A 2,000-year-old Jewish ritual bath, or mikveh, as they are known in Hebrew, made the news three years ago when it was discovered during the construction of a road in the Galilee near Kibbutz Hanaton. It became famous, once again, when members of Hanaton got permission to detach the mikveh from its underground bed and haul it to its new home inside the kibbutz. There it lies in solitary splendor only meters from the settlement’s modern ritual bath.
Hanaton’s mikveh is only one of hundreds of ritual baths uncovered in the land of Israel and there are, undoubtedly, hundreds still left waiting to be discovered under millennia of rubble or buried underground. That’s because the Bible is rife with heavenly admonitions about ritual purification dating back thousands of years to the Exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, and the covenant into which the Israelites entered with God. From that time on, men and women alike followed the heavenly strictures to wash so that they would achieve ritual purity.
In ancient times, they bathed in the sea, Lake Kinneret, or in the countless springs that filled the land. But finding fresh water in the Middle East can be a problem — one that was solved during the Second Temple period (516 BCE – 70 CE). During that era, the Sanhedrin, or chief rabbinical court, began suggesting a different way of cleansing for purity. It was to be a stepped pool, called a mikveh. The Greeks ruled the land at the time, with their extraordinary interest both in bathing and in the human body, which coincided with the development of the mikveh.
Jewish judicial decrees specified how the mikveh was to be built, what kind of self-examination was to be performed before beginning the ritual bathing process, and what kind of water could be used for immersion. You could still bathe in larger bodies of fresh water if you preferred, which is why there were no mikvehs in Jewish settlements on the shores of Lake Kinneret, but further inland there were hundreds.
After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, men were no longer able to purify themselves by immersing in a mikveh. While women become ritually pure once they emerge from its waters, men are required to perform additional duties connected to sacrifices and the Temple. As a result, the mikveh is no longer relevant for men — at least as far as ritual purity for the sake of Temple worship is concerned. But men still can, and often do, enjoy bathing in its fresh waters.
Mikvehs have been discovered in the desert, in the Galilee, under new houses in Jerusalem, at construction sites, and in partially restored ancient towns. The vast majority date back to the Second Temple period, with at least 50 ritual baths found adjacent to the Temple Mount.
Two mikvehs are located along what was, very long ago, the main road between Hebron and Jerusalem. Obviously chosen because the land was so level, it has been named Patriarch’s Way and would have been the route taken by Abraham and his son Isaac as they walked towards Mount Moriah for the Binding, related in the Book of Genesis.
King David would also have traveled along this road when he and his household left Hebron to make Jerusalem the capital of Israel, and pilgrims followed it when heading for the First and Second Temples. The Maccabees fought the Greeks on this road, in stirring battles. A few centuries later the Romans widened it, standing milestones along the sides on which they carved inscriptions that noted the distance to Jerusalem and the name of the reigning emperor.
Among the artifacts along the route is an ancient mikveh. Beautifully preserved, with separate steps for descending into the water and returning to the road, it was nowhere near any towns or villages. Thus it is thought to have been used by pilgrims aware that it was acceptable to purify themselves up to 24 hours before entering the Jerusalem Temple. A second mikveh, hidden by brush, is found nearby.
A group of elite Jerusalemites lived in an exclusive community close to the Second Temple before its destruction. Discovered in the 1970s during the construction of a new home in the Old City’s Jewish Quarter, it was over half an acre in size with the latest in lavish designs that included gorgeous mosaics, stunning capitals and ritual baths decorated with beautiful ceramic tiles. At the moment under repair, the partially restored area is located under a modern-day religious seminary for men and known as the Herodian Quarter – Wohl Archeological Museum.
Angels’ Forest, near Kiryat Gat, was developed by the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF) for the public’s enjoyment. While searching for historical sites that would offer picnickers more than just a venue to set up the ubiquitous mangal, or small coal-fueled barbecue, the KKL-JNF discovered oil presses, wine presses, an ancient kiln, and what appears to be one of the area’s rare synagogue and mikveh complexes dating back to the Talmudic period (70-640 CE.)
