Jewish Life in Istanbul from the Ottomans to Modern Life

The Jewish religion has a four-thousand year history, but is also an accumulation of culture, mores, traditions, and symbols. The Jewish religion is an eclectic concept that might at first glance seem complex, but which in fact is a collection of unique characteristics. That is why it would not be possible to give a short definition of Judaism. Belief in God lies at the foundation of Judaism, which constitutes the starting point of a whole culture and way of life. Learning about this particular way of life, which is interwoven with certain values, concepts, and traditions that are transmitted from generation to generation, is the only way that these people, who are dispersed throughout the world, can survive alienation. The religious laws that form the basis of this concept (Judaism) were born in antiquity, were enriched with new teachings throughout history, and were applied by subsequent generations in differing ways. Most of the norms and traditions that make up the Jewish way of life today have throughout time shown distinct differences, not in essence but in practice. It would be correct to say, however, that in spite of all the differences, all these customs unite in a single concept: monotheism. This way of life is proof of the strong belief in the same God with inspiration from the same source, whatever its origins.


First Contact between Jews and Ottomans

The Ottomans first met the Jews as a settled community in 1326, when Orhan Gazi conquered Bursa. The Jews of Bursa received the Ottomans as saviors. The Etz Hayim (Tree of Life) synagogue that was built during Orhan Gazi’s time and with his permission remained open until the 1940s.

After Sultan Murad I conquered Edirne, many of the Jews who lived in the Balkans immigrated to the Ottoman lands in hopes of a better life. Many Jews fled the atrocities they had faced in Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and immigrated to Ottoman lands. The Chief Rabbi of Edirne, Isaac Zarfati, is known to have sent a letter to his co-religionists in Europe inviting them to come to Turkey where “every man may dwell at peace under his own vine and fig tree…”2 Many Central European Jews took this letter seriously and settled in the Ottoman Empire.

When Sultan Mehmed II conquered Istanbul in 1453, the Byzantine Jews, known as the Romaniots, received him as their savior. The last Chief Rabbi of the Byzantine Jews, Moshe Kapsali, became the first Turkish Chief Rabbi or hahambaşı. Mehmed II sent a letter to all the Anatolian Jews, says:

The Ottoman Sultan Mehmed says: God has granted me many a country and has ordered me to look after the bloodline of Abraham and Jacob, to provide them with food, and to protect them. Who amongst you would like to come to the capital, Istanbul, God willing, and settle in this city and live in peace in the shadow of vineyards and figs, deal in free trade, and own estates and properties?

3 After this letter, many Jewish families came and settled in Istanbul. Mehmed II also issued a ferman (decree) allowing the Jews the freedom to practice their religion. Even though he did not permit the Jews to build new synagogues, he did allow them to repair existing ones and to use their homes as places of worship. Jewish immigration to the Ottoman Empire continued throughout the fifteenth century.

Turkish Sephardic Jews

The story of the Turkish Sephardic Jews starts in the month of March, 1492, when the Catholic rulers of Spain, Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, decided that Spain was to be entirely Catholic. All Jews and Muslims who refused to convert were asked to leave Spain. According to some historians, around 200,000 Spanish Jews left Spain and immigrated to northern Europe and the lands of the Mediterranean basin. Again, according to some historians, around 93,000 of these Jews arrived in the Ottoman Empire and were received by the sultan of the time, Bayezid II. The sultan sent a declaration to his governors telling them “not to refuse the Jews entry or cause them difficulties, but to receive them cordially.” He also warned them that “should any treat the immigrants badly or cause them harm, they would be severely punished.” 4

Those Jews who fled the Spanish Inquisition and sought refuge in Portugal also had to leave a mere four years later, in 1496, when King Manuel I married the daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand; their marriage contract included the requirement of expelling the Jews from Portugal. On 5 December 1496 “all Jews and Muslims” were ordered “to leave the country within 10 months.” Most of these Jews also found a safe haven in the Ottoman Empire.

The Spanish and Portuguese Jews continued to immigrate to the Ottoman Empire throughout the sixteenth century. They called themselves Sephardim, meaning “Spanish Jews,” derived from the Hebrew word Sepharad, for “Spain.” The Sephardic Jews settled and founded Jewish communities in western Anatolia, the Marmara region, Thrace, and the Balkans. Initially, Jews who arrived from various places in Spain chose to settle down together with those who had also emigrated from the same region to alleviate the feeling of alienation. The Sephardim did not have to build walls around their settlements, nor did they have to keep themselves separated from the local people or cultures due to the general atmosphere of tolerance in the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans, for their part, protected the rights of their new subjects and took advantage of their many talents, employing many in their palaces as diplomats, doctors, and in other capacities.

