Located just south of Jerusalem on the outskirts of Bethlehem, Rachel’s Tomb is one of Judaism’s holiest sites, following after the Temple Mount and the Cave of Machpelah. Except for the period of 1948-1967 when Jordan illegally occupied the West Bank, Jews have continuously made pilgrimage to Kever Rachel since as far back as the Byzantine era (324-638 C.E.). Each year on 11 Cheshvan, thousands of pilgrims come to pray at Rachel Emenu’s tomb on the day of her yahrzeit.
The story behind this custom is found in the Tanakh. Bereshis 35:16-21 recounts, “They set out from Bayt-El; but when they were still some distance from Efrat; Rachel went into childbirth, and she had hard labor. When her labor was at its hardest, the midwife said to her, “Have no fear, for it’s another boy for you.” But as she breathed her last –as she was dying– she named him Ben-Oni, but his father called him Benyamin. So Rachel died. She was buried on the road to Efrat — now Bethlehem. Over her grave Ya’akov set up a pillar, it is the pillar at Rachel’s grave to this day.”
A Midrash states that as Rachel’s son Yosef was being carted to Egypt after being sold into slavery, he broke away from his captors as the caravan crossed Bethlehem and cried out at his mother’s grave. Yosef heard his mother’s voice saying “Do not fear. Go with them, and G-d will be with you.” One tradition tells us that Ya’akov buried Rachel in Bethlehem, rather than the Cave of Machpelah, because he foretold that the generation of the Babylonian Exile would need her prayers as they crossed on the road to leave their homeland.
Yirmiyahu 31:15-17 states that it was here that remains the compassion of Rachel Emenu, “Rachel, weeping for her children, she refuses to be comforted for her children who are gone.” Thus was born the custom of praying for Rachel’s blessing and it here that we ask her to cry for the Jewish people when we’re faced with adversity and sorrows, especially women who come to pray for a successful pregnancy, or to conceive a child, especially if they are barren.
Complementing these prayers is the tradition of tying of a red string around one’s wrist, an ancient segulah meant to ward off danger and increase fertility. This much loved practice is not mentioned in Jewish sources but seems to be a custom that has been around for a very long time, and may be based on Torah or Kabalistic ideas.
The building that houses the tomb has undergone many changes throughout the centuries. A report from the late 7th century says it was only a stone pyramid with no decoration. The tomb seems to have been forgotten about for several centuries until the Crusaders revived its importance in the 11th and 12th centuries. Later, Petachiah of Regensburg, a notable rabbi and explorer, wrote that the tomb had a pillar made of 11 stones, each representing the Tribes, except for Benyamin since Rachel died giving birth to him.
From at least the 15th century the tomb came under the control of the Muslim Ottoman authorities, who converted it into a mosque. However, Muhmmad Pasha, governor of Jerusalem, granted the Jews exclusive rights over the tomb in 1615. The royal decree was renewed in 1830 at the behest of a representative of the Jewish community, Avraham Behar Avraham. This reflects the fact that, unlike today, Muslims at that time did not dispute the Jews’ ownership of Rachel’s Tomb. In 1622, Pasha gave the caretakers permission to wall off the four pillars that supported the dome, thus making Rachel’s Tomb a closed building and giving it the distinctive shape we see today.
The Galilee earthquake of 1837 devastated the Tomb which had already been in a state of disrepair. Jewish-British financier and philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore purchased the site in 1841 and made extensive renovations. He repaired the white dome and constructed an antechamber for Muslim prayer and burial preparation, likely as an olive branch to the Muslim community which had already built an extensive cemetery near the building. However, even after this conciliatory gesture, a report by James Finn, the British consul, in 1856 noted that Jews were forced to pay “100 lira a year to the Taamra Arabs for not wrecking Rachel’s Tomb near Bethlehem.”
Even the issue of repairs to the site became politicized. For example, the Chief Rabbinate made a repair request in 1921 to the Municipality of Bethlehem but local Muslims objected and British authorities ruled that all repairs should be undertaken by the government. However, neither Jews nor Muslims wanted that so the issue was dropped. In 1929, the year of the infamous Arab riots, the Islamic Waqf demanded for the first time control over the site, claiming it was part of the nearby Muslim cemetery.
Shlomo Freiman, the tomb’s last Ashkenazi caretaker, illustrates in his diary the tension between Muslims and Jews over Rachel’s Tomb. In one entry he notes:
“Elul 5706: Most of the (Muslim) dead do not enter inside (the anteroom). Only in isolated cases where they bring a slain person from Jerusalem, or a dead person from the hospital, and have not managed to pray at the spot, they bring the dead body into the corridor and pray. Many times they bring the dead deliberately in order to disturb the prayers, for they as well recite a long prayer. Many times they sit for hours upon hours without disturbance….I think that one has to correct this distortion and must not allow them to do as they want. Yesterday I felt that they were afraid. They saw many Jews, so they didn’t bring the dead person inside.”
