A miqveh is a built water installation whose construction complies with tenets of Jewish law (halakhah), and in which the observant Jew, disrobed, purifies him- or herself through total immersion. In the late Second Temple period, the Jews developed an elaborate system of regulations concerning matters of ritual purity, based on biblical law but emended and influenced by the dominant contemporary religious interpreters of the time (e.g., Pharisees and Saduccees). In the early stages of the practice, a state of purity was achieved through immersion in a natural body of water—a spring, river, or lake. Eventually, however, the demand for pools of natural water to service the community was met via the introduction of the miqveh.
To draw a distinction between a ritual immersion and ordinary washing, the sages decreed that the miqveh's waters should be “in the hands of heaven,” distinct from waters that are “in the hands of man.” They decreed that miqveh waters meeting the following requirements have intrinsic powers of purification. The miqveh was to be cut into bedrock or built directly into the ground—it could not be a precast container. It was not to be filled with drawn (i.e., “in the hands of man” and therefore impure) water. Only rainwater that collected by itself into the miqveh (i.e., by gravity) was acceptable. Spring water led by aqueduct was also permissible. The miqveh must hold a minimum volume of 40 se῾ah of water (somewhat less than a cubic meter). The water in the miqveh must maintain the natural appearance of water (meaning, for example, that oil finding its way into a miqveh defiled it, even though all other requirements were met). The rabbis did not set regulations for the shape or the number of steps leading into the miqveh, which is attested in the archaeological record, as installations are found in various shapes and with differing numbers of steps.
The main rabbinic sources for the tradition are the tractates Miqva῾ot in the Mishnah and Tosefta. These are compilations of halakhot (“religious regulations”) prescribing the minimal requirements for a miqveh and of discussions of problems already solved by the sages regarding the use of this installation (they are not manuals of instruction for how to build a miqveh).
Archaeologist Yigael Yadin first drew attention to the installation in the excavations on Masada (1963–1964). However, it was not until the findings from Nahman Avigad's excavations in the Jewish Quarter and those of Benjamin Mazar near the Temple Mount, both in Jerusalem, that miqva῾ot began to be studied formally. Such installations have been found in large numbers in archaeological contexts in Israel, mainly in bathrooms in the basements of every one of the large private houses dated to the first century BCE and the first century CE until the year 70, where they appear in addition to cisterns, bathtubs, and footbaths. A recent comprehensive study by Ronny Reich (1990), based on the above- mentioned excavations and others, has proven the identification of these installations with the miqveh known from the written sources and has defined their characteristics and significance.
The lower part of the miqveh typically was cut into bedrock, while its upper part was built and roofed with a barrel- shaped vault or, alternatively, also hewn completely out of bedrock. Its average size was 2 × 4 m. The steps in the miqveh usually occupy its entire width and have risers about 25–30 cm high; the lowest step usually has the highest rise (60–70 cm) and one or two small auxiliary steps are cut at the bottom expressly to overcome this height. The tread of the steps also varies in depth. In many cases a step with a deep (50–70 cm) tread alternates with two-four 30-cm steps enabling the use of the miqveh in different water levels. Variations of miqva῾ot occur: there are installations with a narrow staircase attached to one or two sides of the basin (typical to Hasmonean Jericho), and miqva῾ot equipped with two adjacent openings (instead of one) and/or a low built partition (10–30 cm high) that divides the staircase into two lanes (to separate the descending impure person from contact with the ascending purified individual), a type typical mainly to Jerusalem.
Miqva῾ot are filled with rainwater during the first rainstorm of each year. The chief operational/maintenance problem with miqva῾ot in ancient Israel was guaranteeing a constant supply of pure water throughout the year in a land with a long rainless season (April–November). The sages decreed that a minimum volume of 40 se῾ah can also purify drawn water; thus, a solution for maintaining the purity of the water was simply occasionally to add drawn water to the miqveh as long as the amount of the original pure water in the pool was more than 40 se῾ah—instantaneously purifying the drawn water (which was probably the common means to purify additional amounts of water). In addition, an operational device is in evidence based on the principle given in the Mishnah that any body of water linked to the water in a valid miqveh becomes equally pure: at a few sites (Masada, Herodium, and Jericho, and in a few examples in Jerusalem) a pair of miqva῾ot were excavated that are linked at their rims by a pipe or channel. Both miqva῾ot were initially filled with pure rainwater, but only one was used for ritual immersion (in later periods the unused one is referred to as an oṣar, “treasury”). When the water in the miqveh in frequent use became dirty, it was replaced with clean drawn water (still unqualified for purification). When the stopper was pulled from the connecting pipe, and momentary contact occurred between the two bodies of water, the water from the “treasury” purified the freshly drawn water. This procedure could be repeated as often as required. The method was used only rarely in the Second Temple period, probably reflecting the habits of certain religious/social segments of Jewish society at that time, but is obligatory today.
In addition to domestic miqva῾ot and those excavated near the gates of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem are examples excavated in the palaces and mansions of the Hasmonean and Herodian dynasties in Jericho (which were supplied by spring water conducted by aqueducts) and at Masada, Herodium, and Cypros. Others have been found at Qumran, Gezer, Gamla, and elsewhere, in rural areas near oil and wine presses. The latter examples enabled commodities to be produced in a state of ritual purity.
Frequently used in the Second Temple period in Judea (Judah) and the Galilee, miqva῾ot were absent from the Late Hellenistic and Early Roman world. Like Jewish inscriptions and symbols, the miqveh is a clue (an architectural one) for identifying a Jewish presence at sites. After the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple In 70 CE, the need for ritual purity was considerably minimized, resulting in a sharp decline in the number of the miqva῾ot in use, which is attested in the archaeological record. From an average frequency of two–three installations per private house (in Jerusalem), the number declined to one-two miqva῾ot per village or neighborhood at most sites. (Although the site of Sepphoris in Galilee seems to present a much higher rate of frequency in the period after 70 CE). In medieval Europe the installation rate was also one or two per Jewish neighborhood.
[See also Personal Hygiene; Public Baths. In addition, most of the sites mentioned are the subject of independent entries.]
- Netzer, Ehud. “Ancient Ritual Baths (Miqvaot) in Jericho.” In The Jerusalem Cathedra, vol. 2, edited by Lee I. Levine, pp. 106–119. Detroit, 1982.
- Reich, Ronny. “The Hot Bath-House (balneum), the Miqweh, and the Jewish Community in the Second Temple Period.” Journal of Jewish Studies 39.1 (1988): 102–107.
- Reich, Ronny. “Miqwa'ot (Jewish Ritual Immersion Baths) in Eretz-Israel in the Second Temple and Mishnah and Talmud Periods.” Ph.D. diss., Hebrew University, 1990. In Hebrew with English abstract.