Sultan Selim I’s admonition to his treasurer, who refused to pay the inheritors of a Jew who had passed away before collecting a debt owed him by the treasury, is renowned: “May the deceased rest in peace, may his children be in good health, may the deceiver be cursed.”5

When Sultan Süleyman I laid siege to Budin after his victory at Mohács, a committee headed by Joseph ben Solomon Ashkenazi unconditionally tendered him the keys to the tower and city of Budin. The sultan then published a royal edict permanently exempting his family and their descendants from paying any kind of tax to the Ottoman government. This edict was renewed by the following ruler as well.6

The Spanish refugees might not have brought their fortunes to the Ottoman Empire, but they certainly brought their know-how and talents. The first printing press ever to be founded in the Ottoman Empire was founded in Istanbul in 1493 by David and Samuel ibn Nahmias, two Spanish refugee brothers.7

What Immanuel Aboab claims Sultan Bayezid II said of the Catholic monarchs of Spain is also quite famous: “How can you call this king [Ferdinand] intelligent and demure Fernando? He is impoverishing his own kingdom while enriching mine!”8

Istanbul, Salonika, Edirne, Safed, and Izmir became Sephardic cultural centers over the centuries that followed the arrival of the Sephardic Jews in the Ottoman Empire. Many expert craftsmen in the leather, copper, textile, and dye industries were able to ply their trades. The fact that the Sephardic Jews were mostly polyglots enabled them to work in the foreign affairs of the government. Some examples include: Joseph Nasi, who was given the title of Duke of Naxos by Sultan Selim II; Gracia Nasi; Solomon ben Nathan Ashkenazi, a close friend of Sokollu Mehmed Pasha; and Solomon Aben Yaesh, the architect of Ottoman-British diplomatic relations who was given the title of Duke of Midilli by Murad III.

Many famous doctors such as “Hekim” (Doctor) Jacob, Joseph Hamon, Moshe Hamon, Daniel Fonseca, and Gabriel Buenaventura also worked at the Ottoman court.

The Sephardic Jews living in the Ottoman Empire also produced significant literary works in the field of liturgy. Joseph Caro wrote the Shulhan Arukh, a guide to essential practices in Judaism. Solomon ben Moses ha-Levi Alkabes composed the renowned Lekha Dodi in Edirne, which came to be the hymn that all Jews throughout the world sing today to welcome the Sabbath. Jacob Kuli started writing the famous Me‘am Lo‘ez in Istanbul in 1730. Rabbi Abraham ben Isaac Ada became known as the father of Jewish liturgical literature.

The Turkish Sephardic community under Ottoman rule led a patriarchal, religious, and conservative life centered around administrative institutions like the bet-din (rabbinical court), which was made up of schoolmasters and judges. The Ottomans collected their due taxes and never interfered in the internal affairs of minorities, never pressured them over culture, religion, or language, and never tried to assimilate them. That is why the Sephardic Jews have been able to preserve their language, which they called Judeo-Espanyol or da Ladino, as well as their culture and traditions for more than five hundred years, an uncommon phenomenon in world history. This is why their language and culture are of significance to social scientists and especially linguists. It is also necessary to mention that even though the Sephardic Jews were able to preserve their cultural heritage for centuries, there was also an inevitable cultural interaction between all the different communities among which they lived for so many centuries.

The Treaty of Lausanne

With the proclamation of the 1856 Imperial Edict of Reforms (Islahat Fermanı) all Ottoman citizens, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, were declared equal under the new law. As a result of this development, the leadership of the Jewish community began to shift away from the religious toward more secular forces.

The Treaty of Lausanne in 1924 accorded minority rights to the three principal non-Muslim religious minorities in Turkey and permitted them to carry on with their own schools, social institutions, and funds. On 15 September 1925, with a decision taken by its administration, the Jewish community renounced the personal rights entailed by its minority status.


The annual cycle of Jewish holidays forms the basis of Jewish life. The Jewish holidays are the times when whole families come together around a table to celebrate the holy days, usually under the rules of kashruth (Jewish dietary law) and the specific culinary culture of the community, in this case the Sephardic Jews of Turkey. Unity, solidarity, and affection in the family are the most important characteristics of Jewish life. Even today, when many of the stricter religious rules have loosened because of contemporary life style, celebrating the Friday night as a sacred time and a night for the family is one tradition that is applied unfailingly. That is why it would be best to begin this description of Jewish religious life there.


According to the Torah, God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. The seventh day, Shabbat (Saturday), starts at sunset on Friday and ends at sunset on Saturday when the first star appears in the sky. God’s fourth commandment to Moses was about the Shabbat: “Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God: you shall not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements.”9

Stopping all kinds of work constitutes the basis of the rules and prohibitions concerning the Shabbat. All housework is to be finished before Shabbat starts. The members of the household wash, get dressed, and prepare to welcome the Shabbat. The table is set early and everyone awaits a most eminent guest: the Shabbat. The preparations end with the young son of the house lighting the Shabbat candles.

Turkish Jews traditionally start their Shabbat preparations on Thursday. All the shopping for the Shabbat dinner is done and the most sumptuous meal of the week is prepared. All family members who do not have the chance to see each other during the week come together at this occasion, thus strengthening family ties. This tradition is meticulously transmitted to the younger generations, who know that Friday nights are reserved for family dinners.

Before further explaining the Jewish holidays, it would be appropriate to look at the particularities of the Jewish calendar.

Synagogue Visits In Istanbul
Synagogue Visits In Istanbul

The Jewish Calendar

The Hebrew calendar is actually a lunar calendar. In the beginning, it was a calendar that had twelve months and between 353 and 355 days; however, it was later rearranged according to the Gregorian calendar so that religious, agricultural, and astrological phases could all coincide. One Hebrew calendar cycle lasts for nineteen years and it is arranged so that there are seven leap years (with thirteen months) every three years. The calendar starts on the first of the month of Tishrei and ends on the twenty-ninth of the month of Elul. Holidays, mourning, or death anniversaries never occur on the same day in a year, but they do occur in the same season.


