Rachel's Tomb (Hebrew: קבר רחל translit. Kever Rakhel), also known as the Bilal bin Rabah mosque (Arabic: مسجد بلال بن رباح ) to Muslims is the name given to a small religious building revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims. The tomb is located within a Muslim cemetery in a walled enclave biting into the outskirts of Bethlehem, 460 meters south of Jerusalem ’s municipal boundary, in the West Bank. The burial place of the matriarch Rachel as mentioned in the Jewish and Christian Old Testament, and in Muslim literature is contested between this site and several others to the north.
The earliest extra-biblical records describing this tomb as Rachel's burial place date to the first decades of the 4th century CE. The present structure consists of two chambers; one, a domed chamber, is of Muslim Ottoman construction. The antechamber was built by Sir Moses Montefiore in 1841. According to the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine, the tomb was to be part of the internationally administered zone of Jerusalem, but the area was occupied by Jordan, which prohibited Israelis from entering the area. Though not falling within Area C, the site has come under the control of the Israeli Ministry of Religious Affairs. Rachel's tomb is the third holiest site in Judaism. Jews have made pilgrimage to the tomb since ancient times, and it has become one of the cornerstones of Jewish-Israeli identity.
Biblical scholarship identifies two different traditions in the Hebrew Bible concerning the site of Rachel's burial, respectively a northern version, locating it north of Jerusalem near Ramah, modern Al-Ram, and a southern narrative locating it close to Bethlehem. In rabbinical tradition the duality is resolved by using two different terms in Hebrew to designate these different localities. In the Hebrew version given in Genesis, Rachel and Jacob journey from Shechem to Hebron, a short distance from Ephrath, which is glossed as Bethlehem (35:16-21, 48:7). She dies on the way giving birth to Benjamin:
"And Rachel died, and was buried on the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem. And Jacob set a pillar upon her grave: that is the pillar of Rachel's grave unto this day."— Genesis 35:19-20
According to Tom Selwyn, the most authoritative voice on the topography of Rachel's tomb, R.A. S. Macalister advanced the view in 1912 that the identification with Bethlehem was based on a copyist's mistake. The Judean scribal gloss "(Ephrath,) which is Bethlehem"was added to distinguish it from a similar toponym Ephrathah in the Bethlehem region. Some consider as certain, however, that Rachel's tomb lay to the north, in Benjamite, not in Judean territory, and that the Bethlehem gloss represents a Judean appropriation of the grave, originally in the north, to enhance Judah 's prestige. At 1 Samuel 10:2, Rachel's tomb is located in the 'territory of Benjamin at Zelzah.'In the period of the monarchy down to the exile, it would follow, Rachel's tomb was thought to lie in Ramah. The indications for this are based on 1 Sam 10:2 and Jer. 31:15, which give an alternative location north of Jerusalem, in the vicinity of ar-Ram, biblical Ramah, five m,iles south of Bethel. One conjecture is that before David's conquest of Jerusalem, the ridge road from Bethel might have been called "the Ephrath road"(derek ’eprātāh. Gen:35:19; derek’eprāt, Gen: 48:7), hence the passage in Genesis meant 'the road to Ephrath or Bethlehem,'on which Ramah, if that word refers to a toponym, lay. A possible location in the Ramah could be the five stone monuments north of Hizma. Known as Qubur Beni Isra'in, the largest so-called tomb of the group, the function of which is obscure, has the name Qabr Umm beni Isra'in, that is, "tomb of the mother of the descendants of Israel".
—Rabbi Moses Surait of Prague, 1650.
