Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer

Located in the city of Bethlehem, just south of Jerusalem, for centuries Rachel’s Tomb lay on a deserted roadside where her descendants came to pour out their hearts to their mother, who dwells in a lonely wayside grave and soothes her suffering children.

In the well-known biblical account, when Jacob’s beloved Rachel died on 11 Cheshvan 1553 BCE while giving birth to Benjamin, he and his family were only a short distance from Bethlehem, but he buried her on the side of the road rather than burying her there or bringing her back to their hometown in Chevron for burial in Mearat HaMachpela, which had been purchased by Abraham, as detailed in Genesis. It was G-d’s will that, following the destruction of the first Beit HaMikdash in 423 BCE and the exile of the Jews from Eretz Yisrael to Babylon, they would obtain some measure of solace passing her kever and take courage in the Diaspora from her memory. In Jeremiah 31:14, one of the most beautiful and well-known verses in all the prophetic writings, Jeremiah, who lived through these events, prophesizes:

A voice is heard on high, wailing, bitterly crying, Rachel weeps for her children. She refuses to be consoled, for they are gone.


Jeremiah also relates G-d’s response, one of the most heartening, comforting, and reassuring verses in all of Tanach:

Restrain your voice from weeping, hold back your eyes from their tears. For your work has its reward v’shavu banim l’gevulam (and your children shall return to their border).

Mother Rachel is emblematic of eliciting the divine promise that the Jews will be returned to their Promised Land. According to the famous Midrash, for example, all the other patriarchs, matriarchs, and Moses himself begged Hashem for mercy, but He remained silent until Rachel debated:

“O L-rd of the Universe, consider what I did for my sister Leah. All the work that Jacob did for my father was only so that he could marry me; however, when the time came for me to enter the nuptial canopy, they brought my sister instead. Not only did I keep my silence, but I gave her the secret password which Jacob and I had agreed on, which we had arranged specifically to prevent any other bride from being brought in my place. You, too, if Your children have brought Your rival into Your house, keep Your silence.” Immediately, G-d’s mercy was aroused and He responded: “For you, Rachel, I will bring Israel back to their place.”

In the late 7th century, the tomb was marked with a stone pyramid, devoid of any ornamentation and, during the 10th century, geographers failed to mention the tomb at all, which suggests that it may have lost importance until the Crusades revived its veneration. In 1154, Muhammed al-Idrisi wrote that the tomb “is covered by twelve stones, and above it is a dome vaulted” and in 1170, Benjamin of Tudela, the first contemporary Jewish pilgrim to describe his visit to the tomb, mentions a pillar made of eleven stones and a cupola resting on four columns “and all the Jews that pass by carve their names upon the stones of the pillar.” From at least the 15th century, the tomb was occupied and maintained by the Muslim rulers and Zozimos, a Russian deacon, described it in 1421 as being a mosque. In 1615, Muhammad Pasha of Jerusalem repaired the structure and issued a firman transferring exclusive use of the site to the Jews, but George Sandys wrote in 1632 that “The sepulcher of Rachel… is mounted on a square… within which another sepulcher is used for a place of prayer by the Mohammedans.”

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. He further described a local Jewish group associated with the site and how on Passover and Lag B’Omer, many people – men and women, young and old – would go out to Rachel’s Tomb on foot and on horseback to pray there, dance around the tomb, and eat festive meals.

In 1806, Francois Rene Chateaubriand, a French writer, politician, diplomat and historian who had a notable influence on French literature, described it as “a square edifice, surmounted with a small dome: it enjoys the privileges of a mosque, for the Turks as well as the Arabs, honor the families of the patriarchs… it is evidently a Turkish edifice, erected in memory of a santon (a Moslem saint).”

In 1828, Sir Moses Montefiore visited Rachel’s Tomb with his wife, Judith, during his first visit to Eretz Yisrael, and the childless couple were deeply moved by the tomb, which was then in reasonably good condition. Before the couple’s next visit in 1839, however, the great Galilee earthquake of 1837 had caused serious damage to the edifice, and Montefiore effected a broad renovation of the holy site, adding walls to the dome and adding a long vestibule where visitors could find shelter from the weather, rest, or eat.

