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Rachel’s Tomb (Kever Rachel)

Rachel’s Tomb (Kever Rachel)

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Jews from all over the world pour out their hearts at the resting place of Mama Rachel (credit: Yossi Mizrahi).
Jews from all over the world pour out their hearts at the resting place of Mama Rachel (credit: Yossi Mizrahi).

Rachel’s Tomb is located in the city of Bethlehem, just south of Jerusalem. For centuries, it lay on a deserted roadside, and Rachel’s descendents would come here to pour out their hearts to her—the mother who dwells in a lonely wayside grave in order to be there for her suffering children. Rachel is a continuous source of comfort to her children—praying for her children and eliciting the divine promise of her children’s return to their Promised Land.

Why Rachel’s Tomb Is Special

When Rachel died, Jacob and his family were only a short distance from Bethlehem. Yet he did not bring his most beloved wife Rachel into that town to be buried, nor did he bring her home with him to Hebron, but he buried her in the middle of nowhere, on the side of the road.

Why?

Jacob foresaw that in the future, following the destruction of the First Temple in 423 BCE, the Jews would be driven from their homes and forced into exile in Babylon. On their dispirited march, they would pass on this very road and cry to Rachel. They would take courage from her presence, and she would beseech G‑d on their behalf.

The prophet Jeremiah, who lived through those events, describes what happened (Jeremiah 31:14):

A voice is heard on high,
Wailing, bitterly crying.
Rachel weeps for her children
She refuses to be consoled
For they are gone.

Jeremiah also tells us G‑d’s response:

“Restrain your voice from weeping,
“Hold back your eyes from their tears.
“For your work has its reward and your children shall return to their border.”

According to the Midrash, at that time the other patriarchs, matriarchs and Moses, too, begged for mercy. But G‑d remained silent. Then Rachel lifted her voice and elicited the promise of redemption.

“O Lord of the Universe,” she argued. “Consider what I did for my sister Leah. All the work that Jacob did for my father was only so that he could marry me; however, when the time came for me to enter the nuptial canopy, they brought my sister instead. Not only did I keep my silence, but I gave her the secret password which Jacob and I had agreed on (which we had arranged specifically to prevent any other bride from being brought in my place). You, too, if Your children have brought Your rival into Your house, keep Your silence.” Immediately, G‑d’s mercy was aroused and He responded: “For you, Rachel, I will bring Israel back to their place.” (See also Rachel’s Amazing Secret)

Kever Rachel as it appeared in 1912.
Kever Rachel as it appeared in 1912.

She gave up her place next to her husband a second time when, instead of a burial spot in the family plot in Hebron, she accepted a lonely burial, on the side of a deserted road. She did this in order to be there for her children, who would live tens of centuries later.

Rachel is the quintessential Jewish mother, sacrificing for our well-being and security. This feeling of limitless love and motherly concern is what draws people to her tomb to this day.

In addition, Rachel herself was childless for many years before she was granted children. Women who are suffering from infertility, in particular, travel to her tomb to pray.

Kever Rachel History

In 2208 (1553 BCE), Jacob was bringing his family home to Hebron, after spending 20 years working for his father-in-law in Charan (on the modern-day Syrian-Turkish border). While they were traveling, Rachel gave birth to her second son, Benjamin, and died in childbirth. Instead of bringing her to the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, Jacob buried her on the spot, on the road to Bethlehem (Efrat).

“And Jacob erected a monument on her grave.” Each of Jacob’s 11 sons (excepting the newborn infant Benjamin) placed a stone on Rachel’s grave, and Jacob placed a stone on top.

According to the Midrash, the first person to pray at Rachel’s tomb was her eldest son, Joseph, who was only 7 when his mother died. When he was 17, his brothers sold him into slavery. As he was being carried away to Egypt, he broke away from his captors, ran to his mother’s grave and cried to her: “Mother, my mother who gave birth to me, wake up, arise and see my suffering.” “Do not fear,” he heard his mother answer. “Go with them, and G‑d will be with you.”

From the fifth century CE until the mid-1800s, Rachel’s tomb was marked by a tiny dome upheld by four beams. In 1841, Sir Moses Montefiore and his wife (who, like Rachel, was childless) added walls to the dome, and added a long room where visitors could find shelter from the weather, rest or have a bite to eat. The image of Rachel’s tomb that has been popularized in art and photos is of this structure.

