The purity of the Mikvah

Clarifying the mitzvah of immersion in a mikvah, beginning with the requirement that a mikvah must be attached to the ground in some way.

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed , | updated: 12:26 PM

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
PR photo

In this week’s Torah portion, ​​Shemini, we learn the foundation of purity in the waters of the mikvah, which is water that “gathers” in the ground naturally, as the Torah says: “The only thing that shall always remain ritually clean is a mikvah of water” (Leviticus 11: 36), and this is a good opportunity to clarify the mitzvah of immersion in a mikvah.

A Ritually Pure Mikvah – Water in the Ground

Mikvah tahara (a ritually pure mikvah) is water that is “gathered” in the ground, i.e., groundwater that came from a spring or rainwater that accumulated in the ground. For as long as they are in the ground naturally, they are pure and cannot receive tumah (ritual impurity), as the Torah says, “The only thing that shall always remain ritually clean is a mikvah of water” (Leviticus 11: 36). However, water that has been disconnected from the ground by man or by vessels can receive tumah, and consequently, when a ritually impure person touches them, the water becomes tameh (impure), and are no longer able to purify him (Chatam Sofer, Y.D. 213).

Pool, Ship and Vessel

Any place on the ground where water can “gather” is kosher as a mikvah, including a spring, ocean, or a pit dug in the ground.

A pool built of bricks and concrete inside of a building or on its roof, or even on the 100th floor of the building, is also kosher as a mikvah, because, seeing as the structure of the building is connected to the ground, the pool built above it is also considered connected to the ground.

However, water collected inside a vessel, even if the vessel is huge, such as a plastic pool or a ship, can receive tumah because they are not collected in a place that is attached to the ground, and consequently, are unfit for a mikvah.

Someone who wants to make a mikvah by use of a large vessel, such as a plastic or metal container, must first cancel it from being considered a vessel by perforating a hole in its bottom about eight inches in diameter. In addition, he must connect the perforated vessel to the ground using concrete and the like, or by inserting it into a deep pit in the ground. After connecting the perforated vessel to the ground, the hole is plugged, and can be sealed with any material (Rambam, S.A. 201: 7).

Ritual Purity and Impurity

In order to clarify why tahara (purity) is achieved by means of water from the ground, we must first clarify the entire matter of tahara and tumah (impurity).

It is a mitzvah from the Torah that all matters of kedusha (holiness) in the service of the Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple), as well as contact with the flesh of the korbanot (sacrifices), challah, and the fruits of terumot, ma’aser, and ma’aser sheni (tithes) and their consumption – is fulfilled by ritually pure people. In general, impurity is associated with death, consequently the most severe impurity is the impurity of the dead, which is called “avi avot ha’tumah” (lit., ‘the grandfather of impurity’ – the highest level of tumah). Less severe impurity is the impurity caused by secretions that could have produced life but were lost, such as the impurity of niddah, the discharge of semen, or secretions that express damage to the system that effects life, such as the impurity of zav and zavah (abnormal bodily discharges).

The order of the purification process is according to the severity of the tumah: someone who became tameh from the dead, needs to wait seven days, on the third and seventh day he needs to be sprinkled with the ashes of the Para Adumah (Red Heifer), and on the seventh day, immerse in a mikvah and at the end of the day, he is purified. A zav or zavah needs to wait seven clean days and immerse, without requiring the sprinkling of the ashes of the Para Adumah. A man or woman who is tameh from the discharge of semen, as well as those who touch the carcass of an animal, beast, or a swarming animal, are impure until the end of the day, and are purified by immersion. The laws of purity are exceedingly numerous – an entire order out of the six orders of the Mishnah is dedicated to them – nevertheless, one rule applies to all those who are impure, namely, their purity is incomplete without immersion in water.

Water is the Foundation of Life

It is possible to say that the reason of the mitzvah to purify oneself in water is that water preceded the appearance of life, as written in the Torah: “In the beginning God created heaven and earth. The earth was without form and empty, with darkness on the face of the depths, but God’s spirit moved on the water’s surface” (Genesis 1: 1-2). On the first day, God created light, in order to give the world direction, and yet, the world was still full and flooded by water. On the second day: “God said, ‘There shall be a sky in the middle of the water, and it shall divide between water and water. God thus made the sky, and it separated the water below the sky from the water above the sky. It remained that way” (ibid. 6-7). Still, the world was flooded with water. On the third day: “God said, ‘The waters under the heaven shall be gathered to one place, and dry land shall be seen.’ It happened. God named the dry land ‘Earth,’ and the gatherings of water, He named ‘Seas.’ God saw that it was good” (ibid.9-10). Thus, we see that water is the foundation from which life in the world began, and the impure person who became distanced from the Source of Life, immerses himself entirely in water, and as a result, returns to the root of his life, as if created a new, and purified.

After the Beit HaMikdash was destroyed and Israel was exiled from their land, tahara was cancelled from the Jewish nation, but we still have an important and sacred tahara, namely, tahara from the impurity of niddah, because the impurity of niddah does not only concern entering the Beit HaMikdash and eating in purity, but also the intimacy between husband and wife. Indeed, the essence of purity and holiness remaining in the Nation of Israel, is in the sacred relationship between husband and wife.

Spring and Mikvah

There are two types of “gathered” water from the ground: 1) A spring whose source stems naturally from groundwater. 2) A pit filled with rainwater, called a mikvah.

