For generations Jewish people have visited the Tomb of Ruth and Jesse. Today, the refurbished site attracts thousands, especially on Shavuot.
The tomb of Jesse and Ruth is the ancient site that marks the burial locations of the father and great-grandmother of King David. Some archaeologists believe the site may be connected to King David who established Israel’s first capital in Hebron.
The Book of Ruth begins with the story of Naomi, a Jewish woman who travels with her family to Moab to escape a famine. After the death of her husband and sons, she decides to return to the Land of Israel. Her daughter-in-law Ruth, a Moabite, rather then let Naomi leave alone, chooses to follow her and join the Jewish people.
Ruth is considered the paradigm of “hesed” or kindness and a template for convertion to Judaism. In chapter 1 verse 16, of the Book of Ruth, she speaks the famous phrase, “wherever you go, I will go, and wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God, my God.” She later marries Boaz, and gives birth to Obed, father of Jesse, father of David.
For generations people have visited the site known as the Tomb of Ruth and Jesse, located in the Admot Ishai / Tel Hebron neighborhood of Hebron. At the top of a hill overlooking a vineyard, the old stone building today houses a small synagogue, prayer room and an alcove with stone artifacts that have yet to be thoroughly excavated. The roof provides a panoramic view of the Old City.
Rabbinic tradition describes Jesse as one of four righteous men who died free of sin and one of the ten who entered the Garden of Eden during their lifetimes. This could be an allusion to Jesse’s burial in Hebron as the Cave of Machpela is described as an entrance to the Garden of Eden.
Ever since the Middle Ages, Jewish travelers have sought out this site as a holy place. Legends speak of a tunnel that links the Tomb of Jesse with the Tomb of Machpela. The authenticity of the site has been attested to by Rabbi Isaac Luria — the Holy ARI.
An ancient structure to the west of the west of the tel [hill], facing Jerusalem, has been identified as a synagogue. As of 2016, furniture and electricity have been installed in the cave-like structure and Jewish prayer services are held.
On the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, it is traditional to read the Book of Ruth and many follow the custom of ascending to the Tomb of Ruth and Jesse for this purpose. A 2010 Jerusalem Post article entitled Converts Pay Homage to Ruth at Her Hebron Tomb states,
“Thousands visit the tomb annually, particularly around Shavuot. On the afternoon of the festival, hundreds of people from the area visit the site, which has a garden and a small sanctuary where people study and pray.”
The article interviews two newcomers to Judaism one of whom stated,
“I go there with students from abroad, and we study there about what it means to come to Judaism from another faith.”
Many writers over the generations have mentioned visiting the Tomb of Ruth and Jesse.
One of the earliest known references to the tomb comes from an unnamed student of the Ramban who visited the site between 1289 and 1290. He wrote of visiting the “cave of Jesse’s grave on a hilltop near the Cave of Machpela and the ancient Jewish Cemetery of Hebron.” His words were reprinted in a collection of travel diaries of medieval Jewish travelers entitled Maasot Eretz Yisrael edited by bibliographer Abraham Yaari.
The Jewish traveler Yaakov HaShaliach mentions visiting “the grave of Jesse, father of David in Hebron” in the year 1235, but he does not specify the burial place. These comments were reprinted by the historian Julius Eisenstein in his 1927 book Otzar Masa’oth, an anthology of itineraries by Jewish travelers.
Meshulam de Volterra, the Italian Jewish traveler who began his journey in 1481, wrote about the site in his journal. It has been reprinted in Elkan Nathan Adler’s book Jewish Travelers in the Middle Ages: 19 Firsthand Accounts as well as in a book by Abraham Moshe Lunz and in and Avraham Yaari’s seminal Zikhronot Eretz Yisrael, a Hebrew work in two volumes which runs to over 1,200 pages.
In 1522 Rabbi Moshe Bassola wrote,
“at the summit of the mountain opposite Hebron is the burial place of Jesse, David’s father. It has a handsome building with a small window that looks down on the burial cave. They say that once they threw a cat through the window and it emerged from the hole in the Cave of the Patriarchs. The distance between them is half a mile.”
Rabbi Basola’s travel journal has been reprinted in In Zion and Jerusalem: The Itinerary of Rabbi Moses Basola 1512-1523 edited by Abraham David.
