Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Rachel's Tomb --
We Present a Special Album of Pictures to Commemorate the Death of the Matriarch Rachel about 3,600 Years Ago

Expanded version of a November 2011 posting. Updated with newly found pictures.

At least 100,000 Jews -- mostly women -- are expected to visit Rachel's Tomb later this week. The burial site, located between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, has been venerated by Jews for centuries. 

"And Rachel died, and was buried on the way to Efrat, 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 

"30 men ('3 minyans') from a Jerusalem old age home praying for
the well-being of friends and donors and other brethren from the
House of Israel in the Diaspora next to the gravestone of Mother
Rachel of blessed memory." (Stephanie Comfort -- Jewish
Postcard Collection)
Saturday, the 11th of Cheshvan in the Hebrew calendar, is traditionally observed as Rachel's yahrzeit -- anniversary of her death some 3,600 years ago.  Rachel's husband Jacob buried her on the side of the road, and according to the prophet Jeremiah, Rachel later wept as "her children" were exiled from the land of Israel.  Rachel is considered a special figure for prayers and entreaties.

In 1622 the Ottoman governor of Jerusalem permitted Jews to build walls and a dome over the grave.  [For historical background on Rachel's grave see Nadav Shragai.]
Rachel's Tomb (circa 1890-1900) (Credit: Library of Congress,
Detroit Publishing Co. photochrom color)

Click on the photos to enlarge.
Click on the captions to see the originals. 

All photos are from the American Colony collection in the Library of Congress unless otherwise credited.
Visitors to Rachel's Tomb (circa 1910). Note the carriages in
the background and  Jewish pilgrims under the tree (see
enlargement below). (Oregon State University collection)

For several hundred years a local Bedouin tribe, the Ta'amra, and local Arabs demanded protection money from Jews going to Rachel's grave.  In the 18th and 19th century the Arabs built a cemetery around three sides of the shrine in the belief that the proximity of the deceased to the grave of a holy person -- even a Jew -- would bestow blessings on the deceased in the world to come.  Muslims even prepared bodies for burial at Rachel's grave.

In the 1830s, Jews received a firman [decree] from Ottoman authorities recognizing the Jewish character of the site and ordering a stop to the abuse of Jews there.  In 1841, Sir Moses Montefiore secured permission from the Ottoman authority to build an anteroom for Jewish worshippers.  During the 1929 Muslim attacks on the Jews of Palestine, the Muslim religious council, the Waqf, demanded the site.
Jewish pilgrim
in picture above

For 19 years of Jordanian rule on the West Bank (1948-1967), Rachel's Tomb was off limits to Jews.  After the 1967 war, Israel reclaimed control of the site.  In 1996 and during the Palestinian intifada in 2000-2001 Rachel's Tomb was the target of numerous attacks.  The Israeli army built walls to protect worshippers and their access to the site.
Rachel's Tomb 1895

Rachel's Tomb 1898

Rachel's tomb (circa late 19th century) by Adrien Bonfils,
son of pioneer photographer FĂ©lix Bonfils (Credit:
 George Eastman House collection)  See also here
Rachel's Tomb (1891) (credit: New
Boston Fine and Rare Books)

Students from Etz Chaim Yeshiva in Jerusalem praying inside
Rachel's Tomb (Circa early 20th Century)
(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Rachel's Tomb (1908) (Credit: Omaha
 Public Library)

Students from the Gymnasia visiting Rachel's Tomb. Presumably, the school is
the Gymnasia HaIvrit Herzliya, the first Hebrew high school in Palestine, founded
in 1905. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons, circa early 20th Century)

Aerial photograph of Rachel's Tomb (1931)

 British (Scot) soldiers stopping Arab in
weapons search, Rachel's Tomb 1936 

In October 2010, UNESCO declared that the holy site was also the Bilal bin Rabah mosque and objected to Israeli "unilateral actions" at the shrine.  Bilal bin Rabah was Mohammed's Ethiopian slave and muzzein who died and was buried in Damascus.  The claim that the site was a mosque was first made in 1996.


  1. Moses Montefiore had a lot to do with securing Jewish access to Rachel's Tomb in the mid-19th century. Before then, the tomb was controlled by an Arab, maybe of the Ta`amari clan, who charged Jews a fee to get to the tomb, as with the Tomb of Simon the Just. Jews were also abused when approaching the or visiting the tomb of Rachel. Montefiore, I believe, paid money to buy the tomb [or a similar transaction]. James Finn, British consul in Jerusalem at the time, was to protect Jewish rights of access to the tomb. Montefiore may also have paid to build the structure over the tomb that we recognize in your pictures. On most of these facts, consult James Finn's books about his work in Jerusalem, his wife's memoirs, and the Montefiore memoirs [maybe recorded by his secretary].