Spring waters are kosher for immersion even when they are flowing, but mikvah water is kosher only in “ashburen“, in other words, while they are standing still, because water is kosher as they exist in their natural state. Rainwater falls from the sky, and as long as they flow, their state is transient and not stable, and only when they gather in one place are they stable, and may be used. On the other hand, a spring constantly issues and flows, and since this is its natural state and how it is sourced, even when its waters are flowing, it is kosher for immersion (Mishnah Mikvaot 1: 7-8; S.A. 201:2).

A Flowing River

A river that originates from a flowing spring has the same halachic status as that of a spring, and is kosher for immersion even while its waters are zochalim (the meaning of “creeping” is, continually flowing and moving and are not gathered together). On the other hand, a river that dries up on occasion (nahar achzav), i.e., it flows in the wake of the rains and then stops flowing, is considered a mikvah, and is kosher only when its waters accumulate and stand still (‘ashburen’).

In a river that originates from a spring, but during the rainy season and after the snow melts, its waters increase – we go according to the majority. When the majority of its water is from the spring, it is kosher for immersion, even though its waters flow (zochalim), but when the majority of its water is from rainwater or thawing snow (notfim), it is considered a mikvah, but while it is flowing, it is invalid for immersion.

However, it is possible to immerse in such a river by encircling the place of immersion, creating a partition with a reed barrier in such a way that the flow of the river will not be noticeable inside the partition, and thus the water inside the partition is kosher for immersion (S.A.201:2).

The Virtue of the Purity of a Spring

The waters of a spring, which are called “mayim chaim” (‘living water’) possess a greater degree of purity, for all individuals impure from the Torah can be purified by immersion in a mikvah or a spring, except for a zav, who can be purified only in a spring, as the Torah says: “When the man is healed of his discharge, he must count seven days for his purification. He shall then immerse his clothing and his body in a mikvah of running spring water” (Leviticus 15:13; Mishnah Mikvaot 1: 8).

Moreover, a mikvah is kosher only if it contains forty se’ah, while a spring is kosher for immersing utensils even when it does not contain forty se’ah, and some authorities say it is also kosher for the immersion of a man without forty se’ah (Rambam, Ravad). Other authorities say that even in a spring, there must be forty se’ah in order for it to be kosher for someone to immerse (Tosafot, Rabbeinu Tam, Rabbeinu Yitzchak, Rabbeinu Shimon).

This is in addition to the fact that spring water purifies even when it is flowing, which is not the case with rainwater, which purifies only when it is “gathered” and not flowing.

Seas are Kosher as a Mikvah

All seas, large and small, are kosher for the immersion of people and utensils. And although sea water moves back and forth because of the wind that creates waves, or flows because of rivers that enter them, this does not invalidate them, rather, just as a spring is kosher even when its waters flow naturally, likewise, the sea is kosher when its waters flow or sway as they naturally do (Rashi, Tosfot, Shabbat 109a).

Leaking (Zechila) Invalidates a Mikvah

As we have learned, a mikvah whose waters zochalim (run, or flow) is invalidated from being used as a mikvah. Therefore, care must be taken there is no leakage from the mikvah, for if there is a leak, although the mikvah contains forty se’ah, since as a result of the leak there will eventually be less than forty se’ah, the mikvah is already invalid.

The Rishonim wrote that only a noticeable flow from a leakage invalidates a mikvah, but not an unnoticeable one, for if we do not say so, no mikvah would be kosher, because if a mikvah has a crack and its water drips out very slowly, or it is being absorbed into the ground very slowly, it is still kosher, because the flow is not recognizable (Eshkol, Rashba, Rabbeinu Yerucham, Meiri and Tashbetz).

What is a Noticeable Zechila

The question is what is a noticeable zechila? In the opinion of most poskim (Jewish law arbitrators), only a zechila that creates movement in the water invalidates the mikvah (Sho’el U’Meyshiv Tanina, Vol.4, 178; Maharsham 3: 367; Divrei Malkiel 3: 64; Marcheshet 1, 39:1, Chazon Ish). It may be inferred from their opinion that as long as the zechila does not create movement in the water, even if it is noticeable from the outside as a leak, it does not invalidate, and this is what Maharsham (3: 367) and Ein Yitzchak (22) wrote. However, in the opinion of Maran Rabbi Kook, if the leak is noticeable on the outer walls of the mikvah, it invalidates it (Da’at Kohen 103).

Some poskim are machmir (rule strictly) even in the case of a leak that is absorbed into the ground and is not noticeable from the outside. In their opinion, the indication is when the mikvah decreases in an amount of continuous leakage, but a leak in the amount of dripping does not invalidate (Responsa Beit Shlomo 2: 82; Imri Yosher 1: 127).

When a drop in the Mikvah Water level Does Not Invalidate

According to all opinions if the mikvah was inspected and no crack was found, if after a number of hours a slight drop in the water level is noticed, it should not be cause for concern (Shiurei Bracha 201:4; Darchei Teshuvah 282; Divrei Malkiel 3:64). And as Knesset Ha’Gedolah wrote in his book ‘Ba‘ei Chayei’ (paragraph 198): “If the mikvah is carefully inspected, and no crack is found, small or large, and the water inside the ashburen (the pool) is calm and tranquil and not restless and shifting to run off, rather, on its own continuously diminishes, either because it is absorbed in the ground, or because of the warmth of the bath the water slowly dwindles, and there is no noticeable leakage…it is kosher le-chatchila for immersion according to all opinions, even if the waters lessen by two or three fingers everyday”.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.