In Jewish lore, Rachel was born on 11 Cheshvan 1553 BC. Traditions regarding the tomb at this location date back to the beginning of the 4th century AD. Eusebius and the Bordeaux Pilgrim mention the tomb as being located 4 miles from Jerusalem. In the late 7th century, the tomb was marked with a stone pyramid, devoid of any ornamentation. During the 10th century, Muqaddasi and other geographers fail to mention the tomb which indicates that it may have lost importance until the Crusaders revived its veneration. Muhammad al-Idrisi (1154) writes, "Half-way down the road [between Bethlehem and Jerusalem] is the tomb of Rachel (Rahil), the mother of Joseph and of Benjamin, the two sons of Jacob peace upon them all! The tomb is covered by twelve stones, and above it is a dome vaulted."Benjamin of Tudela (1169–71) mentions a pillar made of 11 stones and a cupola resting on four columns "and all the Jews that pass by carve their names upon the stones of the pillar."Petachiah of Regensburg explains that the 11 stones represented the tribes of Israel, excluding Benjamin, since Rachel had died during his birth. All were marble, with that of Jacob on top."In the 14-century, Antony of Cremona referred to the cenotaph as "the most wonderful tomb that I shall ever see. I do not think that with 20 pairs of oxen it would be possible to extract or move one of its stones."It was described by Franciscan pilgrim Nicolas of Poggibonsi (1346–50) as being 7 feet high and enclosed by a rounded tomb with three gates..
From around the 15th century onwards, if not earlier, the tomb was occupied and maintained by the Muslim rulers. The Russian deacon Zozimos describes it as being a mosque in 1421. A guide published in 1467 credits Shahin al-Dhahiri with the building of a cupola, cistern and drinking fountain at the site. The Muslim rebuilding of the "dome on four columns"was also mentioned by Francesco Suriano in 1485. Felix Fabri (1480–83) described it as being "a lofty pyramid, built of square and polished white stone"; He also noted a drinking water trough at its side and reported that "this place is venerated alike by Muslims, Jews, and Christians". Bernhard von Breidenbach of Mainz (1483) described women praying at the tomb and collecting stones to take home, believing that they would ease their labour. Pietro Casola (1494) described it as being "beautiful and much honoured by the Moors."Mujir al-Din al-'Ulaymi (1495), the Jerusalemite qadi and Arab historian, writes under the heading of Qoubbeh Râhîl ("Dome of Rachel") that Rachel's tomb lies under this dome on the road between Bethlehem and Bayt Jala and that the edifice is turned towards the Sakhrah(the rock inside the Dome of the Rock) and widely visited by pilgrims. Rabbi Moses Surait of Prague (1650) described a high dome on the top of the tomb, an opening on one side, and a big courtyard surrounded by bricks.
In 1615 Muhammad Pasha of Jerusalem repaired the structure and transferred exclusive ownership of the site to the Jews. In 1626, Franciscus Quaresmius visited the site and found that the tomb had been rebuilt by the locals several times. He also found near it a cistern and many Muslim graves. In March 1756, the Istanbul Jewish Committee for the Jews of Palestine instructed that 500 kurusused by the Jews of Jerusalem to fix a wall at the tomb were to be repaid and used instead for more deserving causes. In 1788, walls were built to enclose the arches. According to Richard Pococke, this was done to "hinder the Jews from going into it". Pococke also reports that the site was highly regarded by Turks as a place of burial. An 1824 report described "a stone building, evidently of Turkish construction, which terminates at the top in a dome. Within this edifice is the tomb. It is a pile of stones covered with white plaster, about 10 feet long and nearly as high. The inner wall of the building and the sides of the tomb are covered with Hebrew names, inscribed by Jews."
When the structure was undergoing repairs in around 1825, excavations at the foot of the monument revealed that it was not built directly over an underground cavity. However, a small distance from the site, an unusually deep cavern was discovered.
In 1830, the Ottomans legally recognized the tomb as a Jewish holy site. Sir and Lady Moses Montefiore visited Rachel's Tomb on their first visit to the Holy Land in 1828. The couple were childless, and Lady Montefiore was deeply moved by the tomb, which was in good condition at that time. Before the couple's next visit, in 1839, the Galilee earthquake of 1837 had heavily damaged the tomb. In 1838 the tomb was described as "merely an ordinary Muslim Wely, or tomb of a holy person; a small square building of stone with a dome, and within it a tomb in the ordinary Muhammedan form; the whole plastered over with mortar. It is neglected and falling to decay; though pilgrimages are still made to it by the Jews. The naked walls are covered with names in several languages; many of them Hebrew."
