A Capsule History of Rachel's Tomb


 

The Tomb of Rachel.  Judaism's third-holiest site, has been the scene of prayer and pilgrimage for more than three thousand years.

Rachel, the beloved wife of the third Patriarch, Ya'acov (Jacob), died in childbirth on the way to Hebron returning to his family's home:

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 it's 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'acov set up a pillar, it is the pillar at Rachel's grave to this day.
                                                                                 Torah, Parshat Vayishlach
                                                                                  (Genesis 35:16-21)
Ya'acov buried Rachel at this spot, rather than a the family burial plot at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, because he foresaw that his decedents would pass this site during the the forced exile to Babylon in the year 423 B.C.E.

And then Rachel would pray for their safety and ultimate return, as it's written:

Rachel, weeping for her children, she refuses to be comforted for her children who are gone. Thus said HaShem: Restrain your voice from weeping, your eyes from shedding tears for there is reward for your labor' declares HaShem. 'They shall return from the enemy's land and there is hope for the future' declares HaShem: 'Your children shall return to their own country.'
                                                                                      Jeremiah 31:15-17
So Ya'acov set up a monument over her lonely grave site so that exiled Jews would recognize it and pray and be comforted as they were being led into captivity.  Ancient writings describe the grave marker as 12 stones that represented the 12 tribes of Israel with one large stone that symbolized Ya'akov.

Since the time of her burial the Tomb of Rachel has always been a special place for prayer.  To this very day, men and women go to Rachel's Tomb to shed tears and beg "Mother Rachel" to intercede with G-d on their behalf -- for the health of a loved one or for Divine Intervention for those in need.  Rachel, the childless woman who ultimately became mother of the Jewish People, has become a special symbol of hope for childless women -- teaching them the power of prayer.  Hundreds of requests are sent every month to the Committee For Rachel's Tomb from Jews world wide, requesting prayers to be said on behalf of the ill, the childless and those in need of a special blessing.

From the Byzantine period until the 1800's Rachel's Tomb consisted of a tiny domed structure:


It was Sir Moses Montifeori who renovated the Tomb in 1841 and  added on an anteroom and enclosed the dome over the grave marker so that pilgrims could find shelter from the elements:


 

Today it stands in the center of the town with one of the main streets passing right next to it.  Since 1948 Muslims have created their own cemetery surrounding  the building on three sides. For political purposes, Muslims claim that Rachel's Tomb is one of their burial plots and that it contains a Muslim notable rather than Mother Rachel.  Note that in these photos from the early 1900's no Muslim cemetery exists near the Tomb.
 
 


Photo thanks to Jose Rivera
 
 
 
 




The main road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to Hebron and on to Be'ersheva used to pass by the Tomb.  Everyone who departed Jerusalem going south would see it.

Today, due to Arab unrest, a new leg of the main highway south has been and that section bypasses Bethlehem entirely.  So now the main highway goes parallel to the old road through Bethlehem.
 

Since the above picture the town of Bethlehem has grown several fold and where once Mother Rachel's Tomb was in an open area on the road side.  Here's an aerial photo, abeit blurry, of Rachel's Tomb that was taken by the British Mandatory Forces in the 1930s. The Muslim cemetery now adjacent to the Tomb was not in existence even in the 1930s:




Rachel's Tomb has always been a site of pilgrimage for Jews.




Below is a photo of British Mandate Forces in the 1940s, a regiment of Scots, performing security inspections. The reason for this was that the Arabs were engaging in riots, setting bombs and general unrest in the mid-1930's known as the Arab Revolt against both Jews and Mandate forces.  The Revolt was at the instigation of the Mufi, Haj Amin al-Husseini. The British Mandate forces were very tough on the Arabs as they tried to end Arab terror.  In the end the British Government betrayed Jews by canceling the Balfour Declaration of 1917 which was their solemn promise to make the Land of Israel the home for the Jewish people.  The McDonald White Paper of 1939 announced the cancellation of that promise.
 
 



The older generation remembers these views of rustic charm from the time before the State of Israel agreed to give Bethlehem to the late Yassir Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Organization in the guise of the Palestinian Authority:




Now, after 150 years, the State Of Israel's Ministry Of Religion renovated the site once again, and this time it has been enlarged many times it's original size. This picture dates from the mid 1990s.


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Photo Copyright 2012, The Committee For Rachel's Tomb. The above photo is NOT in the public domain. Permission must be obtained for use.

 
The new Rachel's Tomb consists of the previous structure housed within the expanded and reinforced edifice.  New additions include the 2 guard towers in the above picture. This new Rachel's Tomb complex is a modern and stately building that has been designed to protect the tomb and those inside,  yet it's interior retains the intimacy and unique serenity that has been characteristic of Rachel's Tomb.

Rachel's Tomb is a living symbol of HaShem's promise to Rachel that her children will return to the Land Of Israel.  Jewish life today thrives in Rachel's Tomb.  In these days, despite the on-going war of attrition people still go there to recite Tehillim (Psalms), pray and learn Torah.  Classes by renowned Jewish speakers are held there.  Rachel's Tomb has also become a place of joy as Britot and Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebrations are held within it's walls.



The Friends of Rachel's Tomb
Dale Baranowski, Director, P.O. Box 24, 9094200 Elazar, Israel
rachelstomb.efrata@gmail.com

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