Malka is a very old Sephardic surname, transmitted in a hereditary manner since at least the early 1200s C.E. Because the surname was hereditary for so many generations there exist today numerous Malka families, which though they may have once had a common ancestor are now no longer closely related to each other.
Malka Family Early Timeline
To avoid confusion, we must start by distinguishing between the Malka Sephardic surname and the frequently used female first name Malka. They sound similar but are quite different. The female first name is of Hebrew origin and means queen in Hebrew-an appropriate name for a Jewish woman. However, the Malka Sephardic surname is of Aramaic origin and not Hebrew in etymology or meaning. In Aramaic, Malka means “the king” or "royal". This meaning was well known in the past and explains how it was used in older documents and the translated variants such as Rey, Ibn Rey, Ben Melec, etc. which were sometimes used interchangeably in legal documents in Spain. Because of its Aramaic etymology, the Malka surname is correctly spelled with a terminal aleph, not a heh as in the Malka female first name. In Aramaic the terminal aleph is equivalent to the Hebrew ha (the). Thus, in Aramaic, Malka is literally “the malk” (would be ha melekh in Hebrew). Unfortunately, in modern Israel the name is today frequently Hebraized and thus erroneously spelled with a terminal heh. (See Abraham Laredo. Les Noms des Juifs du Maroc, and others)
Aramaic was the language spoken in Babylonia. The ancient Jews acquired Aramaic during their time in exile in Babylonia and brought both the language and its alphabet script when they returned to Judea. What we now know as the common block "Hebrew" letters are actually Aramaic characters. The original Hebrew letters were quite different and closer in appearance to the Phonecian alphabet. Because the Malka surname is Aramaic in its etymological origin it is not surprising that we find its earliest occurances among Babylonian Jews. Indeed, two of the geonim of the Babylonian Talmudic Academies bore the Malka name: Rab Malka bar Mar Aha, Gaon of the Pumbaditta Talmudic Academy in 771-775, (See: Jewish Encyclopedia; Sepher Yohacin; and Laredo, Les Noms des Juifs du Maroc) and Mar Rab Malka, Gaon of Sura Talmudic Academy around 885. (See: Jewish Encyclopedia ; Ozar; and Laredo, Les Noms des Juifs du Maroc)
But names were not yet hereditary in Babylonia at that early date. So the use of the Malka name during that period is just a coincidental example and has no known direct relationship with today's Malka families. Jews adopted many other Babylonian names during their stay in Babylonia. Esther (from the goddess Ishtar) is a Babylonian name. So is Mordochai (from the god Mordoc), and many others. Other Aramaic examples from Babylonia are nahr malka (royal river) near which the Babylonian Talmudic academies were established or tur malka (royal mountain) mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud.
The earliest records mentioning the Malka family are from the 13th century northern Spain (Figure 2). Several archival records show Malka families living in Monzon and Alcolea (Aragon), Lleida and Alcega (Catalonia), and Viana and Tudela (Navarra)
during the years 1282 to 1479
. They were blacksmiths, money lenders, and tax farmers (recaudador
). In 711 C.E., the Moslems conquered Spain and life for the Jews improved vastly after the vicious oppresion of the Visigoths. But that "golden age" was short lived and long before the 1492 expulsion life again became difficult and dangerous for Jews in Spain. Because of Moslem and then later Catholic religious persecution many Jews fled Spain during the 2-3 centuries that preceded the landmark 1492 Alhambra expulsion decree. They fled either south to the Maghreb or north to the then relative safety of Christian Spain. Maimonides and his family were among the many Jewish families that fled Moslem extremism by escaping to Morocco during the twelfth century. Some branches of the Malka family also fled to Morocco at that time for the same reasons. Other Malka families fled north to Christian ruled Spain which only temporarily deferred the soon to come Catholic persecutions.
Notes for Reading Medieval Spanish Records
The letter "k" is from the Greek alphabet and did not exist in the Medieval Latin alphabet. So, there was no letter “k” in the pre-expulsion records of Spain. The “k” sound was phonetically represented as “q”, “qu”, “ch”, or “c”. Kippur
, for instance, was written as Quipur
. Names were spelled phonetically in Medieval Spain. Hence Melka
(as the name is often still written in present day Morocco) would be written Melcha
The Hebrew prefix “ben
” before a name means “of the family of”. Example: bene Israel. The Hebrew “ben
” was written in Spain as “aben
" and in Arabic speaking regions as “ibn
”. Example: Maimonides (the Greek form of his name) is written Moshe ben Maimon
in Hebrew and Musa ibn Maimon
Some terminal letters were frequently not written out in medieval Spain. Thus, David might appear as Davi; Salamon as Salamo, the legal document comanda as comada, etc. The lower case letters s and h are replaced by what appears to modern eyes to be an f. Thus Mosse might appear as Moffe; hijo as fijo, etc. The lower case letter c looks in documents like our lower case r. These and other variations need to be understood to decipher medieval handwritten documents.
