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The Great Mikveh Debate, Ronny Reich, BAR 19:02, Mar-Apr 1993.

Mikveh at QumranIn a letter to the editor in Queries & Comments, BAR 18-06, Jerusalem guide Walter Zanger questions whether the installations found in the Jewish Quarter excavations directed by the late Nahman Avigad were really mikva’ot (ritual purification baths, singular mikveh), as they were denominated in an article on those excavations.a

According to Zanger, only one of the water installations found in this excavation was really a mikveh. The others, he says, “weren’t mikva’ot at all!” (exclamation point in original).

Zanger comes to this conclusion because only one of the water installations had a reserve or storage pool, known as an otzar, adjacent to the main bath pool. The otzar is necessary, he says, because halakhah (Jewish religious law) requires a mikveh to have “living” water; that is, undrawn, flowing water. The water from the otzar fits this description. When the water from the otzar made contact with the water in the main pool (which consisted of drawn water), the water from the otzar purified that in the main pool even though the pool water was not itself living water.

Zanger’s contention is that no installation without an otzar can be a true mikveh.

Unfortunately, Zanger, despite his confident assertion, is not thoroughly familiar with halakhah. Others, however, it must be admitted, have made the same error. Zanger, and the others, should read the section of the Mishnah known as Mikva’ot, which describes six grades of water concentrations that can be used for ritual purification. The first is ponds; the second is rainwater. Only the third grade is what we would consider a mikveh. However, there is no requirement in this third grade for “living water” or for “flowing water.” On the contrary, the concentrated water must be still; that is, not moving (eshboren is the technical term). “Living water” is required only in the highest grade, the sixth grade.

As for the otzar and the method of preparing new baths of pure waters for ritual immersion, indeed this “patent” was invented and was in use in the Second Temple period, but the practice was not widespread. Most of the mikva’ot were not provided with an otzar. This does not mean that installations without an otzar were not mikva’ot. The necessity for an otzar that Zanger implies is not corroborated in contemporary rabbinic writings.

Aside from this legal discussion, we can also rely on a logical inference from the archaeological remains. Over 300 stepped-and-plastered water installations are known from the archaeological record. Of these about 150 have been found in Jerusalem—about 60 in the Upper City (Avigad’s excavations), about 40 from the excavations near the southern gates of the Temple Mount and the rest in various locations. If these installations are not the mikva’ot mentioned so frequently in the rabbinic literature, what are they? And if these water installations are not the mikva’ot described in this literature, then where are those mikva’ot? It will not do to say that we have not found them yet and it is simply a matter of conducting more excavations. Sites from the later part of the Second Temple period (second century B.C.E.–first century C.E.)b have been extensively excavated, their stratigraphy is clear. Acres of these sites have been excavated in Jerusalem, Masada, Herodium, Jericho, Gamla and elsewhere. All contained water installations of the type found in the Herodian mansions of the Upper City (the Jewish Quarter) of Jerusalem.

True, there are some morphological differences among them, but these may reflect the diversity of Jewish society in those days—for example, differences in religious laws among Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and perhaps other unknown factions in Jewish society, all maintaining their requirements of cultic purity.

Mr. Zanger suggests that the yeshiva (rabbinical academy) near our dig may have affected our archaeological conclusions—or at least affected the content of the signs on the site. He also mentions Professor Avigad in this connection. As Professor Avigad’s assistant in the years when most of the mikva’ot were excavated, I would point out, first, that the yeshiva was not built until after the mikva’ot were excavated (the first one was excavated in 1969). But why should there have been any influence upon us from the yeshiva? I cannot recollect a single instance during my ten years of work in the Jewish Quarter (1969–1970) when anyone from the yeshiva (at the time they were using a temporary place while waiting for the new yeshiva to be built) expressed any interest in our work.

As for the explanatory signs in the Herodian Mansions in the Jewish Quarter (the Wohl Museum), all were written by Professor Avigad. Indeed, he did the entire museum. It is a masterpiece in every respect.

a. Nitza Rosovsky, “A Thousand Years of History in Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter,” BAR 18-03. See also William S. La Sor, “Discovering What Jewish Mikva’ot Can Tell Us About Christian Baptism,” BAR 13-01, and “More on Mikva’ot”, Queries & Comments, BAR 13-04, Ronny Reich (letter).

b. B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) and C.E. (Common Era), used by this author, are the alternate designations corresponding to B.C. and A.D. often used in scholarly literature.

Posted in: Maccabean Period

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