In 1843, Ridley Haim Herschell, a Polish-born British minister who had converted from Judaism to evangelical Christianity and founded the British Society for the Propagation of the Gospel Among the Jews, described the building as an ordinary Muslim tomb. He reported that Jews, including Montefiore, were required to remain outside the tomb and that they prayed at a hole in the wall so that their voices could enter the tomb. William Henry Bartlett, best known for his drawings rendered into steel engravings, referred to the tomb as a “Turkish Mosque.” In the mid-1850s, the pillaging Arab e-Ta’amreh tribe forced the Jews to pay an annual £30 “fee” to prevent them from utterly destroying the tomb. The only time the Sephardic Jewish community left the Old City of Jerusalem was for monthly prayers at Rachel’s Tomb, and there are many contemporary accounts of Jewish pilgrimages to the site.

The August 19, 1869, issue of the Hebrew monthly Ha-Levanon reported that a group of Christians had purchased land around the tomb and were in the process of demolishing Montefiore’s vestibule to erect a church there. During the following years, land in the vicinity of the tomb was acquired by Nathan Straus. In October 1875, Rav Zvi Hirsch Kalischer purchased three dunams of land near the tomb intending to establish a Jewish farming colony there, and custody of the land was transferred to the Perushim community in Jerusalem, the disciples of the Vilna Gaon who had left Lithuania in the early 19th century to settle in Eretz Yisrael.

Kol B’Ramah Nishma!” (“A voice is heard in Ramah, Mother Rachel is weeping for her children…”) Exhibited here is part of a 5668 (1907) leaflet in Hebrew and Yiddish regarding the Jewish redemption of Rachel’s Tomb.

Three months after the British occupation of Eretz Yisrael in 1920, the entire Rachel’s Tomb site was cleaned by the Jews with no protest from the Muslims but, when the Chief Rabbinate applied to the Bethlehem Municipality in 1921 for permission to perform repairs at the site, local Muslims objected. Herbert Samuel, the Jewish High Commissioner, ruled that, pending appointment of the Holy Places Commission provided for under the British Mandate, all repairs must be affected by the Government. During the murderous Arab riots of 1929, violence hampered regular visits by Jews to the tomb and, suddenly, Muslims demanded control of the site, claiming that it was an integral part of the Muslim cemetery within which it is situated and demanding a renewal of the alleged Muslim custom of purifying corpses in the tomb’s antechamber.

1929 letter from the leading rabbis of Eretz Yisrael to the governor of Jerusalem regarding Protecting Jewish pilgrims to Rachel’s Tomb.

After the 1929 Chevron massacres, the rabbanim in Eretz Yisrael feared further pogroms against the Jews. About three weeks after the massacre, they submitted a letter to the British governor of Jerusalem and the Galilee, exhibited here, with a request that he set up British soldiers to keep watch over pilgrims to Rachel’s Tomb:

There is a sacred religious custom for Jews… to prostrate ourselves upon our mother Rachel’s tomb during the month of Elul… and given that the tomb is part way to Chevron and that there is no Jewish settlement in the area, it is worthwhile to secure the lives of the petitioners both at the tomb and on the road there from Jerusalem – we request that a British police guard be set up to watch over the way from the city to the tomb… without this minimal security, Jews will be unable to fulfill the sacred custom of thousands of years, which will upset not only the Jews of the Land of Israel, but also Jews the world over who look to… the matriarch’s tomb… we await the response as soon as possible so that we can give directions accordingly to the caretakers of the tomb. (Signed by the secretary of the chief rabbinate, Shmuel Aharon Webber.)

