We all use a Mikva at some point in our lives. Most of us, though, are unaware of how a Mikva is constructed and maintained. This week we shall begin a series of essays that will outline the basic rules and logic of Hilchot Mikvaot. The series will be based on a number of sources including the three volume work Mikva Mayim by Rav Yirmiyah Katz. We will begin with a discussion of the parameters of a community’s obligation to create Mikvaot.
The Obligation to Build a Mikva
The Rama (Choshen Mishpat 163:3) codifies a ruling of the Teshuvot Mahari Mintz (number 7) that the entire community is obligated to pay for the building of a Mikva. Even those individuals who do not use a Mikva must pay for its construction and maintenance. Rav Moshe Feinstein (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe C.M. 1:42) rules that this communal obligation applies even if there already exists a functioning Mikva a short distance away, if the community is not within walking range of the existing Mikva. In fact, Rav Moshe writes (ibid. number 40) that it is appropriate for a community to build a Mikva even if the existing a Mikva is only two miles away. Indeed, Teshuvot Divrei Malkiel 3:67 (a major early twentieth century authority) wrote to the rabbis of Paris, “We must be exceedingly careful to create Mikvaot that are readily accessible to all to avoid discouraging anyone from immersing when they must.” Rav Moshe (ibid. number 41) outlines how community leaders should divide the costs to build a Mikva among community members.
The following anecdote from the Chazon Ish (Pe’er Hador 2:157) vividly demonstrates the seriousness of this obligation. A Rav in a certain community in Tel Aviv posed the following problem to the Chazon Ish. The only available option to construct a Mikva for the neighborhood was to transform an existing Shul into a Mikva and subsequently add a second story where the synagogue would be rebuilt. The problem was that the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 153:9) forbids transforming a Shul into a Mikva. The Chazon Ish pondered the question for a few moments and replied in a dramatic and deliberate fashion “better that the learned Jew violate a minor prohibition so that the ignorant Jew will not violate a major transgression.” The Chazon Ish stated that he is ready to accept punishment in Geihinnom (for condoning the transformation of a synagogue into a shul) in order to spare marginally observant Jews from violating the terrible sin of not using the Mikva when necessary.
The Priority to Build a Mikva before other Mitzvot
The Chafetz Chaim (Kuntress Ma’amarim vekol Korei p.26) writes that it is forbidden to reside in a city that has no Mikva and building a Mikva “enjoys priority over building a shul, purchasing a Sefer Torah or any other Mitzvah.” Rav Moshe Feinstein (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe C.M. 1:42) buttresses this point by citing the Halacha (Megilla 27a) that one may sell a Sefer Torah in order to secure funds to facilitate a marriage. Since the Mishna (Megillah 25b-26a) teaches that the holiness of a Sefer Torah exceeds the holiness of a shul, it follows logically that one may sell a shul to facilitate a marriage. Since Mikvaot facilitate the appropriate functioning of a marriage, reasons Rav Moshe, the building of a Mikva enjoys priority over building a shul. Indeed, Rav Yonatan Shteif (Teshuvot Mahari Shtief 187 – Rav Shtief was an important American Halachic authority, especially in the area of Hilchot Mikvaot, in the middle of the twentieth century) was asked by a Rav who was about to assume a rabbinical position in a community where most of its members were not observant whether his priority should be to promote Shabbat observance or Mikva construction and use. Rav Shteif replied Mikva should be of the highest priority since one must sacrifice his life in order to avoid violating the Niddah prohibition and one is not required to lose his life in order to observe Shabbat.
Rav Moshe (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe Yoreh Deah 2:91) writes that the community must build a Mikva in a safe place where the privacy of those who use the Mikva will be preserved. Rav Moshe (ibid. number 90) strongly encourages the building of a Mikva at a high aesthetic and highest hygienic standards to encourage Mikva attendance by the widest circle of individuals. The Chazon Ish (Y.D. 123:5) also strongly urges that the Mikva should be maintained at the highest possible standards of cleanliness and aesthetics “as is proper for those performing a Mitzvah.”
Temporary Closing of a Mikva
The need often arises to expand and/or upgrade a Mikva. The question then arises whether we are permitted to temporarily close a Mikva in order to expedite the completion of the necessary work. Halachic authorities unanimously forbid temporary closing of a Mikva. These authorities include Rav Meir Arik (Teshuvot Imrei Yosher 2:210:1) and Rav Moshe Feinstein (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe Yoreh Deah 2:91). These great Rabbanim all cite the Gemara (Megilla 26) that forbids temporary closing of a synagogue to facilitate its repair. The Gemara is concerned that the people will be lazy and not expend the money and effort to rebuild the shul. This rule most certainly applies to a Mikva for we have seen that building a Mikva is even more important than building a synagogue. Indeed, Rav Moshe writes that it is forbidden for the community not to have the Mikva available “even for one night.”