In 1948, the Jordanians took control of the area and Jews were no longer allowed to pray at the tomb. Until then, Rachel’s Tomb had remained in an open area on the side of the road, but at that time, the Arabs built their own cemetery around the tomb, and Bethlehem expanded so that the tomb was now in the center of town.

After Israel’s Six-Day War victory in 1967, the tomb was reopened to Rachel’s children. For the next 30 years, Jews frequented it, making the short drive from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, praying at the site. A popular song of the time promised: “Your sons have come back to you, Mother Rachel, at their head Benjamin and Joseph . . . We will never go away from here again, Rachel.”

Kever Rachel is now surrounded by a protective complex (credit: Irit Levy).
Kever Rachel is now surrounded by a protective complex (credit: Irit Levy).

Matters however changed. Following the violence of the first intifada, Bethlehem was given to the Palestinian Authority, though Israel retained control of the actual gravesite. In 1996, in the face of unremitting Arab attacks, Israel’s Ministry of Religion built a fortress around the tiny structure, with two guard towers, three-foot thick concrete walls and barbed wire. The construction effort endured Arab rioters and gunmen.

Visiting Rachel’s Tomb Today

Rachel’s Tomb is only a short drive from Jerusalem. It is completely walled in, and only bullet-proof buses and vans are allowed to pass between the 15-foot high concrete barriers that lead to the Tomb. Every few hours, a bulletproof Egged bus arrives at the checkpoint leading into Bethlehem and is then given an army escort. Two minutes later, the bus arrives at the tomb’s compound and discharges its passengers within the completely enclosed structure.

Inside the fortress, the ancient small domed room, dominated by the large cloth-covered monument, retains a nurturing atmosphere. Men and women, on separate sides of the room, huddle up to the cloth-covered monument and whisper out their secret pain to “Mother Rachel.”

Note: According to most halachic authorities, Kohanim are forbidden to enter the complex that houses the gravesite.

Interesting Facts

  • When Jacob buried Rachel, each of his sons took a stone and placed it on her grave. Yaakov then took a large stone and placed it on top of all the other stones. Thus was formed the first monument on her grave. This is one of the reasons for the custom of placing a stone upon a grave after visiting it.
  • When Sir Moses Montefiore remodeled the tomb, the iron lock on the door was made with unique keys. These keys were said to help with difficult childbirths, and laboring women, both Jews and Arabs, would put them under their pillows. After the tomb was liberated in 1967, the chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Goren, arrived on the scene. An Arab came out and gave one of the keys to Rabbi Goren, and it remains in his family until today.
  • Chaim Silberstein from Arutz Sheva told the story of how Rachel’s Tomb was saved from the clutches of the Palestinians:
    “During the Rabin administration, Rachel’s Tomb was slated to fall into ‘Area A,’ that is, under full Arab civil and military control. Upon seeing this, Knesset Member Chanan Porat decided that he must speak with Rabin in the hopes of changing his mind. As Porat was walking to Rabin’s office, Knesset Member Rabbi Menachem Porush asked him where he was going. Hearing that Porat was about to fight for Rachel’s Tomb, Porush asked to join in the meeting. At Rabin’s office, Porat was diligently explaining the ins and outs of the security situation at the Tomb and making rational arguments that did not seem to move Rabin.
    “Suddenly, Rabin looked at Porush and saw that he was crying. Porush held Rabin’s hands and with tears streaming down his face, said: ‘Yitzchak, it’s Mamma Rachel, Mamma Rachel.’ At that moment Rabin’s heart opened, and he altered the map so that Rachel’s Tomb would remain in Jewish hands.”
  • When Sir Moses Montefiore’s wife, Judith, died, he built a mausoleum which is a replica of Rachel’s Tomb. Located in Ramsgate, in the south of England, where they lived, it now contains both of their graves.
  • Sir Moses Montefiore built a mausoleum for his wife and himself that resembles the structure he built over Rachel’s tomb.
    Sir Moses Montefiore built a mausoleum for his wife and himself that resembles the structure he built over Rachel’s tomb.

    Kever Rachel Links

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Bob Pepe October 31, 2017

I drove there last year (Sept 2016) in a regular car Reply

Chana Betshemesh August 21, 2017

Any car can drive in to the kever now, not just bulletproof buses. Reply

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