In 1841, Montefiore purchased the site and obtained for the Jews the key of the tomb. He renovated the entire structure, reconstructing and re-plastering its white dome. He extended the building by constructing an adjacent vaulted ante-chamber on the east for Muslim prayer use and burial preparation, possibly as an act of conciliation. The room included a mihrabfacing Mecca. In 1843, Ridley Haim Herschell described the building as an ordinary Muslim tomb. He reported that Jews, including Montefiore, were obliged to remain outside the tomb, and prayed at a hole in the wall, so that their voices enter into the tomb. In the mid-1850s, the marauding Arab e-Ta'amreh tribe forced the Jews to furnish them with an annual £30 payment to prevent them from damaging the tomb.
According to Elizabeth Anne Finn, wife of the British consul, James Finn the only time the Sephardi Jewish community left the Old City of Jerusalem was for monthly prayers at "Rachel's Sepulchre"or Hebron.
In 1864, the Jews of Bombay donated money to dig a well. Although Rachel's Tomb was only an hour and a half walk from the Old City, many pilgrims found themselves very thirsty and unable to obtain fresh water. Every Rosh Chodesh, the Maiden of Ludmir would lead her followers to Rachel’s tomb and lead a prayer service with various rituals, which included spreading out requests of the past four weeks over the tomb. On the traditional anniversary of Rachel’s death, she would lead a solemn procession to the tomb where she chanted psalms in a night-long vigil.
The Hebrew monthly ha-Levanonof August 19, 1869, rumored that a group of Christians had purchased land around the tomb and were in the process of demolishing Montefiore's vestibule in order to erect a church there. During the following years, land in the vicinity of the tomb was acquired by Nathan Strauss. In October 1875, Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer purchased three dunams of land near the tomb intending to establish a Jewish farming colony there. Custody of the land was transferred to the Perushim community in Jerusalem. (During the first years of the Intifada, the Gush Etzion Regional Council managed to buy back ownership of about 10 dunams of Jewish-owned land near the tomb.) In the 1880s, Conder observed Jewish graves adjacent to the tomb.
In 1912 the Ottoman Government permitted the Jews to repair the shrine itself, but not the antechamber. In 1915 the structure had four walls, each about 7 m (23 ft.) long and 6 m (20 ft.) high. The dome, rising about 3 m (10 ft.), "is used by the Moslems for prayer; its holy character has hindered them from removing the Hebrew letters from its walls."
Three months after the British occupation of Palestine the whole place was cleaned and whitewashed by the Jews without protest from the Muslims. However, in 1921 when the Chief Rabbinate applied to the Municipality of Bethlehem for permission to perform repairs at the site, local Muslims objected. In view of this, the High Commissioner ruled that, pending appointment of the Holy Places Commission provided for under the Mandate, all repairs should be undertaken by the Government. However, so much indignation was caused in Jewish circles by this decision that the matter was dropped, the repairs not being considered urgent. In 1925 the Sephardic Jewish community requested permission to repair the tomb. The building was then made structurally sound and exterior repairs were effected by the Government, but permission was refused by the Jews (who had the keys) for the Government to repair the interior of the shrine. As the interior repairs were unimportant, the Government dropped the matter, in order to avoid controversy. In 1926, unaware of the restrictions placed on maintaining the site, Max Bodenheimer blamed the Jews for the letting one of their holy sites appear so neglected and uncared for.
Following the 1948 Arab–Israeli War till 1967, the site was occupied by Jordan and occupied by the Islamic waqf. On December 11, 1948, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 194 which called for free access to all the holy places in Israel and the remainder of the territory of the former Palestine Mandate of Great Britain. In April 1949, the Jerusalem Committee prepared a document for the UN Secretariat in order to establish the status of the different holy places in the area of the former British Mandate for Palestine. It noted that ownership of Rachel's Tomb was claimed by both Jews and Muslims. The Jews claimed possession by virtue of a 1615 firman granted by the Pasha of Jerusalem which gave them exclusive use of the site and that the building, which had fallen into decay, was entirely restored by Moses Montefiore in 1845; the keys were obtained by the Jews from the last Muslim guardian at this time. The Muslims claimed the site was a place of Muslim prayer and an integral part of the Muslim cemetery within which it was situated. They stated that the Ottoman Government had recognised it as such and that it is included among the Tombs of the Prophets for which identity signboards were issued by the Ministry of Waqfs in 1898. They also asserted that the antechamber built by Montefiore was specially built as a place of prayer for Muslims. The UN ruled that the status quo, an arrangement approved by the Ottoman Decree of 1757 concerning rights, privileges and practices in certain Holy Places, apply to the site.
