongs. Jewish immigrants from Sicily brought to Ioannina the celebration of the Sicilian Purim Katan. The Jews of Ioannina called this holiday "Pourimopoulo". They read the special "Megillah for the Purim Katan of Syracuse" and sang corresponding songs and hymns for this festivity. Today, the Romaniote Liturgy follows the mainstream usage, while the Romaniotes and the Jews of Corfu have preserved their old and own Judaeo-Greek and Hebrew piyyutim.

View on the Torah Ark of the Kehila Kedosha Yashan Synagogue of Ioannina with the typical Romaniote Shadayot (Votive offerings similar to the Byzantine Christian tradition) hanging on the Parochet and a Romaniote "Aleph" on the right side (a circumcision cerificate with Berachot (mostly the Shiviti) and ancestral details).

Language and Literature

The intellectual pursuits of Romaniote Jews reflected in their history their geographical location within the Jewish and gentile world. Direct heir to Palestinian Jewish traditions on the one hand, they were also heir to the teachings of the Greco-Roman world. The Byzantine Jewish/Romaniote literature shows a rich blend of Hellenistic Jewish and Palestinian rabbinic traditions. Romaniote Jewry, throughout its history, expended great effort on religious poetry, which reached its peak during the period 1350-1550. The writing of piyyutim was clearly hold as the own genre. Hillel ben Eliakim wrote down in the twelfth century his exegetical commentary Sifre ve Sifra. Shemarya HaIkriti who moved after 1328 to Negroponte prepared his supercommentary to Ibn Ezra and, circa 1346-47 wrote his Sefer Amasyahu, a handbook of biblical apologetics. In tune with the intellectual currents among Romaniotes, Shemarya was trained in Philosophy and was able to translate directly from Greek to Hebrew. The Sefer Yosippon was written by the Byzantine Jews of Southern Italy. R. Elnatan ben Moses Kalkes (from Kilkis) wrote a lengthy kabbalistic treatise entitled Eben Saphir. Mordecai Komatiano has left a legacy of some fifteen works on astronomy, grammar (dikduk), biblical commentaries and piyyutim; some of the later have even been included in the Karaite prayerbook. Several manuscripts containing mystical works have survived. The question of an independet Romaniote mystical tradition, probably deriving directly from Palestinian antecedents, is proved.[25] An abridgement of Aristotle's Logic by Yoseph HaYevani was made available to those Jews (Sephardi immigrants) who were less proficient in Greek. The Byzantine Karaites, showed a knowledge of Greek philosophical terminology. Rabbinic authors spiced their comments with greek phrases. The familiarity of Romaniote Jewry with the Greek language is well documented. Biblical translations, Piyyutim, Folksongs, Ketubbot, Liturgical instructions, Glossaries, Mystical texts and the use of Greek words in Commentaries in Judaeo-Greek are known.[26]

Romaniote Hebrew

The Romaniote pronunciation of the Hebrew language is in its major features very closed to the common Modern Hebrew pronunciation. The vowel-system is a simple five-vowel system without either quantitative or qualitative distinctions. Typical was the absence of distinction between: the Semitic velarized and and non-velarized stops [t] and [ṭ], spelled [ת/ט], and [k/q], spelled [כ/ק]. The distinction between [s] and [ṣ] (ס/צ) is maintained as [s/ts], i. e. a voiceless alveolar fricative against a voiceless alveolar affricate, a pronunciation common to Byzantine and Ashkenazic pronunciation; "strong" and "weak" [t], spelled [תּ/ת] (t/θ) preserved in Ashkenazic pronunciation as [t]/[s]; velar and pharyngeal [ħ] and [χ], spelled [ח/כ], both of which are pronunced [χ], as in Ashkenazic; the glottal and pharyngeal stops [ʔ] and [ʕ], spelled [ע/א], both of wich are weakened to the point of almost total absence in syllable-initial and syllable-final position, another characteristic shared with the Ashkenazic tradition. שׁ was pronounced as [s] in the Romaniote tradition of Hebrew pronunciation. The loss of spirantization rule for postvocalic, non-geminated Old Hebrew b, d, g, p, t, k homorganic fricatives (this rule is not found now in either the Balkan or the North African Sephardic diaspora) may have been due Romaniote practice (it is observed partly in Yiddish Hebraisms and in the Ashkenazic pronunciation of monolingual Hebrew texts). The [ז] was pronounced as [d͡z] which is a typical sound of the Standard Modern Greek.[27]


A woman weeps during the German Army enforced deportation of the Jews of Ioannina on March 25, 1944. The majority of the Jews deported were murdered on or shortly after April 11, 1944, when their train reached Auschwitz-Birkenau.[28][29]

During World War II, when Greece was occupied by Nazi Germany, 86% of the Greek Jews, especially those in the areas occupied by Nazi Germany and Bulgaria, were massacred despite efforts by the Greek Orthodox Church and many Christian Greeks to shelter Jews. Although the Nazis deported numerous Greek Jews, many were hidden by their Greek neighbors. Roughly 49,000 Jews – Romaniotes and Sephardim – were deported from Thessaloniki alone and murdered.

