Between the 9th and 12th centuries, Otranto was one of the main centers of Jewish learning in Apulia. As the Jewish community prospered, thanks to commerce and entrepreneurial ventures, scholars gave lasting contributions to the study of the Bible, the Mishnah and the Talmud of Babylon.
At the time of the forced conversion, under the Byzantine emperor Romanus I, Lecapenus, a Jewish communal leader committed suicide, one was strangled, and one died in prison. When Benjamin of Tudela visited Otranto in around 1159, he found about 500 Jews there. It was considered one of the most important rabbinical centers in Europe.
In the Sefer ha-Yashar, Jacob Tam (12th century) quotes an old saying paraphrasing Isaiah 2:3: “For out of Bari shall go forth the Law and the word of the Lord from Otranto.” As the Turks besieged Otranto in 1481, the Jews contributed 3,000 ducats for the defense of the town. In 1510, with their mandated expulsion from the kingdom of Naples, the Jews fled from Otranto. A number of them settled in Salonika, where they founded their own synagogue.