The issue of ownership was brought out in the open after the Jordanian occupation of the West Bank in 1948. U.N. Resolution 194 called on free access to holy places in Israel, but Jordan refused access to Israeli citizens.
Israel gained control over the Tomb after its victory over Jordan in the 1967 war. In 1993, Israel decided to bar Muslims from using the cemetery. Terrorist attacks in the early 1990’s led the IDF to ramp up security at the Tomb. This proved to be a wise move as hundreds of Palestinian protesters led by the Palestinian Authority-appointed Governor of Bethlehem attacked the Tomb in 1996. Another attack occurred in 2000 and Jews were subsequently barred for 41 days from visiting the site due to security concerns.
Also in 2000, Palestinian publications began to make the unsubstantiated claim that Rachel’s Tomb is actually the “Bilal ibn Rabah mosque.” According to Islamic tradition, Bilal ibn Rabah was an Ethiopian slave who served in Muhammad’s household as the first muezzin or one who calls Muslims to prayer. After Muhammad’s death, ibn Rabah fought in various Muslim wars in Syria and was buried in either Aleppo or Damascus. There was no earlier precedent in Islamic tradition for ibn Rabah being buried anywhere in Israel.
In fact, Islamic tradition reveres Rachel and has otherwise regarded the site as her tomb. According to Israeli historian Professor Yehoshua Porath, the Arabic name of the site was “the Dome of Rachel, a place where the Jews prayed.” Numerous pre-2000 Palestinian publications recognize the site as Rachel’s Tomb, not that of ibn Rabah or as a mosque. For example, the book Palestine the Holy Land states that “At the northern entrance to the city the Tomb of Rachel appears, the mother of the matriarchs, who died while giving life to Benjamin.” Contrast this historically accurate claim with the one made in Palestinian newspaper Al-Hayat al-Jadida in 2000, namely that “Bethlehem – ‘the Tomb of Rachel,’ or the Bilal ibn Rabah mosque, is one of the nails the occupation government and the Zionist movement hammered into many Palestinian cities….The tomb is false and was originally a Muslim mosque.”
These baseless allegations have had the effect of prompting more attacks on worshippers and guards at Rachel’s Tomb during the Second Intifada right up to the present. On numerous occasions, Palestinian terrorists threw bombs and rocks at the tomb. At one point, 50 Jewish pilgrims were trapped in the middle of a battle between the IDF and Palestinian Authority forces, the latter of which were tasked with safeguarding the Tomb but instead took up arms and attacked it. Responding to the need for additional security, the Israeli Supreme Court in 2005 rejected a Palestinian request to alter the route of the security barrier near the Tomb. However, attacks still continue. Just last month, an attack injured an IDF soldier providing security at the Tomb.
In 2010, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Rachel’s Tomb would become an official national Jewish heritage site. Not surprisingly, both the Palestinian Authority and UNESCO, a U.N.-affiliated body, condemned this move – the latter claiming that the Tomb is “an integral part of the occupied Palestinian territories.” Strangely, a UNESCO resolution declared the site to be both Rachel’s Tomb and “Bilal ibn Rabah Mosque.” Netanyahu countered the resolution, saying, “It is unfortunate that an organization established in order to promote historic heritage sites around the world is trying, for political reasons, to uproot the connection between Israel and its heritage.”
Sadly, playing politics with the Jewish people’s heritage isn’t anything new for the U.N. or the Palestinian leadership. Nevertheless, the Tomb is recognized around the world as one of the most famous symbols of the Land of Israel and the Jewish people, appearing on photos, paintings, postcards, and more. The Zohar states that at the time of redemption (may it happen soon), the Shechina will rest on Rachel’s Tomb.
To get to the Tomb, located along the Israel-West Bank border, you will have to drive just a mile south of Jerusalem city limits. Alternatively there are six buses that leave daily from the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem, except when the Tomb is closed on Shabbos, on Yom Tov and for two and half hours each night, starting at 10pm. Entry and parking are free. Despite the attacks, none have occurred inside the Tomb so it’s safe to visit, protected by 25 foot high concrete walls and a heavy guard presence that constantly monitors every part of the Tomb.
For more info on how to get there, as well as the rules of visiting the site, consult the website of The Friends of Rachel’s Tomb at http://www.rachelstomb.org
Sources: Jewish Virtual Library, sacred-destinations.com, Go Israel, “Tomb of Rachel” by David Rossoff, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Jewish Encyclopedia, Ynet News, TRCB News