Thousands of people are expected to converge on the Tomb of Rachel in Bethlehem on Tuesday, traditionally considered the anniversary of her passing. Crowds are already expected to begin gathering Monday afternoon, as groups of Hassidim and others participate in an all-night prayer vigil at the site.
Beginning Monday night and all day Tuesday is the 11th day of Cheshvan, the yahrzeit (anniversary of death) of the biblical Matriarch Rachel, whose tomb is located on the road from Bethlehem to Efrata, where she died, rather than in Hevron where the other three matriarchs are buried with their husbands.
The Jews prayed at her tomb on their way to the first exile in Babylonia after the Holy Temple's destruction in 586 BCE, since which the site has symbolized the pain of exile and the return from exile of the Jewish people. The prophet Jeremiah, in chapter 31, describes how Rachel's voice is heard weeping bitterly over the exile of her people and tells of G-d's promise to her that they will return one day.
Rachel was the Patriarch Jacob's beloved, but had to wait more than seven years to marry him and then stayed silent while her father saw to it that he wed her sister Leah first. While Leah had several sons, Rachel was barren for the first years of her marriage, and then died while giving birth to her second son Benjamin, so that she did not live to raise her children.
Many women, in particular, identify with her life story and have made the tomb a site to which they come all year to pray for their families. In the women's section, the wedding gown of Navah Appelbaum, murdered in Jerusalem by terrorists the night before her wedding, served for years as a curtain.
Today, Rachel's Tomb is located within the city limits of PA-controlled Bethlehem, but is less than a kilometer south of the Jerusalem municipal border and entered only from Jerusalem on a road protected by high concrete walls, so that visiting it is convenient and secure.
Recently renovated, the tomb has been recognized for more than 1,700 years as that of the Matriarch Rachel, although there are some scholars who place it elsewhere. Slightly over a decade ago, Muslims began calling it the "Bilal bin Rabah Mosque", although none have been known to request to pray there throughout the 46 years since Israel's control of the site.
The constant presence of Jewish worshipers that fill the tomb's area all through the year did not stop UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, from stating that the "Bilal bin Rabah Mosque"/Rachel's Tomb [is] an integral part of the occupied Palestinian territories and that any unilateral action by the Israeli authorities is to be considered a violation of international law."
Israel's Prime Minister's Office responded that "the attempt to detach the Nation of Israel from its heritage is absurd,” adding that "it is sad that an organization that was established for the purpose of promoting the legacy of historic sites around the world tries, for political reasons, to uproot the ties between the People of Israel and their legacy. The State of Israel, as opposed to our neighbors, will continue to maintain freedom of worship for all religions in these sites."
The Egged bus company will be running extra non-stop buses from Teddy Stadium in southern Jerusalem and from the capital's religious neighborhoods to the tomb, working on an expanded schedule, as the area is closed to private vehicles. Police on Sunday issued a warning to drivers to stay away from the area, stressing that access to the Tomb would be strictly by bus.
According to Shas MK David Azulai, some 200 terror incidents occurred at the site in 2013, with 119 explosives being thrown in the course of 78 of the incidents. The figure is lower than earlier estimates that included a spike in attacks during late 2012. In 2013, the IDF told the Knesset about 200 firebombs and 90 improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were thrown at the Tombl since Operation Pillar of Defense in November, 2012. The number worked out to an average of almost two bombs a day.
Thousands of police and border guards will be on hand to ensure the safety of visitors. The area, which is surrounded by thick bullet-proof concrete walls, is considered safe, despite it being surrounded by Bethlehem on three sides.