After the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the First Temple in 586 BCE, many of its residents were exiled to Babylon. Only a few decades later, those who wished to do so were allowed to return.
Jerusalem, however, was in ruins, so the people set up housekeeping all over the country. Among the villages and cities to which the exiles returned was Adullam, mentioned nearly half a dozen times in the Bible and the city to which David fled from the wrath of King Saul. It was situated in the Judean Plains in an area blessed with rolling green hills, rich natural foliage, fertile vales and stunning views.
During the Second Temple era, when the Judean Plains were the hub of Jewish settlement, two sites in the Adullam Region were among the largest of the densely populated Jewish communities. Today they are known as Itri and Burgin.
In the first century CE, Itri was in its prime, with its buildings spread over a space of approximately 12 dunams (3 acres). The residents were obviously Jewish, for among the ruins archeologists found were stone vessels that were not susceptible to becoming ritually unclean and therefore could be used in kosher cooking. The most tell-tale evidence, however, were three mikvehs, with the largest one well-plastered and well-preserved.
Fourteen years ago, workers began digging foundations for an ecumenical tourist and pilgrim center on the Sea of Galilee near the town of Migdal. To their surprise and excitement, they stumbled upon the flourishing Second Temple period fishing village of Magdala complete with synagogues, the unique Magdala stone, and a vast number of artifacts that had lain hidden for millennia.
Among the discoveries were unique, back-to-back twin mikvehs. They were created by long-ago engineers who used an advanced hydraulic system to channel underground spring water to the area and even today, the ritual baths fill up with water filtering in from between the stones. Because the channels enable constant circulation, the mikvehs fulfill the halachic requirement for pure, natural water.
During the Great Revolt (67 to 70 CE), Yodfat was the first Galilean town to fight against the Romans. Yosef ben Matityahu, general of Jewish forces in the Galilee, led defenders in a horrendous battle after Yodfat had been under siege for six weeks. But after 60,000 Roman soldiers arrived with sophisticated war machines, the Romans scaled the walls, devastated the town and killed the 40,000 men, women and children defending Yodfat. Ben Mattatiyahu survived the battle and defected to the Romans following the defeat, eventually becoming known as the famous historian Josephus Flavius.
Thanks to Josephus’s book “The Jewish Wars” and locals who wandered the area, everyone area knew exactly where Yodfat was. Yet the city remained in ruins until Galilee archeologist Moti Aviam dated an oil press to the first century CE. After that, in 1992, picks and spades finally went into action on what the locals called Hirbet Jafat: the ruins of Yodfat.
Today Yodfat is a national park offering visitors free entry and a picture of Jewish life in the Galilee during the first century CE. Its three different paths are not paved, but the signs are excellent and the excavated remains absolutely fascinating. They include cisterns, part of the Roman camp whose soldiers overcame the defenders after a six-week siege, and ritual baths that are mute evidence of strict Jewish adherence to the commandments.
Protestant cemetery on Mt. Zion
Located on the grounds of the Jerusalem University College, the Protestant Cemetery on Mount Zion is the final resting place for some of the country’s most prominent 19th- and 20th-century Christian figures. To their surprise, archeologists at the site uncovered a mikveh dating back to the Second Temple period near the southern end of the cemetery. And immediately below the very edge, are portions of a gate and wall from the Essene Quarter.
The Essenes were an extremely religious Jewish sect whose center was at Qumran, in the Judean desert. The majority lived in towns and cities all over the land of Israel, and some believe that those with families lived on Mount Zion near the Temple Mount. So it is very possible that they actually immersed themselves in mikvehs like this one.
The authors would like to thank media and tourism consultant Gura Berger and Dr. Hagi Amitzur, Director of the Institute for the Study of the Galilee, for their help with this article.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.
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