Two Karaite travelers wrote of the site. Their names were Samuel ben David of Crimea who wrote in 1642 and Benjamin Ben-Eliyahu wrote in 1785.
The 1537 book Yihus HaAvos V’Neviim (Lineage of the Patriarch and the Prophets) describes the tomb as “a handsome building up on the mount, where Jesse, the King David’s father is buried.” It includes a drawing of the site, and notes an “ancient Israelite burial ground” nearby and Crusader courtyard.
Non-Jewish visitors have written about the site from their perspectives as well.
In 1553 Spanish Franciscan traveler Juan Perera wrote, “Somewhat higher up, in the direction of the hill, there is a church called the Church of the Forty Martyrs and is now a mosque.” Source: The Churches of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem: A Corpus: Volume 2, by Prof. Denys Pringle, page 203.
Franciscus Quaresmius (1583 – 1650) wrote, “Opposite Hebron on the top of a hill is a small church, which I believe, from the indications that are discernible beside it, was formerly larger: perhaps this is the chancel of the pre-existing church. Now it is converted into a mosque of the Turks, and held in honour not by Christians but by the self-same Turks, who forbid them entry, allowing them merely to look inside through a certain window that is in it. It is known by two names: the Christians call it ‘the Church of the Forty Martyrs’, the Turks and many other Orientals ‘the Tomb of Isai’ [Jesse]…”
Both narratives were chronicled in The Churches of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem: A Corpus: Volume 2, by Prof. Denys Pringle, page 203 -204.
Historian Mujir al-Din (1456–1522) wrote, “The Martyrs’ Sanctuary of the Forty: outside the town, on the western side; on the summit of the mountain there is a mosque called the Sanctuary of the Forty. It is said that forty martyrs are (buried) in it. I could not find any (reliable) transmitted report to confirm it. People go there to perform ziyarah. It is a familiar place.” His words were chronicled in the book Corpus Inscriptionum Arabicarum Palaestinae, Volume Five: H-I (Handbook of Oriental Studies by Prof. Moshe Sharon, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Haim Horwitz in his 1835 book on Israeli holy sites Love of Jerusalem discusses the oral tradition that the tomb houses the grave of Ruth as well as that of Jesse, who is mentioned in earlier writings.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kamenitz, considered the first hotelier in the Land of Israel wrote about the site in his 1839 book entitled Sefer Korot Ha-Itim, later translated into English as Book of the Occurrences of the Times to Jeshurun in the Land of Israel. For the sake of context, the entire paragraph from his book is included here.
“Here I write of the graves of the righteous to which I paid my respects. Hebron – Described above is the character and order of behavior of those coming to pray at the Cave of ha-Machpelah. I went there, between the stores, over the grave of Avner ben Ner and was required to pay a Yishmaeli – the grave was in his courtyard – to allow me to enter. Outside of the city I went to the grave of Othniel ben Kenaz and, next to him, are laid to rest 9 students in niches in the wall of a shelter standing in a vineyard. I gave 20 pa’res to the owner of the vineyard. Also in the vineyard was a shelter with 2 graves: one of Jesse, father of David, and one of Ruth, the Moabite. I gave the vineyard owner 20 pa’res. I also went to a grave said to be that of the Righteous Rav, author of “Reshit Hokhma” [Rabbi Eliyahu DeVidas – 16th C Kabbalist and disciple of Rabbi Moshe Cordovero who died in Hebron.]”
Lady Judith Montefiore mentions the site in the posthumously published Notes from a Private journal of a visit to Egypt and Palestine, by way of Italy and the Mediterranean in 1885. She states,
“while the fete was being prepared, we rode up the hill to visit some ancient tombs, one of which was that of Jesse, the father of David, and at which we said our evening prayers, joined by eight Israelites who had accompanied us. Returning down the hill, the sight that presented itself to us might well have employed a painter’s skill.”
In May of 1811, Rabbi Haim Yeshua Bejayo of Hebron made the second of two purchases on behalf of the community through the Magen Avot organization. This area encompassed 800 dunam of land including the area of Tel Hevron (later known as Tel Rumeida) and the Tombs of Ruth and Jesse.
In the mid to late 1800s, the Jewish community obtained the land. A document in Arabic from 1882 attests to the Jewish community being granted perpetual rights. It references a court in Gaza which had jurisdiction over Hebron and most of the southern region at the time. Photographs of the original Ottoman deeds, known as kushan, have been reprinted in Oded Avisar’s seminal book Sefer Hebron.