Examples of Malka Records from Medieval Spain
For the benefit of other Malka genealogy researchers I have provided some examples of pre-expulsion records that mention various Malka individuals living in Northern Spain. These instances can be found at
Some Malka Families in Pre-Expulsion Northern Spain
. Records of Malka families can also be found beyond northern Spain, both under various phonetic spellings of Malka or its variants such as Abenrey (Ben Malka). See for example Mose Abenrrey who lived in 1466 Seville (Klaus Wagner: Regesto de documentos del archivo de protocolos de Sevilla referentes a judios y moros
, Universidad de Sevilla, 1978 and Oficio XI, de Bartolomé González, escrituras del s. XV, s.f.).
Portuguese Jewish Community of Tunis
The Malka family next appears in 14th century Morocco
(Figure 3) where the earliest recorded persons bearing that surname were the noted cabalist philosopher rabbis Nissim Malka
and his son Judah ben Nissim Malka
. Rabbi Judah Malka is described in the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia Jewish Encyclopedia (Gottheil) as
"Spanish philosopher; flourished either in Spain or in Africa in the middle of the fourteenth century. He was imbued with Neoplatonic ideas, and he wrote from that standpoint an important philosophical work in Arabic in three parts."
Further down the Jewish Encyclopedia entry states that Joseph ha-Sefardi quotes Ibn Malkah's theory of the "active intellect" ("sekel ha-po'el
) and Gottheil states it is "similar to that of Ibn Gabirol", adding "there is no evidence of his having known the latter's "Fons Vitæ.""
Moshe Idel, today's foremost historian of Kabbala, writes that the Malkah writings preceded the Zohar which was to appear later in Spain.
(Idel, Moshe. Jewish Mysticism among the Jews of Arab/Moslem Lands. Journal for the study of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews, February 2007)
The cabalist works that have survived from Rabbi Nissim Malka are Sepher Zenif Melukhah
and Imre Melukhah
. The manuscripts that have survived from his son Rabbi Judah Malka are an important 3 volume philosophical work finished in 1365 containing: Uns Al Gharib
(Lament of the Expatriate, an intro to Sepher Yezirah), Tafsir Yezirah
(commentaries on Sepher Yezirah), and Tafsir Pirque Rabbi Eliezer
(treatise on R Eliezer). He also wrote Al Miptah
and Tafsir Esalawat
. Like all of Maimonides' writings (other than the Mishne
), Judah's books were written in Arabic, the language of the literate intelligensia at the time. Both father and son rabbis lived in the 14th century, and current opinion is that it was probably in Morocco. But that is a conjecture and they may have been somewhere else in Spain. (See Jewish Encyclopedia VI 536; Ya'aqob Mosheh Toledano, "Sepher Ner Ma'arab", Jerusalem 5671 page 41, and Abraham Laredo).
There then follow numerous Malka rabbis, mostly in Morocco. My own grandfather was a rabbi descended from a rabbinic branch of the Malka family where almost everyone was a rabbi. The rare exception appears to have been his own father who was the owner of an orchard and “dealt in gold."
Need to add some names and sources
A number of Malka families are also documented as part of the 18-19th century Spanish-Portuguese community of Tunis. If interested see:
1. Portuguese Jewish Community in Tunis
2. Attal, Robert & Avivi, Joseph. Registres Matrimoniaux de la Communaute Juive Portugaise de Tunis. XVIII-XIX siecles. Oriens Judaicus, Institut Ben Zvi, Israel 1989.
3. Attal, Robert & Avivi, Joseph. Registres Matrimoniaux de la Communaute Juive Portugaise de Tunis. 1843-1854.
Oriens Judaicus, Institut Ben Zvi, Israel 2000.
Today, there are Malka families living throughout the world. Most are in Israel, France, the United States, Canada, Central and South America and almost everywhere else. These are of recent origins having settled in these places during the past century. As mentioned above most of these Malka families are not closely related though they almost certainly had common ancestors in the past. They are welcome to contact me and see if they fit in a global Malka family tree.