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Mendy Chitrik
Chair of the Alliance of Rabbis in Islamic States

Let’s do a Ziyara!

A visit to the Izmir Jewish cemetery

Let’s do a Ziyara.

During the days between Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the day of atonement), it has become a custom to go “visit” the cemeteries. It is also customary to visit the graves of the saintly on their day of passing. Today, the 16th of Shvat is the day of Passing of Rabbi Hayim Palacci of Izmir. 

Join me on this thread for a Ziyara to the Izmir Gürçecme Cemetery.

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The cemetery has some very old gravestones, some are 500 years old, some are even older – but most people were not originally buried here in Gürçecme but rather on the hill of Bahirbaba.

In 1885, the Izmir municipality ordered the Izmir Jewish community to stop using the Bahirbaba cemetery, which was in continuous use for hundreds of years, and has started building on top of the cemetery.

Many of the graves of the great rabbis were transported in the 1920’s.

“It was a huge and sad job” says Mose Habif, who is entrusted with the Hevra Kadisha the Holy Society of Izmir, about the tragedy of transporting the cemetery…

In our tradition we pay a lot of respect to cemeteries – we believe that the soul will reenter the body at the day of resurrection, the resting place of the body is a very holy but temporary abode –

We call a cemetery a Bet Hayim, house of Living or Bet Olam: Eternal House.

Unfortunately graves are still dug up from Bahirbaba today… Just last year 951 graves were dug up and when the Izmir municipality paved a road over the old Jewish cemetery and 951 new/old graves were reentered here in Gürçecme…

Some of the headstones were transported as well, some are 450 years old!

“When they moved the grave of Rabbi Hayim Palacci, in the 1920’s, a few people died, he was such a holy person” says Mose, and his eyes fill up with tears…

The cemetery has since become a choice place for Ziyara – hundreds of people come from Israel, from America and Europe to pray at the grave of the great rabbis who are buried here.

Before they attend these holy places, they purify themselves and immerse in the Mikvah.

This is a natural spring Mikvah, the practice of Immersion in a Mikve is following with the ruling of Rabbi Palacci, in his book Kaf HaHayim, when he describes the rituals of Ziyara.
Note that he uses the Islamic originated term ‘Ziyara’ in Hebrew: זיהרא…
It is quite amazing, the the natural spring flow starts from beneath Rabbi Palacci’s grave…
Rabbi Palacci, is buried near other great rabbis – luminaries such as Rabbi Iskapa, Rabbi Lapapa, Rabbi Benveniste, Rabbi Eliyahu Haitmari, Rabbi Hazan, Rabbi Arditi and many many more, including his sons, Hahambaşı Avraham Palacci, and Rabbis Yitzhak and Yosef as well…
Here is the grave of Rabbi Lapapa! The great rabbi of Izmir and the opponent of Shabtai Tzvi buried right next to Rabbi Iskapa the first Hahambasi of Izmir and the founder of the unified Izmir Rabbinate…

Rabbi Hayim Palacci, is very well known, and his teachings are used by virtually every rabbi around the world, click here to listen to a short thought I repeated while visiting his synagogue:

It is important to note, though, that we don’t pray ‘to’ the graves, but we pray ‘at’ the graves… We ask that the souls of those buried here intervene on our behalf in front of the Eternal…

“It gives us a sense of humility, it breaks our hearts, so prayers flow make easily.”

“People get very emotional here” they cry, they pray “they don’t want to leave!”… He says and his voice chokes with emotion.

“Ziyara Makbula”… Allah Kabul Etsin… May our prayers be heard…
While it is common for Jews of Turkey to do Ziyara, and visit graves of deceased family members – especially between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kipur, when the Chief Rabbinate also provides for Hazan’s to attend the cemeteries – There is one group of Turkish Jews, who don’t…
Some Ashkenazi Jews in Turkey have the custom of not walking into a cemetery, if/while their parents are alive!
I obviously knew of the Ashkenazi custom of walking out during Yizkor (memorial prayer recited on holidays) and not saying Kaddish (prayer for mourning)…
But when I became the rabbi of the Ashkenazi community of Istanhul, I was introduced to this one as well.
It was a bad sign (Ayin Hara) to the parents if their children walked into a cemetery!
May we only have good signs!
About the Author
Mendy Chitrik is the Ashkenazi Rabbi of Turkey and Chair of the Alliance of Rabbis in Islamic States. Follow me on twitter at @mchitrik
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