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Rachel's Tomb  

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Rachel's Tomb - Rachel's Tomb ((Hebrew:   Kever Rachel; Arabic: Qubbat Rakhil, meaning Dome of Rachel) is located near the northern entrance to Bethlehem. Rachel is one of the Jewish matriarchs, the second and beloved wife of Jacob according to the biblical account. The site has been venerated as a holy place for many years by both Muslims and Jews. It has long been a pilgrimage site for Jewish women, especially for those who are unable to give birth, since Rachel had children only after many years. The anniversary of her death on the eleventh day of the Jewish month of Cheshvan (approximately October-November) is a traditional pilgrimage date.

According to Genesis: "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

http://www.zionism-israel.com/dic/Rachel's Tomb

A photograph of Rachel's Tomb in the 1860s, from the book Earthly Footsteps of the Man of Galilee.

Bethlehem, like Jerusalem was to have been internationalized under the UN Partition Plan of 1947.  Instead, the Jordanians illegally occupied Bethlehem and East Jerusalem. They violated provisions of UN resolutions  that had called for free access to religious sites, and of the armistice agreement . Article XIII of the Israel-Jordan armistice agreement of 1949 had provided for:

"resumption of the normal functioning of the cultural and humanitarian institutions on Mount Scopus and free access thereto; free access to the Holy Places and cultural institutions and use of the cemetery on the Mount of Olives; resumption of operation of the Latrun pumping station; provision of electricity for the Old City; and resumption of operation of the railroad to Jerusalem".

The railroad did run. Israelis were forbidden access to the Wailing Wall, Mount Olives and all other holy places in the West Bank as well as access to the cemetery. Grave stones were removed and used to pave paths for latrines. The area was used by the Jordanian army. The UN arranged for limited access by convoy to the records of the Hebrew University on Mt. Scopus, but Hadassah hospital was closed and off limits.

After the West Bank was taken by the Israeli army in the 1967 Six day war, Israel opened access to Rachel's tomb along with other holy sites to pilgrims of all faiths. When the security fence was built in 2004, access became possible only from the Israeli side for security reasons, but remained open to pilgrims of all faiths.

The Ark of the Torah in Rachel's Tomb is covered by a "parokhet" (covering) made from the wedding gown of Nava Applebaum, a young Israeli woman who was killed by Palestinian terrorists in a suicide bombing at Cafe Hillel in Jerusalem on the eve of her wedding.

In recent years, Palestinian Arabs have tried to deny that Rachel's tomb was ever venerated as such by Jews, and claim instead that it is a shrine or mosque called Bilal ibn Rabah Mosque, and variously, that it had a cemetery associated with it. The domed structure is shown in the above photograph taken in the 1860s. There are no signs that it is a mosque. The piles of stones visible in the foreground might mark the sites of tombs, since it was a local Muslim custom to build such mounds over graves. A 1949 UN document cataloguing the holy places indeed documented the Arab claim that Rachel's tomb was a mosque and cemetery, but did not mention the name of this supposed mosque. 

An article in the European supported Palestinian news service, Ma'an news, recently claimed:

The biblical Rachel is revered as one of the four matriarchs of the Jewish people, and Jewish tradition holds that she was buried by her husband Jacob in Bethlehem. The tomb is also a holy site for Muslims and Christians, and the location of the Bilal Ibn Rabah mosque, which is now inaccessible to West Bank Palestinians.

During the government of the British Mandate for Palestine, the site was recognized by the British Mandate, as well as the Arabs of Palestine, as the site of Rachel's tomb. The mandate government issued a stamp with a picture of the tomb.ref

In fact it was only in the 1990s that Palestinians began referring to Rachel's tomb as the Bilal Bin Rabah mosque:


Only a few years ago, official Palestinian publications contained not a single reference to such a mosque. The same was true for the Palestinian Lexicon issued by the Arab League and the PLO in 1984, and for Al-mawsu'ah al-filastiniyah, the Palestinian encyclopedia published in Italy after 1996. Palestine, the Holy Land, published by the Palestinian Council for Development and Rehabilitation, with an introduction written by Yasser Arafat, simply says that "at the northwest entrance to the city [Bethlehem] lies the tomb of the matriarch Rachel, who died while giving life to Benjamin." The West Bank and Gaza - Palestine also mentions the site as the Tomb of Rachel and not as the Mosque of Bilal ibn Rabah. However, the Palestinian deputy minister for endowments and religious affairs has now defined Rachel's Tomb as a Muslim site. ref

