by Aliza Bloom
October 28, 2001
SIGNIFICANCE OF THE SITE
For millenia, Rachel’s Tomb has been a pilgrimage site for the Jewish people. Rachel herself was without children for many years and prayed fervently to be granted children. She is considered the mother par excellence of the Jewish people and her tomb is one of the most frequented sites for Jewish prayer to G-d. Barren women, especially, have traditionally gone to her grave to pray. But both men and women in need, flock to "Mother Rachel’s" tomb to seek G-d’s blessing. There are groups of women who begin each day before dawn at Rachel’s Tomb, and, when security allows, supplicants can be found there around the clock.
They set out from Bet-El; but when they were still some distance from Efrat, Rachel went into childbirth, and she had hard labor. When her labor was at its 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 Bet Lechem. Over her grave Jacob set up a pillar, it is the pillar at Rachel's grave to this day. (Genesis 35:16-21)
According to Jewish tradition, Jacob chose to bury his wife where she died rather then in the family burial plot in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. He foresaw that his descendants would pass her burial place on their way to Exile in Babylonian (423 CE) and that she would intercede with G-d on their behalf. The prophet Jeremiah portrays Rachel as a concerned mother weeping inconsolably until G-d assures her children’s well being:
Thus said G-d: A voice is heard on high, wailing, bitter weeping, Rachel weeps for her children; she refuses to be consoled for her children, for they are gone. Thus said G-d; Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears; for there is reward for your deed – the word of G-d – They will return from the enemy’s land. There is hope for your future – the word of G-d – and your children will return to their border.(Jeremiah 31:14-17)
From the Byzantine period until the 1800’s, Rachel’s Tomb consisted of a small domed structure. In 1841, Sir Moses Montifeori renovated it and added on an anteroom and enclosed the dome over the grave marker.
When Jacob buried Rachel, her tomb was on the roadside outside of Bethlehem. In modern times, however, the city has grown until the tomb is now in the center of town with one of the main streets passing right next to it. Since 1948, a Moslem cemetery has surrounded the building on three sides. From 1948 to 1967 Jews were banned by the Jordanian government from praying at Rachel’s Tomb. After the Israeli victory in the Six Day War, the Tomb was reopened to Jewish worshippers.
In the early 1990s, the State of Israel’s Ministry of Religion renovated and enlarged the site again. The original tomb is now housed within a reinforced edifice, and the complex includes two guard towers.
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