The Romaniotes were protected by the Greek government until the Nazi occupation. During the German occupation, the Romaniotes' ability to speak Greek enabled them to hide better from German deportations.

The creation of the state of Israel in 1948, combined with the violence and anarchy of the Greek Civil War, led to an immigration of a number of Romaniotes to Israel.

Present day

Today approximately 4,500 to 6,000 Jews remain in Greece. Of these, only a small number are Romaniotes, who live mainly in Thessaloniki, Ioannina, Chalkis and Athens. About 3,500 Jews now live in Athens, while another 1,000 live in Thessaloniki.[30] A mixed community of Romaniote and Apulian Jews still lives on the Island of Corfu.[31] The vast majority of Romaniotes have relocated to Israel and the United States.


In Ioannina, the Romaniote community has dwindled to 50 mostly elderly people. The Kehila Kedosha Yashan Synagogue there is open primarily on the High Holidays, or in the case of the visit of a chazzan, or is opened for visitors on request. Immigrant Romaniotes return every summer to the old synagogue. After long time a Bar Mitzvah (the Jewish ritual for celebrating the coming of age of a child) was held in the synagogue in 2000, and was an exceptional event for the community.[32]

The synagogue is located in the old fortified part of the city known as Kastro, at 16 Ioustinianou street. Its name means "the Old Synagogue". It was constructed in 1829, most probably over the ruins of an older synagogue. Its architecture is typical of the Ottoman era, a large building made of stone. The interior of the synagogue is laid out in the Romaniote way: the Bimah (where the Torah scrolls are read out during services) is on a raised dais on the western wall, the Aron haKodesh (where the Torah scrolls are kept) is on the eastern wall and in the middle there is a wide interior aisle. The names of the Ioanniote Jews who were killed in the Holocaust are engraved in stone on the walls of the synagogue.


The Romaniote Jewish Community of Chalkis is not the oldest one in Greece, but it is the only one in Europe that has been living in the same city for 2,500 years without interruption and the community is still active in the city's life. The community has a synagogue and a cemetery with important and old inscriptions. The Synagogue is on Kotsou Street. It is unknown when the first synagogue in Chalkis was constructed. In 1854, during the Holy Week a great fire destroyed the synagogue. In 1855 it was re-constructed in the same size with funds offered by Sophie de Marbois-Lebrun, Duchess of Plaisance.[33] The Synagogue opens every friday evening and occasionally on Shabbat morning.[34]


The Ioanniotiki Synagogue, situated above the Jewish Community of Athens offices at #8 Melidoni St., is the only Romaniote synagogue in Athens. Built in 1906, it now has services only during the High Holy Days, but can be opened for visitors upon request through the Jewish Community office.

The Jewish identity of another building found in the excavations of the ancient Agora in Athens, is questionable. It is believed that the Metroon, discovered in 1930 at the foot of the hill Hephaestion (Thesion) was used as a synagogue during its construction at the end of the 4th century CE (396-400). This view was expressed by the archaeologist H. Thompson, from the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, but was not developed into a complete theory. The Jewish identity of the Metroon was based on a small piece of marble found near the Metroon that had two Jewish symbols carved on one side, and the resemblance of the building to the synagogue of Sardis in Asia Minor.

United States

Only one Romaniote synagogue (from originally several Romaniote Synagogues in New York) is in operation in the entire Western Hemisphere: Kehila Kedosha Janina, at 280 Broome Street, in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where it is used by the Romaniote emigrant community.[35] It maintains a mailing list of 3,000 Romaniote families, most of them living in the tri-state area.[35][36] It is open for services every Saturday morning as well as all major Jewish holidays. The synagogue also houses a museum devoted to Greek Jewry and offers guided tours to visitors on Sundays.[35]


Most Romaniotes in Israel live in Tel Aviv.[37] There are two Romaniote synagogues in Israel: the Zakynthos Synagogue in Tel Aviv, and the Yanina Synagogue in Jerusalem.

Notable Romaniotes

Byzantine Times - Ottoman Empire:

Greek-speaking Karaites of Constantinople

Modern Times:

