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Tomb of Rachel
By Dovid RossoffAs the Israeli government continues to hand over territory and towns to the Palestinian authorities, one little grave site outside of Bethlehem caused a political fury across Israel and almost toppled over the government. This was the Tomb of Rachel, one of the four Matriarchs.
Let us glimpse at the importance of this site in Midrashic and Talmudic lore, as well as from a historical perspective.
One thing, however, stands out. The Tomb of Rachel is not a place of military strategic importance. Its relevance is solely spiritual. The depth of such a spiritual fountain is felt by most Jews, regardless of their religious commitment and, like the Western Wall in Jerusalem, it represents in a physical sense a basic tenet of our faith.
OUR MATRIARCH RACHEL
Rachel grew up in a generation of decadence some 3,500 years ago, yet maintained her integrity, purity, and righteousness. Her father Laban is stereotyped "the wicked", an epitaph he earned as an idolater, a liar and as a ruthless person. His only redeeming factor was his lineage, which connected him to the house of Abraham. Laban's brother-in-law was Isaac, yet he never learned the path of righteousness from him, nor from his son-in-law Jacob who lived with him for several decades. The influence of these two pillars of Judaism bounced right off Laban. Somehow, Rachel and her sister, Leah, remained insulated from his influence.
The stories of Rachel's marriage to Jacob and the two children she bore him are recorded in the Bible (Genesis, chapters 29-31). She died in childbirth outside Bethlehem on the 11th of Cheshvan, 2198 (1560 BCE). She was probably thirty-six years old. Jacob buried her by the roadside, and placed a stone monument over her grave.
JOSEPH PRAYS AT HER GRAVE
Joseph, who was seven years old when his mother died, was sold into slavery ten years later. On his way to Egypt, when the caravan passed Bethlehem, he escaped and ran to his mother's grave.
"Imma! Imma! (Mother!)" he beseeched, "Please save me. I'm innocent. Please save me," he cried.
"Don't be afraid," he heard his mother's voice answer him. "Go with them, and may the L-rd be with you."
Consoled and strengthened, Joseph voluntarily returned to the caravan.
This Midrash is one of the earliest sources we have about praying at the grave of a righteous person. Joseph's behavior, however, appears questionable since it is forbidden to speak directly to the dead. However there are two permitted ways to pray by the grave of a tzaddik (a righteous person). The first way is to ask that G-d should answer our prayers in the merit of the tzaddik buried here; and the second way is that the soul of the tzaddik should intercede on our behalf before the Heavenly court. Joseph, in the midst of a great dilemma, was beseeching his mother to intercede for him in Heaven and alter the harsh decree upon him. Thus his act was permitted by Jewish Law. Rachel, from her side, was granted permission to answer his prayers to give him the courage he needed to face the future. As we know, his future in Egypt played a dramatic role in the history of our people.
THE ETERNAL MOTHER
Of all the Matriarchs, Rachel stands out as the loving
mother of her children throughout the generations. The Midrash
relates at length how, at the destruction of the first Temple,
the Patriarchs pleaded in vain before the Heavenly court to show
mercy on the wayward Jews. The ears of Heaven remained deaf until
Rachel entreated on their behalf: "Master of the Universe!
Be as forbearing as me. You know how I much Jacob loved me and
how hard he worked to marry me. Yet on the wedding night my father
switched me with Leah. I did everything in my power to help her
so that she would not be discovered and ashamed forever. Now,
Oh merciful King, though my children have sinned, exiled and punished,
stop and have mercy on them." Immediately, G-d said: "For
you, Rachel, I shall return them from exile." So the verse
says, "Thus says the L-rd, A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation
and bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused
to be comforted for her children, because they are not" (Jeremiah
When Boaz took Ruth for a wife, the Sanhedrin blessed them with these words, "May the L-rd make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and like Leah" (Ruth 4:11). Although Boaz and the Sanhedrin were descendants of Leah, they agreed that Rachel was the mainstay of the house, and thus mentioned her name first.
Over the generations, the edifice above her grave has changed numerous times. At some unknown time, an open-walled canopy type shelter was erected of stone and mortar. At other times the monument consisted of twelve stones, representing the twelve tribes.
