Rachel’s Tomb – A Jewish Pilgrimage Site
Rachel’s Tomb, located north of Bethlehem, is a significant religious and historical site. Tradition holds that it is the burial place of Rachel, the biblical matriarch. In line with the Biblical text, the tomb is on the along the road to Bethlehem:
“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).
History of Rachel’s Tomb
Rachel’s Tomb is revered from Roman times. Josephus repeats the Biblical account of locating the tomb on the road to Bethlehem (Ant 1 343). The New Testament also alludes to that location (Mat. 2 18). The Tomb is also mentioned by Byzantine period sources such as Eusebius, St. Jerome, Madaba map, the Pilgrim of Bordeaux and Arculf. 12th-century sources Al-Idrsi and Benjamin of Tudela are the first to report the tomb being domed.
Ottoman period sources record the tomb being revered by Jews, Muslims, and Christians, although most of its visitors are Jews. In the 18th century, the local Bedouins began burying their dead around the tomb, forming a Muslim cemetery. In the 19th century, Jewish philanthropist Sir Moshe Montefiore sponsored a renovation of the tomb. The tomb evolved into a popular Jewish pilgrimage destination, second only to the Western Wall. In 1948, the Jordanians overran the West Bank, and for 19 years, Jews were denied access to the holy tomb. Moreoever, the Waqf covered the tomb’s cenotaph with an ornamental curtain bearing quotes from the Quran.
On the second day of the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel liberated the tomb, which again became a popular Jewish pilgrimage destination. In 1995, as part of the Oslo Agreements with the Palestinians, Israel intended to hand over Rachel’s Tomb to the Palestinian Authority. Yet, after pressure from Jewish religious leaders, this decision was reversed. Rachel’s Tomb remained under Israeli control, yet massive walls were installed around it to protect its Jewish pilgrims from Palestinian terrorism.
In 2018, UNESCO declared the Rachel’s Tomb complex as a mosque, similar to its declaration in 2016 of the Western Wall as a holy Muslim site.
According to the bible Rachel was Jacob’s first love, but on their wedding night, her father, Laban, replaced her with her older sister, Leah. Jacob and Rachel waited seven years to consecrate their marriage, but Rachel failed to conceive. She offered her maid, Bilhah, to Jacob, but later, surprisingly, Rachel conceived and bore Joseph. She conceived again but died at childbirth as the family commuted to Bethlehem. Jacob buried Rachel on the side of the road, which evolved to a pilgrimage destination.
Although Rachel only bore two of Jacob’s sons, Jeremiah later describes her mourning for all of Israel being exiled:
“A voice is heard in Ramah,
mourning and great weeping,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”
16 This is what the Lord says:
“Restrain your voice from weeping
and your eyes from tears,
for your work will be rewarded,”
declares the Lord.
“They will return from the land of the enemy.
17 So there is hope for your descendants,”
declares the Lord.
“Your children will return to their land.
Rachel’s love of Jacob, her longing for children, and her tragic death at childbirth made Rachel both a sad and heroic figure. Her Tomb became a popular pilgrimage destination for barren women and those seeking a match.
Visiting Rachel’s Tomb
Due to its sensitive location, access to the Tomb is possible only through a secured road, about 1 mile long, between high cement walls. Still, the site is popular among religious Jews. A local Jewish tradition asserts that wearing a red string at the tomb is a charm for fertility. Some also collect stones from around the Tomb, believing it will ease labor on giving birth.
A visit to Rachel’s Tomb can be integrated into a day tour of Jeruslem.