In theory, free access was to be granted as stipulated in the 1949 Armistice Agreements, though Israelis, unable to enter Jordan, were prevented from visiting. Non-Israeli Jews, however, continued to visit the site. During this period the neighbouring Muslim cemetery was expanded, enveloping the immediate area surrounding the tomb.
Following the Six Day War in 1967, Israel gained control of the West Bank, which included the tomb. The tomb was placed under Israeli military administration. Some time after the capture, Islamic crescents, inscribed into the rooms of the structure, were erased. Muslims claim that they were prevented from using the mosque, although they were allowed to use the cemetery for a while.
Prime minister Levi Eshkol instructed that the tomb be included within the new expanded municipal borders of Jerusalem, but citing security concerns, Moshe Dayan decided not to include it within the territory that was annexed to Jerusalem. Starting in 1993, Muslims were barred from using the cemetery. According to Bethlehem University, "[a]ccess to Rachel’s Tomb is now restricted to tourists entering from Israel."
Following the Oslo accords, the Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement was signed on September 28, 1995, placing Rachel's Tomb in Area C under Israeli jurisdiction. Although Israel's first draft had placed Rachel's Tomb, which is situated 460 metres from the municipal border of Jerusalem, in Area A under PA jurisdiction, pressure was exerted by religious parties in Israel at the time of negotiations (1994–95) in order to keep the religious site under Israeli control.
On December 1, 1995, Bethlehem, with the exception of the tomb enclave, passed under the full control of the Palestinian Authority. Jews could reach it in bulletproof vehicles under military supervision. In 1996 Israel began an 18-month fortification of the site at a cost of $2m. It included a 13 foot high wall and adjacent military post. In response, Palestinians said that "the Tomb of Rachel was on Islamic land"and that the structure was in fact a mosque built at the time of the Arab conquest in honour of Bilal ibn Rabah, an Ethiopian known in Islamic history as the first muezzin.
After an attack on Joseph's Tomb and its subsequent takeover by Arabs, hundreds of residents of Bethlehem and the Aida refugee camp, led by the Palestinian Authority-appointed governor of Bethlehem, Muhammad Rashad al-Jabari, attacked Rachel's Tomb. They set the scaffolding that had been erected around it on fire and tried to break in. The IDF dispersed the mob with gunfire and stun grenades, and dozens were wounded. In the following years, the Israeli-controlled site became a flashpoint between young Palestinians who hurled stones, bottles and firebombs and IDF troops, who responded with tear gas and rubber bullets.
At the end of 2000, when the second intifada broke out, the tomb came under attack for 41 days. Fatah operatives and members of the Palestinian security services who were responsible for curbing militant activity against Israelis actively participated in it. In May 2001, fifty Jews found themselves trapped inside by a firefight between the IDF and Palestinian Authority gunmen. In March 2002 the IDF returned to Bethlehem as part of Operation Defensive Shield and remained there for an extended period of time. In September 2002, the tomb was incorporated on the Israeli side of the West Bank barrier and surrounded by a concrete wall and watchtowers.
In February 2005, the Israel Supreme Court rejected a Palestinian appeal to change the route of the security fence in the region of the tomb. Israeli construction destroyed the Palestinian neighbourhood of Qubbet Rahil. Israel also declared the area to be a part of Jerusalem.