Nonetheless, a UN document prepared in 1949 (see Palestine Holy Places) records Arab claims regarding the Tomb of Rachel as well as the minutiae regulating disputes about it. It is listed under "Jewish Holy Places" however:

88. Rachel's Tomb*
      Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin, when Jacob was travelling from Bethel to Hebron. A pillar was set up over her grave, and the spot was a familiar landmark in the time of Samuel. Several medieval writers refer to it as a Jewish Holy Place. The Arab writer Mugeir-al-Din described it as built of "eleven stones and covered with a cupola which rests on four pillars, and every Jew passing writes his name on the monument.)
      The tomb lies on the Jerusalem-Hebron road just before it enters Bethlehem. It consists of an open antechamber and a two-roomed shrine under a cupola containing a sarcophagus. The building lies within a Moslem cemetery, for which it serves as a place of prayer. The tomb is a place of Jewish pilgrimage. The Jews claim possession of Rachel's Tomb by virtue firstly of the fact that in 1615 Mohammad, Pasha of Jerusalem, rebuilt the Tomb on their behalf and by a Firman granted them the exclusive use of it; and secondly, that the building, which had fallen into decay, was entirely rebuilt by Sir M. Montefiore in 1845. The keys were obtained by the Jews from the last Moslem guardian at this time.
      The Moslem claim to own the building rests on its being a place of prayer for the Moslems of the neighbourhood and an integral part of the Moslem cemetery within which it lies. The Moslems state that the Ottoman Government recognized it as such and further that it is included among the Tombs of the Prophets for which identity signboards were issued by the Ministry of Waqfs in 1328 A.H. They also assert that the antechamber was specially built, at the time of the restoration by Sir M. Montefiore, as a place of prayer for the Moslems. The Moslems object in principle to any repair of the building by the Jews although (up to the recent war) free access to it was allowed at all times.

The Status Quo relates to the Tomb.
      In 1912 the Ottoman Government permitted the Jews to repair the shrine itself, but not the antechamber. Three months after the British occupation of Palestine the whole place was cleaned and whitewashed by the Jews without protest from the Moslems. In 1921 the Chief Rabbinate applied to the Municipality of Bethlehem for permission to repair the shrine. This gave rise to a Moslem protest, whereupon 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 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.

Ami Isseroff

Updated Nov 15, 2009


Synonyms and alternate spellings:

Further Information:

Hebrew/Arabic pronunciation and transliteration conventions:

'H - ('het) a guttural sound made deep in the throat. To Western ears it may sound like the "ch" in loch. In Arabic there are several letters that have similar sounds. Examples: 'hanukah, 'hamas, 'haredi. Formerly, this sound was often represented by ch, especially in German transliterations of Hebrew. Thus, 'hanukah is often rendered as Chanuka for example.

ch - (chaf) a sound like "ch" in loch or the Russian Kh as in Khruschev or German Ach, made by putting the tongue against the roof of the mouth. In Hebrew, a chaf can never occur at the beginning of a word. At the beginning of a word, it has a dot in it and is pronounced "Kaf."

u - usually between oo as in spoon and u as in put.

a- sounded like a in arm

ah- used to represent an a sound made by the letter hey at the end of a word. It is the same sound as a. Haganah and Hagana are alternative acceptable transliterations.

'a-notation used for Hebrew and Arabic ayin, a guttural ah sound.

o - close to the French o as in homme.

th - (taf without a dot) - Th was formerly used to transliterate the Hebrew taf sound for taf without a dot. However in modern Hebrew there is no detectable difference in standard pronunciation of taf with or without a dot, and therefore Histadruth and Histadrut, Rehovoth and Rehovot are all acceptable.

q- (quf) - In transliteration of Hebrew and Arabic, it is best to consistently use the letter q for the quf, to avoid confusion with similar sounding words that might be spelled with a kaf, which should be transliterated as K. Thus, Hatiqva is preferable to Hatikva for example.

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