Rosh Hashanah: The first day of the year

Rosh Hashanah can be defined as “Head” (rosh) of the “Year” (shanah). According to the Hebrew calendar, the first day of the sixth month is Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of a new year, and is celebrated by Jews as the New Year. Rosh Hashanah lasts for two days and on both nights there is a traditional family dinner. It is also traditional to eat apples with honey and pomegranates: apples with honey or apple jam so that one has a sweet new year, and pomegranates for abundance, prosperity, and social unity. During the Rosh Hashanah holiday people visit their elders, family members, and friends. The younger generation is encouraged to visit the elders to get their blessings. On the second morning of Rosh Hashanah, an instrument made of ram horn, called shofar, is blown to wish everyone a happy new year.

Two candles are lit on both nights of Rosh Hashanah. On the second night, an assortment of the first fruits of the season is arranged around the candles and the following wishes are made: “May God grant us happiness, health, success, help for the needy, protection for widows and orphans, happiness for broken hearts, hope, courage, and strength for the people of our nation.”10

Yom Kippur: Day of Atonement

The Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, is celebrated ten days after Rosh Hashanah, on the tenth day of the month of Tishrei. A fast that lasts approximately twenty-six hours cleanses the soul and conscience. With this fast, an individual starts the new year having settled accounts with God and his or her conscience, and having been cleansed. This day of cleansing and renewal is Yom Kippur.

The belief in Judaism is that people’s fate in any given year is determined according to their behavior in the previous year. If they have performed good and charitable acts during the year, then the following year will be good for them. During the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Jews engage in soul-searching and think about all the errors they have committed the previous year. They try to apologize for all the injustices and grievances they have caused and they repent, asking for God’s forgiveness.

An hour before sunset on the ninth day after Rosh Hashanah, the great fast commences. During the twenty-six hours that follow, one does not eat or drink anything. On the night that the fast starts, one goes to the synagogue, prays, and does soul-searching. The following day is spent with prayers and repentances. Forty minutes after sunset, the shofar is blown to announce that the fast is over.

It is customary to cover the table with a white tablecloth and set a lavish feast before the fast starts. One usually avoids salt and too many spices, and dessert is usually watermelon. It is also a tradition to have Turkish coffee after dinner.

To end the fast, it is customary to eat a spoonful of preferably apple jam and drink a glass of water. Family members hug each other and make wishes like “May God accept your fast.” The next tradition is to eat pieces of bread dipped in salty olive oil. After this, in the Istanbul tradition, one has coffee and milk with cakes and biscuits. After resting for a while, chicken soup is served, followed by the main meal. In recent years, to avoid stomach problems after a long fast, most families have given up the main meal. After Yom Kippur, one is ready to start the new year having cleansed his or her soul.


Sukkoth starts five days after Yom Kippur, on the fifteenth day of the month of Tishri. Sukkoth is also known as the “Feast of Booths” or the “Feast of Tabernacles.” It is celebrated to commemorate the forty years after the exodus from slavery in Egypt that the Jews spent in the desert, during which they lived in small tents called tabernacles, and also to show God their gratitude for the protection He gave them during those difficult times. As Sukkoth coincides with the maturation of certain fruits, vine products, and olives, it is also called Hag Aasif, meaning the “Harvest Festival.”11

Hanukkah: Festival of Lights

Some festivals in Judaism are celebrated to commemorate certain historical events. Hanukkah, the “Festival of Lights,” is one such festival. The historical event it commemorates took place between the years 169 and 166 BCE. In those years the Maccabees were fighting the Greeks in the sacred city of Jerusalem. Once, when the Maccabees were fleeing from the Greeks, they sought refuge in a synagogue. There, they found oil with which to light a candle, but only enough to last for one day. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days. The Hanukkah festival is celebrated in remembrance of that miracle. The festival starts on the twenty-fifth day of the month of Kislev and lasts for eight days. One candle is lit on the first night, with another additional candle lit every night thereafter. The first candle symbolizes God saying, “Let there be light.” The second symbolizes the Torah, the third Justice, the fourth Mercy, the fifth Sanctity, the sixth Love, the seventh Patience, and the eighth Courage.

Tu Bishvat

Tu Bishvat is celebrated on the fifteenth of the month of Shevat. According to religious authorities there are three other New Years apart from Rosh Hashanah. Tu Bishvat, the New Year for trees, is one of them. The rain season in the sacred lands causes trees to rejuvenate. The Torah has encouraged Jews to tend the land and to live in harmony with nature. “When you enter the lands God has granted you, you will find them full of good things. You will lay siege to the cities but will not cut down the trees as every tree is as precious as a human being… When you enter the lands I promised you, you will eat from the fruit of the trees there and you will plant new trees so that the generations after you will inherit a green world.” 12 Today, as Jews live mostly in big cities, it has become traditional to celebrate Tu Bishvat by planting trees in rural areas.

In Istanbul, Sephardic Jews celebrate Tu Bishvat as the “Festival of Fruits.” Tables are set at home with fifteen types of fruit, seven of which are found in the sacred lands (wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates). A prayer is said for every type of fruit eaten and then the celebrations continue with songs.