See also


  1. David M. Lewis (2002). Rhodes, P.J., ed. Selected Papers in Greek and Near Eastern History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 381. ISBN 0-521-46564-8.
  2. Bowman, S. The Jews of Byzantium 1204-1453. Tuscaloosa, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1985.
  3. Steiner, Richard C. , The Byzantine biblical commentaries from the Genizah: Rabbanite vs. Karaite, M. Bar-Asher et al., Shai le-Sara Japhet. Studies in the Bible, its exegesis and its language, Jerusalem, 2007, 243–262.
  4. Danon, A. 1912. Notice sur la littérature gréco-caraïte. Revue des Études Grecques 127: 147-151.
  5. Istanbul Karaylari Istanbul Enstitüsü Dergisi 3 (1957): 97-102
  6. Langer, R. Cursing The Christians? A History of the Birkat HaMinim, p. 203. 2011
  7. Medieval Jewish Civilisation: An Encyclopedia, Norman Roth, 2014 p. 127.
  8. Jews in Byzantium: Dialectics of Minority and Majority Cultures, Robert Bonfil, 2011, p. 122
  9. Magdalino, P. and Mavroudi, M. "The Occult Sciences in Byzantium", p. 293, 2006
  10. Kohen, E. "History of the Byzantine Jews: A Microcosmos in the Thousand Year Empire", p. 91, 2007
  11. Dönitz, S. "Historiography among Byzantine Jews: The case of Sefer Yosippon",
  12. Bowman, S. Jewish Responses to Byzantine Polemics from the Ninth through the Eleventh Centuries, 2010
  13. Howell, H. and Rogers, Z. A Companion to Josephus, 2016
  14. Bowman, S. "Jews of Byzantium", p. 153 Cf. Hebrew Studies by Yonah David, Shirei Zebadiah (Jerusalem 1972), Shirei Amitai (Jerusalem, 1975) and Shirei Elya bar Schemaya (New York and Jerusalem 1977); and the material in the Chronicle of Ahima'az.
  15. The Medieval Salento: Art and Identity in Southern Italy, Linda Safran, 2014.
  16. J. Krivoruchko,“A case of divergent convergence: the cultural identity of Romaniote Jewry”, in: Raymond Detrez, Pieter Plas (eds.) (2005). Developing cultural identity in the Balkans: convergence vs divergence. Peter Lang. p. 159. ISBN 978-90-5201-297-1. …but the fact that the most prominent hero of Jewish origin, Colonel Mordechai Frizis (1893-1940), originated from the ancient Romaniote community of Chalkis, speaks for itself.
  17. Zunz, Leopold "Ritus. 1859. Eine Beschreibung synagogaler Riten".
  18. Natalio Fernandez Marcos, The Septuagint in Context: Introduction to the Greek Versions of the Bible (2000) p 180. The Greek text is published in D. C. Hesseling, Les cinq livres de la Loi (1897).
  19. "The prophetic readings of the Byzantine ritual differed fundamentally from those of the other Rabbanite Jews of the diaspora. They have been preserved in the editions of the haftarot published with the Commentary of David Kimchi in Constantinople, 1505; and in the edition of the Pentateuch and haftarot, published in Constantinople, 1522" (and theorizing the Romaniote readings were a perpetuation of the selections of early medieval Eretz Yisrael). Louis Finkelstein, "The Prophetic Readings According to the Palestinian, Byzantine, and Karaite Rites", Hebrew Union College Annual, vol. 17 (1942-1943) page 423; Adolf Büchler, "The Reading of the Law and Prophets in a Triennial Cycle (part ii)" Jewish Quarterly Review, vol. 6, nr. 1 (Oct. 1893) pages 1-73, discusses in some detail evidence of very early choices of haftarot, particularly of the Karaites.
  20. Luzzato, S. D. Introduction to the Mahzor Bene Roma, p. 34. 1966
  21. Jewish Encyclopedia "Mahzor". 1906
  22. Mordecai Schreiber, The Shengold Jewish Encyclopedia, "Mahzor". 2011
  23. Ross, M. S., Europäisches Zentrum für Jüdische Musik, CD-Projekt: „Synagogale Musik der romaniotischen Juden Griechenlands“ -ongoing/2016-
  24. J. Matsas: Yanniotika Evraika Tragoudia; Ekdoseis Epeirotikes, 1953
  25. Cf. afterword in Benjamin Klar, ed., Megillat Ahimaaz 82nd edition, Jerusalem 1974), and Weinberger, Anthology, pp. 8-11
  26. Bowman, Steven. The Jews of Byzantium 1204-1453, "Language and Literature". Tuscaloosa, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1985.
  27. Kulik, 2016. p. 185; Eurasian Studies Yearbook, 78, p. 45; Morag, S. 1971/2. Pronunciation of Hebrew. Encyclopaedia Judaica 13: 1120-1145; Morag, S.: Between East and West: For a History of the Tradition of Hebrew During the Middle Ages. (In Hebrew). In: Proceedings of the sixth International Conference on Judaica, Jerusalem, pp. 141-156. The Hebrew University, Jerusalem. (5740=1979-1980) and Wexler, P. The Non-Jewish Origins of the Sephardic Jews pp. 204-5.1996
  28. Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue and Museum, The Holocaust in Ioannina URL accessed January 5, 2009
  29. Raptis, Alekos and Tzallas, Thumios, Deportation of Jews of Ioannina, Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue and Museum, July 28, 2005 URL accessed January 5, 2009
  30. "Holocaust and present-day situation". Romaniotes Jews. Retrieved 9 June 2011.
  32. "Ioannina, Greece". Retrieved 2012-09-07.
  33. Chalkis
  34. Synagogues - Chabad of Greece
  35. 1 2 3 Laura Silver, "Spreading little-known history of Romaniote Jews", Daily News (New York), June 18, 2008.
  36. Laura Silver. "Spreading little-known history of Romaniote Jews". Europeam Jewish Congress. Retrieved 7 December 2013.
  37. Liz Elsby with Kathryn Berman. "The Story of a Two-Thousand Year Old Jewish Community in Ioannina, Greece". Yad Vashem. Retrieved 7 December 2013.

External links

Further reading

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