In 1841, Sir Moses Montefiore gained permission from the Turkish authorities to restore the tomb. He built the large, two-room building that we know today. A month before he died, in Tamuz, 1885, Sir Montefiore pledged to have it renovated. It was his final gift to Eretz Yisroel.
In 1864, the Sefardi Jews of Bombay donated the sum necessary to dig a well. Even though Rachel's Tomb is only an hour and a half walk from the Old City of Jerusalem, many pilgrims found themselves very thirsty and unable to obtain fresh water. The Rishon l'Tzion, (The Chief Rabbi), Rav Chazan, wrote a warm letter of congratulations to them for their support.
In the last six months, the tomb has been expanded
and fortified in keeping with the political peace process. Along
the main street, a long and high stone wall buffers between the
tomb and the main road. It is designed with indented arches to
give it a more romantic touch. Inside, the building containing
the tomb has been broken open on all four sides in the form of
huge arches, and a new outer wall has been constructed. This is
the first major change since Montefiore build his structure in
Into the 20th century, the tomb was locked around the clock. Anyone, however, who wished to go and pray there could get the key from the famous courtyard in the Old City called Churvas Rabbi Yehuda, and there the beadle would escort him to the tomb and open it.
Once a handful of Gentiless succeeded in stealing the heavy, flat gravestone which they needed for their new church. The next morning it had disappeared from their hands, only to be found miraculously back in its proper place.
THE SCARLET THREAD & THE SPECIAL KEY
There is an ancient tradition -- a segulah (a charm)-- to tie a scarlet thread around one's neck or wrist as a protection against all kinds of dangers, especially for pregnant women. Before the thread may be used, it must first be wound around the Tomb of Rachel. This transforms the simple thread into a special segulah whose validity has been proven over and over again. Even today, one can find women circling the tomb with a scarlet thread in their hands.
Why specially is this done only at her tomb? The answer probably lies in the fact that she is our "eternal mother," caring for us when we are ill. Also, was it not Rachel who felt the trauma of birth pangs until her last breath, and is therefore the perfect mediator for a pregnant woman, especially when she goes into the delivery room.
The key that unlocked the tomb was extraordinary. Some fifteen centimeters long, the brass key was made by Reb Zalman of Jerusalem in such a way that the lock was unbreakable. The beadle kept it with him at all times. It was not uncommon that someone would knock at his door in the middle of the night.
"Please," came the voice of someone at the door. "So-and-so is having strong labor pains. We need the key."
As soon as he would give the key, the person would dash to the bedside of the expectant mother and place the key under her pillow. Immediately the pains would subside and the delivery would take place peacefully.
PILGRIMS AND PRAYERS
Rachel's tomb has equal status with Machpelah (the Tombs of the Patriarchs) as the oldest place of prayer. Pilgrims stopped by her tomb on their way to and from Jerusalem on their way to Hebron and Egypt hundreds of years before King Solomon built the Temple. In fact, pilgrims came regularly from as far away as Damascus and the Euphrates valley to pour their hearts out to G-d at Rachel Tomb and the Machpelah.
Today the tourists make this a routine stop, and the flow of genuine pilgrims is a daily occurrence.
Following is part of a prayer which may be recited
when visiting her tomb.
Oh Merciful King! I have come to pray at Tomb of Rachel our Matriarch. Let her good acts stand in my steed, especially her heartfelt prayers to You when she was barren which You answered. In her merit please answer my prayers and the prayers of my fellow Jews. Listen to what I utter before You, and fulfill my inner most needs.
Jacob buried Rachel on the roadside and not in
Bethlehem so that she could come to the assistance of her children's
children at the destruction of the first Temple. Then You hearkened
and returned us after seventy years. But now, with a galus of
over 1900 years since the destruction of the second Temple, we
plead that You will again hearken to her prayers....
The Zohar (The Mystical Book of Splendor)
says, When will the Jewish people return from galus? At the time
of the redemption, and then the Shechina (the presence
of G-d) will rest on Tomb of Rachel.
© 1997 by Dovid Rossoff
The author, Dovid Rossoff, resides in Jerusalem over twenty-five
years. He has written Land of Our Heritage, Safed: The Mystical
City, and The Tefillin Handbook, among others. He is
currently writing a Jewish history of Jerusalem from the Crusader
period until the present.
from the October 1997 Edition of the Jewish Magazine