A festival that is celebrated with great joy, Purim comes from the Hebrew word pur, which means “dice.” It got this name because at the time of the Persian Empire, the Persian administration wanted to massacre the Jews and decided on a date for it by throwing dice. The Jews narrowly escaped being massacred on that day, and that is why they commemorate it with a celebration. Purim is a joyous festival. Masked balls are organized and children sing, dance, and receive pocket money. Fruit and colorful candies are offered in abundance.

Pesach (Passover)

Pesach (Passover) is celebrated in the month of Nisan. It starts on the fifteenth of the month and lasts for eight days. This is the anniversary of the children of Israel escaping slavery in Egypt. They were saved by the grace of God and the strength He granted to Moses. As the Jewish people left Egypt in a hurry, they did not have the time to leaven their bread and had to eat unleavened bread after they left. That is why Jews do not eat or keep any food that has been leavened in their homes during Pesach. During the eight days of Pesach, Jews eat unleavened bread called matsa.

It is traditional to do a thorough cleaning in the houses prior to Pesach. This is very similar to the spring cleaning done in other cultures. It is very important to clean every corner to rid the house of all crumbs.

The first two nights of Pesach, it is traditional to have a feast for celebration. The Turkish Sephardic culinary tradition requires certain dishes to be present on the table: pies made of spinach, leeks, and zucchini, leek meatballs, fish, and baked lamb with potatoes and peas. It is also customary to read the history of this holiday and thank God for delivering the Jews from slavery. This historical rendering of the feast is called the Agada, and should be read in a language that everyone, especially children, can understand. The head of the family, usually the oldest male present, interprets the different paragraphs of the Agada for the children. It has become customary in Istanbul to read the Agada in Hebrew, Ladino, and Turkish in order to keep the tradition alive. It is also customary to invite all members of the family and people who are known to be alone that night to the Pesach feast. After dinner, everyone sings Pesach songs. On the eighth day, one eats bread and expresses gratitude to God for this wonderful gift.


Shavuot is a feast that celebrates Moses’ reception of the Ten Commandments from God on behalf of Israel. This is the season when the first fruits and vegetables are ready to be harvested, so this holiday is also called the “Feast of the First Fruits.”

Shavuot is a feast of joy and thankfulness. It is customary to show gratitude to God. It is a tradition to consume milk products and desserts.


In ancient times, Jews constructed the greatest temple in their history in Jerusalem. This temple, called Beit Amigdash, was destroyed twice: once by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and once by the Romans in 70 CE. Following these events, the Jews were obliged to leave their lands and thus began their new lives in the diaspora. Both destructions of the Beit Amigdash fell on the ninth day of the month of Ab, and so did many of the disasters that befell the Jews throughout history. That is why the ninth day of Ab, tishah be Ab, is considered a day of great mourning and is usually spent praying and fasting.


Brit Milah: Circumcision

All Jewish boys have their Brit Milah (circumcision) when they are eight days old. This ritual, which has been practiced since antiquity, is the symbol of the pact between God and the Jewish people. “Such shall be the covenant between Me and you and your offspring to follow which you shall keep: every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. And throughout the generations, every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days … Thus shall My covenant be marked in your flesh as an everlasting pact” (Genesis 17: 10–13).

The Brit Milah is carried out by a mohel (circumciser) who has been trained in all matters of the Jewish religion. Today, it is preferable that these people also have medical training. Most families put in a request for a doctor to be present while the mohel performs Brit Milah. The mohel gives the baby boy his Jewish name at the beginning of the ritual, and then performs the circumcision. Today, the Brit Milah ceremonies in the Turkish Jewish community are celebrated joyously either at the hospital where the baby is born or at a private venue.

Pidyon Aben: Ransom of the first-born son

In ancient times all first-born offspring, be they human or animal, were considered to belong to God; this was one of His commandments. All first-born male children were thus raised to work in the service of God and became priests, servants, or musicians at the Holy Temple. Later on, when serving at the temple became the prerogative of the tribe of Levi, the first-born males of other tribes were exempted from the temple duty by paying a Levite or a kohen (priest) the sum of five shekels, symbolically buying them back.

In Hebrew the word pidyon means “ransom” or, more specifically, “liberation fee.” The Pidyon Aben is thus the ceremony in which children are symbolically bought back by their families. The ceremony takes place on the thirty-first day after a child’s birth. The baby has to be mother’s first child and male, and she must not have had a miscarriage before the birth either. He also must have been born by natural delivery. The ransom has to be paid by the father. In the Torah, the amount to be paid as ransom has been set at five silver coins of a total of ninety-six grams. In Turkey, the ransom is paid in silver spoons. Pidyon cannot be paid in cash.

Vijola: The naming of a new-born daughter

The birth of all baby girls is celebrated with the Vijola ceremony. It is actually a name-giving ceremony. This tradition has risen in importance in the Turkish Jewish community in recent years. This rise might be considered by social scientists as a consequence of living in an age when male-female equality has become more and more predominant, such that whatever ceremony is done for the boys has to be done for the girls as well. Ceremonies such as the bat mitzvah and the Vijola, which were not very popular formerly, are frequently celebrated nowadays, in an age when economic conditions have led to families with fewer children, or in many cases just one. If that child is a girl, then the families want to have a celebration for that child, too.

Bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah

In Hebrew the phrase bar mitzvah means “son of the commandments,” and the phrase bat mitzvah means “daughter of the commandments.” The bar mitzvahs, celebrated since ancient times, and the bat mitzvahs, recently much more popular, are unforgettable ceremonies for any Jewish child, boy or girl.

All boys who are thirteen years old and all girls who are twelve years old celebrate their bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah. All young Jews who celebrate their coming-of-age ceremonies are considered to have become adults and to be mature enough to assume and fulfill their responsibilities.

A thirteen-year-old Jewish boy is given religious training before his bar mitzvah and learns about prayers and Jewish law. During the ceremony, he is invited to read the Torah. With this ceremony, he proves himself to have reached maturity and is introduced to the community as a young adult. In Turkey, it is traditional for young men to make a speech during their bar mitzvah ceremonies thanking their parents for raising them and for giving them love and support and thanking the guests for sharing this wonderful day with them.

Bat mitzvahs first started to be celebrated in the nineteenth century. In Turkey, these ceremonies, which were once celebrated in different ways, have evolved into one big ceremony where all the girls of the community celebrate their bat mitzvah. They all wear white dresses and enter the synagogue on their fathers’ arms. They pray and sing songs together. A feast at the end of the ceremony has also become a tradition.


According to Jewish law, marriage is a contract that begins with the wedding ceremony. The contract is written in a document called the ketubah, a Jewish prenuptial agreement. The couple starts the sacred unity of a family under a chuppah, a ceremonial canopy which symbolizes a roof. Even though Jewish weddings are celebrated in basically the same way, there are certain variations in traditions that are practiced in different communities. For example, every groom accompanies the bride under the chuppah, but the type of chuppah used differs from community to community. In the Sephardic weddings that take place in Istanbul, the parents of the bride and groom hold the chuppah over the heads of their children.

The ketubah

During the wedding ceremony, the rabbi has the ketubah contract signed by the groom before two witnesses, and gives it to a member of the bride’s family, usually the mother. This document is prepared entirely for the benefit of the bride and, in case of a divorce, serves as protection for the woman. The wedding contract details the economic responsibilities of a husband towards his wife. The marriage is not considered valid until the ketubah is signed. Today, in Turkey, a Jewish couple cannot have their religious ceremony enacted before they are legally married in a civil marriage presided over by a state official. In case of a divorce the ketubah is legally valid in courts of law.

Kortadura de Fashadura: Ceremony for the first baby shirt

Expectant mothers organize a ceremony in the fifth or seventh months of their pregnancies. This is a party organized by the mother on either a Monday or Thursday. During this party, it is customary to have a long piece of white muslin cloth on the table. The muslin is cut lengthwise by someone close to the mother and whose parents are still alive. While the muslin is being cut, prayers are uttered and the guests throw candy, rice, and gold coins on it. These symbolize wishing a long, happy, and fruitful life for the baby. The lady who cuts the muslin is responsible for sewing the first shirt that the baby is to wear once he or she is born. Any cloth that is left over is used to make handkerchiefs and napkins for the baby. After the ceremony is over, the expectant mother can start preparing for the coming of the baby by buying whatever is necessary. Kortadura de Fashadura is mostly a Sephardic tradition that is seen only among Turkish Jews. Today, it is celebrated as a baby shower.


According to the Jewish religion, death is not the end of life. The life people lead in this world is a road that leads them to the afterlife, which is called Olam Aba. Rules concerning death and mourning are based on two principles. The first is honoring a human being even if he is dead, and the second is to comfort the mourners emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually.


Kadish is the most powerful prayer in Judaism, and is uttered in Aramaic. It is repeated many times during the mourning period. There are two reasons for this. The first has to do with the individual’s psychological condition. Individuals who have lost a loved one are in a state of pain and rebellion. They rebel against God. By saying this prayer, mourners take refuge in God’s mercy and justice. They show that even though they have rebelled, they believe that He has done no wrong. The second reason has to do with exalting the soul of the dead person as that person’s soul gives an account of his or her deeds before God.


According to Jewish beliefs, the mourning period is divided into three stages: the first seven days, called shiva; the first thirty days, called the shloshim; and the first twelve months after the death, called shneim asar chodesh. Mourning starts the moment the deceased is buried. The shiva period of seven days starts with morning prayers. The day of burial is the first day of shiva. Shabbat is also inside the shiva period. If any of the religious festivals coincide with shiva, then the shiva period is considered complete and does not continue after the festival is over.13

According to Istanbul traditions, the first monthly prayer is said on the thirtieth day after the burial and prayers continue every month until the twelfth month, when the yearly prayer, called Limud, is read. After this, the prayers are read yearly.

Guevo: The mourning feast

The first meal given on the first day of mourning must not be a meal given by the mourners. It is usually the neighbors and friends who provide the meal on this day. It is customary to have eggs (thus the Ladino word Guevo, meaning “egg”) on the table. Eggs, black olives, and round biscuits made with rakı, an aniseed-flavored Turkish liquor, constitute the other foods on the table. Their being round signifies the cycle of life and sends the mourners the message that all human beings will die one day. Friends and neighbors should continue to provide meals throughout the first seven nights. Mourners should not do any work during the first seven days.

