Bet Ha-Hayim / The Cemetery: Where Beginnings and Ends Meet
Solo, ni al bedahey
"Alone, not even at the cemetery."
Another comfort toward the end of one’s life was in the very name of the place they would be buried. In Ladino, the cemetery was was known euphemistically as bedahey, a variation of the Hebrew bet ha-hayim, meaning “the house of life.”
The cemetery in Sephardic communities was truly a bet ha-hayim: a living place that was central to the rhythms of Jewish life. Instead of symbolizing fear, sickness, or bad omens, it was a place to pray for new life, hope for success, and a testament to a community’s vitality.
Ziyara: Community visits to the cemetery
Throughout the Ottoman Empire, the cemetery could be an active place where past and present intersected. Sephardic Jews made annual cemetery pilgrimages known as ziyara to visit the graves of loved ones—a variation of the Arabic word ziare, meaning to visit, and a custom inspired by their Muslim neighbors dating back to pre-Inquisition Spain. They also prayed at the graves of famous rabbis before Rosh Ha-Shana (the Jewish New Year) and Passover, and, in Salonica, a communal ziyara grande (great pilgrimage) took place before the Jewish New Year.
Today in the United States in Sephardic communities like Seattle, a similar ziyara grande takes place: Sephardic Bikur Holim Congregation (founded primarily by Jews from Turkey) makes the ziyara on the Sunday between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur; Congregation Ezra Bessaroth (founded primarily by Jews from the Island of Rhodes) makes the pilgrimage twice: once before the beginning of the month of Tishri (the same month during which Rosh HaShana falls out), and once before the beginning of the month of Nisan (the month during which Passover occurs).
The cemeteries also offered niche employment opportunities. Honadjis, a Turkish-dervied term literally meaning “callers,” were rabbis of lower status who escorted visitors to specific tombs and recited prayers. Sometimes, for a funeral, families would also hire planyaderas—professional mourners who would cry, sing mournful dirges, and recite elegies with musical accompaniment.
The cemetery is like a temple: The importance of the bet ha-hayim
Some of the largest and oldest Jewish cemeteries once stood in the Ottoman Empire: in Salonica—once home to the largest of all Jewish burial grounds and the final resting place for Sephardic scholars and rabbis dating back to the sixteenth century—in Istanbul, and in Izmir.
In many cases, these vast burial grounds were adjacent to city centers and became the target of urban modernization plans in the twentieth century. In the case of Salonica, the Greek municipality expropriated the Jewish cemetery to make way for a university; in Izmir one of the Jewish cemeteries was similarly demolished to make way for a school.
When Salonica’s cemetery was threatened to be demolished (before its ultimate destruction in 1942), local rabbis invoked the Talmud and later codes of Jewish law which said that in Jewish tradition, the cemetery is regarded as a temple. This not only declared reverence for the burial sites, but also categorized the cemetery as a place where the living visited, engaged, and regarded as a central institution.
For example, children, even in their old age, would visit their parents’ graves to share their problems and worries, “in the same manner as had been done in life.” Pregnant women across the Ottoman Empire would also go to the cemetery close to giving birth to pray for a healthy child—a practice that brought the two extreme points of the life cycle together.