In February 2010, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu announced that the tomb would become a part of the national Jewish heritage sites rehabilitation plan. The decision was opposed by the Palestinian Authority, who saw it as a political decision associated with Israel's settlement project. The UN's special coordinator for the Middle East, Robert Serry, issued a statement of concern over the move, saying that the site is in Palestinian territory and has significance in both Judaism and Islam. The Jordanian government said that the move would derail peace efforts in the Middle East and condemned "unilateral Israeli measures which affect holy places and offend sentiments of Muslims throughout the world". UNESCO urged Israel to remove the site from its heritage list, stating that it was "an integral part of the occupied Palestinian territories". A resolution was passed at UNESCO that acknowledged both the Jewish and Islamic significance of the site, describing the site as both Bilal ibn Rabah Mosque and as Rachel's Tomb. The resolution passed with 44 countries supporting it, twelve countries abstaining, and only the United States voting to oppose. An article written by Nadav Shargai of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, published in the Jerusalem Post criticized UNESCO, arguing that the site was not a mosque and that the move was politically motivated to disenfranchise Israel and Jewish religious traditions. Also writing in the Jerusalem Post, Larry Derfner, defended the UNESCO position. He pointed out that UNESCO had explicitly recognized the Jewish connection to the site, having only denounced Israeli claims of sovereignty, while also acknowledging the Islamic and Christian significance of the site. The Israeli Prime Minister's Office criticised the resolution, claiming that: "the attempt to detach the Nation of Israel from its heritage is absurd... If the nearly 4,000-year-old burial sites of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of the Jewish Nation – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah – are not part of its culture and tradition, then what is a national cultural site?”
Early Jewish scholars noticed an apparent contradiction in the Bible with regards to the location of Rachel's grave. In Genesis, the Bible states that Rachel was buried "on the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem."Yet a reference to her tomb in Samuel states: "When you go from me today, you will find two men by Rachel's tomb, in the border of Benjamin, in Zelzah"(1 Sam 10:2). Rashi asks: "Now, isn't Rachel's tomb in the border of Judah, in Bethlehem?"He explains that the verse rather means: "Now they are by Rachel's tomb, and when you will meet them, you will find them in the border of Benjamin, in Zelzah."Similarly, Ramban assumes that the site shown today near Bethlehem reflects an authentic tradition. After he had arrived in Jerusalem and seen "with his own eyes"that Rachel's tomb was on the outskirts of Bethlehem, he retracted his original understanding of her tomb being located north of Jerusalem and concluded that the reference in Jeremiah (Jer 31:15) which seemed to place her burial place in Ramah, is to be understood allegorically. There remains however, a dispute as to whether her tomb near Bethlehem was in the tribal territory of Judah, or of her son Benjamin.
—Paulist Fathers, 1868.
Rachel is considered the "eternal mother", caring for her children when they are in distress especially for barren or pregnant woman. Jewish tradition teaches that Rachel weeps for her children and that when the Jews were taken into exile, she wept as they passed by her grave on the way to Babylonia. Jews have made pilgrimage to the tomb since ancient times. The depiction of Rachel's Tomb has appeared in thousands of Jewish religious books and works of art. On the anniversary of her death in 2010, 100,000 Jews visited the tomb.
There is a tradition regarding the key that unlocked the door to the tomb. The key was about 15 centimetres (5.9 in) long and made of brass. The beadle kept it with him at all times, and it was not uncommon that someone would knock at his door in the middle of the night requesting it to ease the labor pains of an expectant mother. The key was placed under her pillow and almost immediately, the pains would subside and the delivery would take place peacefully.
Till this day there is an ancient tradition regarding a segulahor charm which is the most famous women's ritual at the tomb. A red string is tied around the tomb seven times then worn as a charm for fertility. This use of the string is comparatively recent, though there is a report of its use to ward off diseases in the 1880s.
The Torah Ark in Rachel's Tomb is covered with a curtain (Hebrew: parokhet) made from the wedding gown of Nava Applebaum, a young Israeli woman who was killed by a Palestinian terrorist in a suicide bombing at Café Hillel in Jerusalem on the eve of her wedding.
The tomb of Sir Moses Montefiore, adjacent to the Montefiore synagogue in Ramsgate, England, is a replica of Rachel's Tomb. During an 1841 visit to Palestine, Montifiore obtained permission from the Ottoman Turks to restore the tomb.