According to Judaism, it is forbidden to be too sad for the deceased. One should trust in God’s ability to give and take lives, and one should also trust that what He does is right. If one thinks this way, it is easier to find solace. The gravestone is placed three months after the burial, and that is when the mourners visit the grave for the first time. It is customary for Jews to visit their deceased loved ones on regular occasions.


Jewish Life in Istanbul Today

According to data from the Chief Rabbinate, there are approximately 19,000 Jews living in Turkey (as the Turkish Republic population census does not ask one’s religion, however, it is very difficult to know the exact number). Of these, 17,500 live in Istanbul, and very small numbers live in other cities: 1,500 in Izmir, 50–60 in Bursa, 20–30 in Adana, and 30–40 in Antakya. The young people in smaller cities tend to come to Istanbul once they reach a certain age, especially for the purpose of education, and then rarely go back.

According to statistics from the Chief Rabbinate of Turkey, 97 percent of Turkish Jews are of Sephardic origins and 3 percent are of Ashkenazi origins. Ninety percent of the Jewish population lives in Istanbul, 9 percent in Izmir, and the remaining 1 percent in the cities of Bursa, Adana, Antakya, Ankara, Çanakkale, Gelibolu, and Edirne. Looking at Istanbul, where the majority of the Jewish population lives, one notices that the demographic distribution has changed. Whereas in the past Jews resided in the city center within walking distance of each other, they now reside only in places they can afford. Today it is possible to see many Jews living in Bahçeşehir, Çekmeköy, Göktürk, Küçükyalı, Tuzla, Pendik, Ömerli, and Zekeriyaköy, suburbs quite distant from the city center. Again, statistics show that 73 percent of the Jewish population lives on the European side and 27 percent on the Asian side of Istanbul.

Concerning the age distribution of the Turkish Jewish population, 50 percent of the population is between the ages of twenty-five and fifty-five. Longevity has increased due to better nourishment, healthier diet, more exercise, and better medical care. People over the age of sixty-five constitute 18 percent of the population. At the same time, there has been a decrease in those younger than twenty-five (a decrease of 9 percent in the last five years). Death and emigration rates are much higher than birth rates.

The Turkish Jewish community places a great deal of importance on education. The community has a school that starts at kindergarten and continues through high school. The standard of the education at this school has increased through the years and it is now considered one of the better schools in Istanbul. The school has a student population of six hundred today. According to the data from the Chief Rabbinate, there is no illiteracy among the Jews. Six percent of the Jewish population is made up of primary-school graduates, 26 percent of middle-school graduates, 45 percent of high-school graduates, 29 percent of university graduates, and 4 percent of individuals with post-graduate degrees. These numbers are quite high, even when compared to the world average.

Turkish Jewish families work very hard to give their children a good education. Knowing multiple languages has always been a tradition among Turkish Jews. However, the primary language which used to be spoken in the homes—the language that the Sephardic Jews brought from Spain, Ladino or Judeo-Spanish—is no longer the language of the Sephardic home. What is more, French, which had once served as the lingua franca in the community mainly because of the influence of the Paris-based Alliance Israélite Universelle schools, has lost its enormous influence and is also no longer the language of the Sephardic home. These factors have reduced the polyglot Sephardic Jews to a community that speaks relatively fewer languages. Today the language of the Turkish Sephardic home is Turkish. English, being the new lingua franca, is a highly desirable acquisition for children. Since the 1990s, with the opening of the Cervantes Institute in Istanbul, and because of the fact that it has become the second-most-popular language in the world, Spanish is also a popular language. According to the Chief Rabbinate, 53 percent of Turkish Jews speak one or more foreign language.


The Jews of the Turkish Republic are represented by the Chief Rabbi of Turkey. Rav Isak Haleva was elected to the office in 2002 and serves today as the third Chief Rabbi of Turkey. The Chief Rabbi is helped by a committee of clergymen, called the Bet-Din, in religious mattersAnother committee made up of fifty lay men, called the Advisory Committee, also helps the Chief Rabbi in non-religious matters.

The Balat Or-Ahayim (Light of Life) Hospital, built by Jewish philanthropists and opened in 1898, serves all Turkish citizens with its high quality of medical care.

The Turkish Jewish community has nineteen synagogues in service. Even though some of the synagogues are situated in places where Jews do not live anymore, the temples are preserved because of their historical value.

Quite a number of charitable institutions help the elderly, orphans, individuals with disabilities, and students who are economically disadvantaged. Many volunteers work at these institutions to raise funds.