In 1949, the UN ruled that the Status Quo, an arrangement approved by the 1878 Treaty of Berlin concerning rights, privileges, and practices in certain Holy Places, applies the Rachel’s Tomb site. According to the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine, the tomb was to be part of the internationally administered zone of Jerusalem and, on December 11, 1948, the UN General Assembly enacted Resolution 194, pursuant to which free access was to be granted to all to the holy places in Eretz Yisrael. Following Israel’s War of Independence, however, Jordan occupied and then annexed the site, authority over it was given to the Islamic waqf, and Jews were banned from paying at the holy site. After Israel’s Six-Day War victory in 1967, it was placed under Israeli military administration, and Prime Minister Levi Eshkol ordered that that the tomb be included within the new expanded municipal borders of Jerusalem but, to his eternal disgrace, Moshe Dayan – who had ceded the Har Habayit to the Arabs – cited “security concerns” and decided not to include the tomb within the territory annexed to Jerusalem.

The site’s status was formalized on September 28, 1995, under the Oslo II Accord as part of a Palestinian enclave in Area A under full Palestinian civil and military control. Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin remained determined to cede full control of Rachel’s Tomb to the Arabs until Rav Porush began sobbing, took Rabin’s hands in his, and, with tears streaming down his face, said “Yitzchak, it’s Mamma Rachel, Mamma Rachel,” which pierced Rabin’s hard Jewish heart and led to a special arrangement whereby the tomb was within Israel’s security responsibilities. The tomb was again opened for Jews but, following the violence of the first intifada and in the face of unremitting Arab attacks, Israel’s Ministry of Religion built a fortress barrier around the tiny structure in 2005 effectively annexing the land to Jerusalem.

Rachel’s Tomb has come to be viewed as a symbol of the return of the Jewish people to its ancient homeland and, becoming associated with fertility, it became a place of pilgrimage to pray for successful childbirth. Depictions of the Tomb have appeared in centuries of Jewish religious books and works of art, and I exhibit here some of the artistic highlights of Kever Rachel from my collection.


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Exhibited here are two original signed depictions of Kever Rachel by Ze’ev Raban, the first an original pencil sketch of a synagogue glass window design, and the second a beautiful hand-signed watercolor.

Raban (1890-1970), who acquired his reputation through the designs he made for Bezalel, was undoubtedly one of the most important artists and designers in pre-State Eretz Yisrael. Recognizing that the traditional European style did not fit the growing style of the newly emerging Jewish arts, he synthesized European techniques with authentic Jewish art based on specifically Jewish motifs. He developed a visual lexicon of Jewish themes with decorative calligraphic script and other decorative devices which came to be characterized as the “Bezalel style” and, in doing so, he drew freely from Persian, Oriental, Classical, and Art Nouveau elements.

Felix Bonfils

Exhibited here is a print of Kever Rachel in which Felix Bonfils has captured the main road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem (the man on his donkey is on this road); the domed building which was built over Rachel’s tomb; the old tree that has been at the site for hundreds of years; and, in the background, the village of Beit Jalla.

The photographs of Bonfils (1831-1885), which constitute important historical records of people, places, and buildings in the Middle East, are considered comparable in beauty and documentary value to that of archaeologists. He took photographs in Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Greece, and Turkey, but it is his prints of Eretz Yisrael that provide particularly valuable information to us about the land and people there toward the end of the nineteenth century. Bonfils deliberately selected his subjects to preserve a vast range of information for geographical, ethnographic, biblical, archeological, architectural, and historical studies, and his work was particularly important in that it spanned many decades and encompassed the period when the most momentous changes began to forever alter Middle Eastern landscapes and ways of life.

Jacob Eisenberg

Exhibited here is an original pencil sketch of Kever Rachel by Jacob (Yaakov) Eisenberg, signed by the artist at the lower right. Born in Minsk, Eisenberg (1897-1965) studied art at the School for Arts and Crafts in Vienna, specializing in ceramics. He made aliyah in 1913 and studied at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem with its most renowned artists, including Boris Schatz, Zev Raban, and Abel Pann before continuing at Bezalel as an instructor for many years.

Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939), one of the most important dealers in French contemporary art of his time, commissioned Chagall to illustrate the Old Testament. Although he could have completed the project in France, Chagall used the assignment as an excuse to travel to Eretz Yisrael, arriving there in February 1931. Feeling very much at home in a land of Yiddish and Russian speakers, he was impressed by the pioneering spirit of the kibbutzniks and he was deeply moved by the holy places. As he later told a friend, Eretz Yisrael gave him the most vivid impressions he had ever experienced and, immersing himself in his work, he became engrossed with the broad spectrum of Jewish history, the Jewish people, and the Jewish land. As he told Franz Meyer, a Jewish German-Mexican financier, photographer, collector, and Chagall biographer: “I did not see the Bible, I dreamed it. Ever since early childhood, I have been captivated by the Bible. It has always seemed to me and still seems today the greatest source of poetry of all time.”


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The sketch of Kever Rachel exhibited here is the only scene in the artist’s Eretz Yisrael series that fails to include human figures. He renders his sketch with a soft touch, with the tomb reflecting the tender curves of the nearby hills and the rounded back of the camel and the bending of the curved similarly constituting a continuing curved line. The entire scene is imbued with a heavy sense of sadness and yearning, including the tree’s embracing gesture toward Jacob’s wife, buried alone and left behind as Jacob traveled on.


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Exhibited here are a sketch and an Ex Libris woodcut of Kever Rachel by Hermann Struck. Born into an Orthodox Berlin family, Struck (1876-1944) remained an observant Jew his entire life and, as a fervent Zionist, Jewish activist, and founder of the Mizrachi Religious Zionist party, he was considered the artistic soul of the early Zionist movement. One of the most important print artists of Germany and Eretz Israel in the first half of the 20th century, his favorite artistic technique was copper etching and its related processes, though he also was a master of the lithograph. Although he will always remain renowned for his etching, he later turned to the use of color to represent the stark beauty of the Levant and to better reflect the ever-changing nuances of light in the landscapes of Eretz Yisrael.


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Exhibited here is an unusual postal cover featuring Kever Rachel with three separate cancellations marking three seminal events in Israel’s postal history: (1) a May 5, 1948, cover marking the last day of Postal Service under the British Mandate; (2) a “Minhelet Ha’am” cancel by the Interim Postal Service; and (3) a May 16, 1948, cancel, the first day of the Jewish Postal Service. Also shown is a “Victory Cover” featuring Kever Rachel canceled Bethlehem, July 10, 1967, commemorating the First Day opening of the Bethlehem Post Office after the 1967 Six-Day War, and the Kever Rachel stamp and cover issued by the Israel Postal authority in 2013.

Luigi Fiorello

Exhibited here is a photograph of Kever Rachel by Italian photographer Luigi Fiorello (Alexandria, Egypt, circa 1870s) who traveled extensively through Eretz Yisrael in the mid to late 1800s. He is perhaps best known for his documentation of the destruction caused by the bombardment of Alexandria by the British fleet in 1882.

Churva Synagogue ceiling (courtesy Saul Jay Singer).

Exhibited here is a photograph that I took of a Kever Rachel drawing on the ceiling of the renowned Churva Synagogue (the “Ruin Synagogue”), also known as Churvat Rav Yehudah Ha-Chasid located in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. Originally founded in the early 18th century by followers of R. Yehuda Ha-Chasid on the ruins of a 15th century synagogue, it was destroyed a few years later in 1721 by Ottoman authorities for failure of its Jewish proprietors to pay back a debt to local Muslims. The site, which became known as “The Ruin,” lay desolate until it was resettled in 1837 by the Perushim and rebuilt it in 1864, purposely keeping its name as The Churva, which is how it is known today. It became Jerusalem’s main Ashkenazi synagogue until it was razed again by the Arabs during the fighting in Israel’s War of Independence; its destruction was intentionally timed to coincide with a pilgrimage by King Abdullah to the site of the Temple Mount, where he prayed for the murder of Jews.

After Israel captured East Jerusalem from Jordan in 1967, there was a sustained debate over whether to rebuild the synagogue or leave it as a war memorial, and several plans were submitted for the design of a new building. After years of deliberations, a commemorative arch was erected instead at the site in 1977, itself becoming a prominent landmark of the Jewish Quarter. Finally, the plan to rebuild the synagogue in its 19th-century style received approval by the Israeli Government in 2000, and the newly rebuilt synagogue was dedicated on March 15, 2010.


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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at [email protected].