The Mikveh In Judaism

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In Judaism, ritual washing, or ablution, takes two main forms. Tevilah is a full-body immersion in a mikveh. And Netilat Yadayim is the washing of the hands with a cup (Hand Washing in Judaism). References to ritual washing are found in the Hebrew Bible. And are elaborated in the Mishnah and Talmud. They have been codified in various codes of Jewish law and tradition. Such as Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah (12th century). Now, these practices are most commonly observed within Orthodox Judaism. In Conservative Judaism, the practices are normative; with certain leniencies and exceptions. But ritual washing is not generally performed in Reform Judaism.

The Hebrew Bible

The Hebrew Bible requires immersion of the body in water as a means of purification in several circumstances, for example:

“And when the zav is cleansed of his issue, then he shall number to himself seven days for his cleansing, and wash his clothes; and he shall bathe his flesh in running water, and shall be clean.”

Leviticus 15:13

There are also references to hand-washing:

“And whoever the zav touches, without having rinsed his hands in water, he shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the evening.”

Leviticus 15:11

“I will wash my hands in innocency; so will I compass Thine altar, O LORD.”

(Psalms 26:6)

Priests were required to wash their hands and feet before service in the Temple:

“Thou shalt also make a laver of brass, and the base thereof of brass, whereat to wash; and thou shalt put it between the tent of meeting and the altar, and thou shalt put water therein. And Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet thereat; when they go into the tent of meeting, they shall wash with water, that they die not; or when they come near to the altar to minister, to cause an offering made by fire to smoke unto the LORD”

Exodus 30:18-20

The Mikveh: Full Body Immersion (Tevilah)

There are several occasions on which biblical or rabbinic regulations require immersion of the whole body, referred to as tevilah. Depending on the circumstances; such ritual bathing might require immersion in “living water”. Either by using a natural stream. Or by using a mikveh (a specially constructed ritual bath, connected directly to a natural source of water, such as a spring).

Most forms of ritual impurity can be purified through immersion in any natural collection of water. However, some impurities require “living water”. Such as springs, living water has the further advantage of being able to purify even while flowing. Contrary to rainwater which must be stationary in order to purify. So the mikveh is designed to simplify this requirement; by providing a bathing facility that remains in contact with a natural source of water. After the destruction of the Temple, the mikveh main uses remained as follows:

  • by Jewish women to achieve ritual purity after menstruation and childbirth before they and their husbands may resume marital relations;
  • by Jewish men to achieve ritual purity after ejaculation;
  • as part of the traditional procedure for conversion to Judaism;
  • to immerse newly acquired metal and glass utensils used in serving and eating food;
  • to immerse a corpse as part of the preparation for burial (taharah)

Requirements of a Mikveh

The traditional rules regarding the construction of a mikveh are based on those specified in classical rabbinical literature. According to these rules; a mikveh must be connected to a natural spring or well of naturally occurring water. And thus can be supplied by rivers and lakes which have natural springs as their source.

A cistern filled with rainwater is also permitted to act as a mikvah water supply so long as the water is never collected in a vessel. Similarly, snow, ice, and hail are allowed to act as the supply of water to a mikveh. No matter how they were transferred to the mikveh. A river that dries up upon occasion cannot be used because it is presumed to be rainwater and not spring water, which cannot purify while in a flowing state. Oceans and seas for the most part have the status of natural springs.

The Mikveh In Judaism: Must Be Undrawn Water

There are also classical requirements for the manner in which the water can be stored and transported to the pool; the water must flow naturally to the mikveh from the source, which essentially means that it must be supplied by gravity or a natural pressure gradient. And the water cannot be pumped there by hand or carried. It was also forbidden for the water to pass through any vessel which could hold water within it or is capable of becoming impure.

A mikveh must, according to the classical regulations, contain enough water to cover the entire body of an average-sized person. The necessary volume of water was estimated as being 40 seahs of water. The exact volume referred to by a seah is debated. Most Orthodox Jews use the stringent ruling of the Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz, according to which one seah is 14.3 liters, and therefore, a mikveh must contain approximately 575 liters.

The Mikveh in Archaeological Excavations in Israel

Hundreds of ancient Jewish ritual baths were discovered throughout the Land of Israel. And date to the Late Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine periods. scholarly research in recent years has given The subject quite a focus. Discoveries of mikvahs in the excavations of Professor Yigal Yadin in Masada in 1965 actually opened the archaeological study of this subject.  A number of water installations were discovered in these excavations; two of which were identified as Jewish ritual baths.

The systematic study of the ritual baths began following the extensive excavations in the Old City of Jerusalem in the late 1960s and 1970s. Numerous water cisterns were discovered in the excavations led by Prof. Benjamin Mazar at the foot of the Temple Mount. And in the excavations of Prof. Nachman Avigd in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem. Also, Prof. Ronnie Reich, that during the days of Avigid’s excavations; he was able to identify these pools as Jewish ritual baths. In other words – mikvahs. And began a preliminary and comprehensive study of the subject in its various aspects, a study that was summarized in his dissertation.

During the excavations of Dr. Yuval Baruch in Susia, Jewish ritual baths used after the destruction of the Second Temple were found.  Baruch believed that the Late Roman-Byzantine Mikvahs were used in Jewish communities where there was a predominance of priestly families that maintained their status even after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.

Qumran National Park

Another site where archaeologists found many Jewish ritual baths is Qumran. Multiple cisterns were found there with stepped stairs. That usually means it was used for ritual purposes and not just just for the storage of water.  When I tour them with my clients I stop next to one or two and show them from up close how they look. My guests are amazed by how well preserved they are. So this gives opportunity gives them a better understanding of how things past were. There is a theory that the people that lived in Qumran were Essenes. In other words a second-century Jewish sect.

The Mikveh in the Day to Day life of The Essenes

The Jewish historian Josephus records that Essenes existed in large numbers, and thousands lived throughout Roman Judaea. But they were fewer in number than the Pharisees and the Sadducees; the other two major sects at the time. The Essenes lived in various cities but congregated in communal life dedicated to voluntary poverty, daily immersion, and asceticism (their priestly class practiced celibacy). Most scholars claim they seceded from the Zadokite priests.

The first reference to Essenes is by the Roman writer Pliny the Elder (died c. 79 CE) in his Natural History. Also, Pliny relates in a few lines that the Essenes possess no money; had existed for thousands of generations; and that their priestly class (“contemplatives”) do not marry. Unlike Philo; who did not mention any particular geographical location of the Essenes other than the whole land of Israel; Pliny places them somewhere above Ein Gedi, next to the Dead Sea.

So from all this information we have, it is safe to say that there is a good chance the Essenes were the ones living at Qumran. But some scholars differ and contested that theory. On my tours, I like to talk about this Jewish practice of Baptism since it shows very well the history between Judaism and Christianity.


Hi! My name is Arik Haglili, an Israeli native who decided to dedicate his life to share my knowledge about the Holy Land to those that are interested to know more about this amazing piece of land. My career as a private tour guide started at the International School For the Studying of the Holocaust and the rest is history. 

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