The Turkish Jewish community has a weekly newspaper, the Şalom, with a readership of approximately four thousand. The Şalom was founded by Avram Leyon in 1947 and was taken over by the community in 1983, when Leyon’s health did not permit him to continue publication. The Şalom, which had been published in Ladino, continued in Turkish after 1983 with one page in Ladino. Like most newspapers today, Şalom can also be accessed on the internet (at

The Sephardic Culture Research Center, operating under the Chief Rabbinate, was founded in 2003 to document, archive, and collect the fast-disappearing cultural heritage of the Sephardic Jews with the aim of securing it for future generations. For the last eight years, the center has published the monthly newspaper El Amaneser, a unique publication in the world with its twenty-four pages entirely in Ladino. El Amaneser is a supplement of the Şalom newspaper. The center has also published the only book of caricatures in Ladino in the world, called La Famiya Mozotros. A paraliturgical hymn tradition that was born in Edirne and which was unique to the Turkish Jews is called the maftirim. The center was able to compile the last hymns in a collection that is also very valuable for the archives of Turkish classical music. The current main project of the center, which has gained international appreciation and respect for its serious academic approach, is the Ladino Database Project, which aims to document the spoken Ladino language by interviewing eighty-one native speakers in Istanbul and Izmir.14

Social Life

Jewish social life was very different before the 1970s, when the members of the community mostly lived within walking distance of each other. This physical closeness changed when young couples began moving to new residential areas that were economically more suitable but much further away from the city center. Until the 1970s, most of the women in the community were housewives, but today it is difficult to find women who do not work outside of the home. The tea parties, afternoon meetings, and card-playing of bygone days can be seen today only among the older members of the female population. Social life has moved to the weekends, when people who live in close proximity can visit each other.

Certain changes in the structure of the community are particularly noteworthy, namely the fact that today social relationships are not limited to members of the Jewish community only. Instead, these relationships now occur within the context of the larger community, mainly due to the fact that young Jewish boys and girls now often attend mixed schools and universities. Again, while large families were common before, the structure of the family is mostly “nuclear” today, consisting of just parents and children. Jewish social life seems to be limited to Shabbat dinners and Jewish festivals, when most of the family members make an effort to get together. Members of the Jewish community try to keep up with the economic conditions of the country and therefore work very hard to make ends meet. What is more, in the globalized world of today they try to deal with technological advancements while at the same time preserving the centuries-old cultural heritage and traditions that have been transmitted down to them through the generations.

Turkish Sephardic Music

The history of Turkish Sephardic music dates back to the year 1492. A great number of the Jews expelled from Spain by the Spanish Inquisition arrived in the Ottoman Empire and were welcomed by Sultan Beyazid II. These Jews settled down all over the Ottoman Empire, and their traditions and culture have been passed down through the years from mother to daughter, following a characteristic path of their own. Over the generations, they slowly evolved into a “Turkish-Sephardic” synthesis. An important part of this synthesis involved musical traditions, as the traditions that came from Spain blended with the musical traditions of the Ottoman Empire and were transmitted from generation to generation.

Turkish Sephardic music can be divided into two main categories: the popular folk songs called kantikas, and the liturgical music in the synagogues. While the language of the kantikas has always been Judeo-Spanish, the language heard in the synagogues has always been Hebrew. Today, when people listen to Turkish Sephardic music, they feel an intense Balkan flavor blended with Turkish classical music, thus reflecting a perfect example of cultural interaction.

Music and Cultural Transmission

One of the most important factors of cultural transmission from generation to generation is music. In Sephardic communities, most cultural elements were traditionally transmitted from mother to daughter down through the generations because of the closed nature of Jewish communities. Men could leave the communities for work, but the women were always at home. Women’s lives were restricted to their home environment and their entertainment consisted of get-togethers with their relatives and neighbors where they would do the washing, sewing, and cooking or perhaps visit a Turkish bath, and, of course, gossip. Music played an important role in all these meetings. One of the women would pick up her mandolin, another her oud (a variety of lute), yet another her def (a variety of tambourine), and they would all start to play and sing. Stories would be conveyed through songs and gossip would disseminate in the same way. Sufferings would have their place in the music, too, and everyone had her own special place in this musical world.

The Romansa Tradition

The musical culture that dominated fifteenth-century Spain was a musical culture called the “Romansa.” Romansas were originally epic songs that depicted tales of bravery and the wars of the nobles. These tales were then adopted by the common people and the stories took on more everyday themes. The musical tradition that the Sephardic Jews brought to the Ottoman Empire was predominantly of this type. The language used in these folk songs has always been Judeo-Spanish. Obviously, women loved to entertain themselves by creating different verses of different songs. This was the musical tradition that the Sephardic Jews brought to the Ottoman Empire.


Altabev, Mary; Judeo-Spanish in the Turkish Social Context, Istanbul: The Isis Press, 2003.

Bali, Rifat N., Cumhuriyet Yıllarında Türkiye Yahudileri – Bir Türkleştirme Serüveni 1923-1945, Istanbul: İletişim, 1999.

Behar, D., İ. Maçoro and D. Sevi; Maftirim: Turkish Sephardic Synagogue Hymns, (4 CD, 1 DVD with a 360-page book), Istanbul: Gözlem Gazetecilik Basın ve Yayın, 2009.

Behar, Rabi Nesim, Dini Uygulama Rehberi – El Gid para el Pratikante, Istanbul: Gözlem Gazetecilik Basın ve Yayın, 2004.

Blech, Rabi Benjamin, Nedenleri ve Niçinleriyle Yahudilik, translated by Estreya Seval Vali, Istanbul: Gözlem Gazetecilik Basın ve Yayın, 2003.

Estreyikas d’Estambol, Un Kavretiko, CD, Istanbul: Gözlem Gazetecilik Basın ve Yayın, 2006.

Harris, Tracy K., Death of a Language: The History of Judeo-Spanish, Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1994.

Los Pasharos Sefaradis, Kantikas Para Syempre, CD & cassette, Istanbul: Gözlem Gazetecilik Basın ve Yayın, 1995.