Non-Jewish visitors came to the city as well, such as American writer and abolitionist John D. Paxton author of an 1839 book about his travels. Although he exhibits an attitude of skepticism and relied on a translator during his tour, his perspective on the Tomb of Jesse and Ruth is noteworthy. He writes:
“While rambling among the olive-trees that almost cover the hill to the south-west of the town, we came to the ruins of an old building, which must have been a place of some consequence formerly, but is now wholly deserted. Our guide took us into it, and in one of the rooms showed us a small hole in the wall, which he told us was the tomb of Jesse, father of David. The Jews, who were with us, certainly showed much reverence for the place, pulling off their shoes, and performing other acts of regard… It is not impossible that Jesse may have died in Hebron, notwithstanding Bethlehem, was his usual place of residence. When David came under the jealousy of Saul, and was obligated to flee, his family fled with him, and David had to provide for and protect his father and mother. It is not unlikely that while he reigned in Hebron, and the sons of Saul over the rest of Israel, his family may have resided with him; Jesse, who was an old man when David was anointed, may have finished his days while his son lived and reigned at Hebron. ”
Paxton also notes he and his tour group were not allowed to enter the Tomb of Machpelah. He mentions visiting a synagogue, possibly the Avraham Avinu synagogue, where he was shown a Torah scroll he describes as “a most splendid roll of the law.”
He adds, “A few years ago, when Ibrahim Pasha’s troops took Hebron, they committed great outrages on the Jews, by plundering them of all they could find. They broke into their synagogue, and opened all parts of it in which they thought anything could be found, mutilated and tore their roll of the law, and perpetrated many other enormities. Hebron is esteemed by the Jews as a sacred city; and they think it a great privileged to live here.”(For full excerpt click here.)
British Mandate Period
During the British Mandate era (1917 – 1948), the site was included on a list of holy places in the Land of Israel.
The famous tour-book writer and Israeli geographer Zev Vilnay wrote that he toured the tomb in 1935 and was unable to investigate the site in much depth. He noted that an Arab attendant told him that the tomb led into a cave which then leads to the Tomb of Machpela, but that it had been filled in during the First World War and the entrance was now unknown.
Israeli archaeologist Jacob Pinkerfield (1897–1956) visited the site and wrote about it in his book The Synagogues in Eretz Yisra’el. He was one of the four archaeologists killed in the Ramat Rachel shooting attack.
Louis-Hugues Vincent (1872 – 1960), a French monk and archaeologist who lived in Jerusalem wrote about the site in his 1923 two-volume work in French entitled Hebron.
From 1948 – 1967, Jews and Israelis had virtually no access to Hebron and other areas that had fallen to Jordan during the War of Independence. Many sites were destroyed such as the Avraham Avinu synagogue. Others, like the Tomb of Jesse and Ruth, fell into neglect. During this period, the AEH Hammond Excavations took place in the area between 1963 to 1966 led by Professor Philip Hammond of the Princeton Theological Seminary.
After the Six Day War of 1967, efforts were made to once again make the site a place of worship. It remained neglected until the mid-1970s at the initiative of Prof. Benzion Tavger (1930 – 1983) and the entrance was re-opened. Prof. Tavger, a resident of Hebron, went on to uncover the historic Avraham Avinu synagogue and other sites. He wrote about his excavations in the book My Hebron.
Several excavations took place after the area became open to the general public, although the actual tomb complex has not been disturbed. Dr. Avi Ofer excavated the area between 1984 to 1986. Archaeologist Yuval Peleg excavated the site in 1998.
Emmanuel Eisenberg of the Israeli Antiquities Department excavated the site in 1999 discovering numerous artifacts such as stairs dated to 4,000 years ago and numerous seals with an inscription in ancient Hebrew reading “To the King, Hebron.” In 2014, Prof. Eisenberg and his Israeli Antiquities Authority team returned with David Ben-Shlomo of Ariel University to again excavate the area.
Visiting the Tombs Today
Today, the Tombs of Jesse and Ruth continues to inspire the thousands of residents and visitors who visit every year. An active Kollel and synagogue now exists at the site.
Originally published on en.hebron.org.il on January 27, 2016 here.