Los Pasharos Sefaradis, Kantikas Para Syempre, CD, 2nd edition, Istanbul: Gözlem Gazetecilik Basın ve Yayın, 2003.

Los Pasharos Sefaradis, La Romansa de Rika Kuriel, cassette, Istanbul: Gözlem Gazetecilik Basın ve Yayın, 1988.

Los Pasharos Sefaradis, Las Puertas, double-CD, Istanbul: Gözlem Gazetecilik Basın ve Yayın, 2005.

Los Pasharos Sefaradis, Los Pasharos Sefaradis Vol. I, cassette, Istanbul: Gözlem Gazetecilik Basın ve Yayın, 1987.

Los Pasharos Sefaradis, Los Pasharos Sefaradis Vol. II, cassette, Istanbul: Gözlem Gazetecilik Basın ve Yayın, 1987.

Los Pasharos Sefaradis, Los Pasharos Sefaradis Vol III, cassette, Istanbul: Gözlem Gazetecilik Basın ve Yayın, 1987.

Los Pasharos Sefaradis, Zemirot: Türk Sefarad Sinagog İlahileri, CD (with 72-page booklet) & cassette, Istanbul: Gözlem Gazetecilik Basın ve Yayın, 2002.

Rodrigue, Aron, Türkiye Yahudilerinin Batılılaşması – Alliance Okulları 1860-1925, translated by İbrahim Yıldız, Ankara: Ayraç, 1997.

Sephiha, H.V., L’Agonie des judéo-espagnols, Paris: Éditions Entente, 1977.

Şarhon, Karen Gerson, “Culture and Music of the Jews of Turkey”, Jewish Renaissance, 9/2 (2010).

Şarhon, Karen Gerson, “Food – A Taste of Turkey”, Jewish Renaissance, 9/2 (2010).

Şarhon, Karen Gerson, “From Spain to Turkey”, Jewish Renaissance, 9/2 (2010).

Şarhon, Karen Gerson, “Judeo-Spanish: Where We are and Where We are Going”, International Sephardic Journal, 1/1 (2004).

Şarhon, Karen Gerson, “Ladino in Istanbul – Versuch einer Wiederbelebung”, translated by Gisela Dachs, Jüdischer Almanach 2007.

Şarhon, Karen Gerson, “Language Change as Influenced by Cultural Contact. A Case: Ladino” (MA thesis, Boğaziçi University 1983).

Şarhon, Karen Gerson, “The Judeo-Spanish Language, Culture and Music”, in Multiculturalism: Identity and Otherness, ed. Nedret Kuran Burçoğlu, (İstanbul: Boğaziçi University, 1997), pp. 157-165.

Şarhon, Karen Gerson, “The Period When an Awareness and Interest in Ladino Starts Among the Turkish Jewry: Reasons And Analysis”, conference, Jerusalem: World Jewish Studies Congress, 2005.

Şarhon, Karen Gerson, “Türk Sefarad Müziği”, Kırkbudak: Anadolu İnançları Dergisi, (Fall 2007), no. 12, p. 75.

Website of the Turkish Jewish Community,

Yako Taragano Sinagogue Hymns Choir, Zemirot II: Türk Sefarad Sinagog İlahileri, CD (includes booklet with scores and lyrics), Istanbul: Gözlem Gazetecilik Basın ve Yayın, 2008.


1 Suzan Alalu et al., Yahudilikte Kavram ve Değerler, Istanbul: İstanbul: Gözlem Gazetecilik Basın ve Yayın, 1996. The wonderful introduction in this work clearly and succinctly illustrates Jewish life both in the Ottoman Empire and/or Turkey and across the world.

2 Bernard Lewis, Jews of Islam, Princeton : Princeton University Press, 1987, pp. 135-136.

3, cited from Abraham Galante, Histoire des Juifs d’Istanbul, İstanbul: Hüsnütabiat, 1941, vol. 1, p. 3.

4, cited from Abraham Danon, Yossef Daath, 1888, no. 4.

5, from Galante, Histoire des Juifs d’Istanbul, vol. 1, p. 8.

6 The edict of renewal, dated 1155 [1742], is on exhibit today at the 500. Yıl Türk Yahudileri Museum (Quincentennial Foundation Museum of Turkish Jews).

7 Midraş Teilim, a book printed at the David ibn Nahmias press in 1511 in Istanbul, is on exhibit at the 500. Yıl Türk Yahudileri Museum.


9 Alalu et al., Yahudilikte Kavram ve Değerler, p. 180.

10 Alalu et al., Yahudilikte Kavram ve Değerler, pp. 40-41.


12 Alalu et al., Yahudilikte Kavram ve Değerler, pp. 40-41.

13 Alalu et al., Yahudilikte Kavram ve Değerler, p. 153.

14 The different projects of the center can be seen at and

15 Viki Koronyo and Sima Ovadya, Sefarad Yemekleri-Sephardic Cook Book, Istanbul: Gözlem Gazetecilik Basın ve Yayın, 2012.

16 L. Eskinazi et al., Izmir Sephardic Cuisine, Izmir: Etki Yayınevi, 2013.

17 Deniz Alphan, Dina’nın Mutfağı, İstanbul: Doğan Kitapçılık, 2005.


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