Building a Mikva to the Highest Halachic Standards
Already since the time of the Rishonim, (see Teshuvot Tashbetz 1:17, Beit Yosef chapter 201, and the Teshuvot Radbaz 1:85) the practice has been to be exceptionally strict regarding Mikva construction and maintenance. We seek to accommodate even opinions that represent a small minority of Halachic authorities. The closest analogy in our experience is our exceptionally scrupulous avoidance of Chametz on Pesach. Rav Yirmiya Katz (Mikva Mayim 3:14-16) assembles a long list of authorities that record this practice to be extraordinarily strict regarding Hilchot Mikvaot. These authorities include Teshuvot Maharam Milublin (number 97), Teshuvot Divrei Chaim (2:97 and 99), Teshuvot Maharash Engel (1:78), Teshuvot Divrei Malkiel (4:85), Teshuvot Minchat Elazar (4:7), Teshuvot Mahari Shtief (number 71) citing an oral tradition from the Chatam Sofer, Teshuvot Chelkat Yaakov (2:90 and 3:57), Teshuvot Doveiev Meisharim (3:36), and Teshuvot Minchat Yitzchak (9:94). Indeed, although Rav Moshe Feinstein (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe Orach Chaim 1:136) regards the size of an Amah (cubit) to be twenty one and a quarter inches in the context of almost all Halachot including Hilchot Shabbat, regarding Mikva Rav Moshe urges to stringency and assumption that an Amah is twenty four inches. Moreover, in a later responsum (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe Y.D. 2:89) Rav Moshe is even stricter and advises regarding an Amah as twenty four and a half inches in the context of Hilchot Mikvaot.
In addition, it is common to cite the Chazon Ish who reportedly remarked that he never saw an invalid Mikva, due to the many stringencies that Am Yisrael practices in regards to Mikva. Moreover, my cousin Rav Yosef Singer (who for many decades supervised the Lower East Side of Manhattan Mikva under the auspices of Rav Moshe Feinstein) relates that whenever Rav Moshe had the opportunity to enhance and upgrade the Mikva he did so. For example, although the Mikva originally used metal pipes to transport water from the roof to the Mikva, Rav Moshe later changed to plastic pipes (see Rama Yoreh Deah 201:36 and Pitchei Teshuva Y.D. 201:24 regarding the use of wooden and metal pipes and Teshuvot Minchat Yitzchak 4:36:2, Rav Nissim Telushkin, Taharat Mayim p.200, and Mikva Mayim 3:171-172 regarding the use of metal pipes). We should note that Rav Telushkin was a major mid-twentieth century authority regarding Hilchot Mikvaot. He resided in Brooklyn New York and was a major player in the creation and maintenance of Mikvaot in the United States during his rabbinic career.
There are a number of reasons to explain the reason for this stringency. Some explain that the concept of Tahara is a uniquely Jewish concept and one that we must zealously safeguard. Rav Chaim of Sanz (in the aforementioned Teshuvot Divrei Chaim) writes “one should strive to construct a Mikva that will be acceptable to all opinions because Mikva embodies the holiness of the Jewish People.” Rav Yaakov Breisch (in the aforementioned Teshuvot Chelkat Yaakov) notes that regarding matters of Kashrut the community rabbis might decide to be lenient regarding the certification of a particular product or establishment. In such a case, those who wish to be strict may simply refrain from eating that product or patronizing the particular establishment. However, we must create a Mikva at the highest possible standards, as we must accommodate the needs of even the most pious and stringent of individuals since they do not have an option to refrain from using the Mikva.
Rav Moshe Heinemann (Rabbinic Administrator of the Star K, who is considered a leading contemporary Halachic authority) elaborated on this point in a Shiur that he delivered to a conference of the Council of Young Israel Rabbis. He noted that when Jews lived in their “old countries” there was a Rav of the town who constructed the local Mikva in accordance to the traditions and practices of the area. However, now that Jews have settled in America from a wide variety of places that maintained a wide variety of practices, we must construct Mikvaot in a manner that is acceptable according to all of the traditions. He mentioned as an example that when he helped plan the construction of the Mikva in Lakewood in the mid-1960’s, he consulted Rav Yoel Teitlbaum, the Satmar Rav zt”l, to insure that the Mikva was constructed in harmony with his standards (the Satmar Rav is considered a leading authority in the area of Hilchot Mikvaot). Interestingly, the Satmar Rav is quoted in this context (in the aforementioned Teshuvot Minchat Yitzchak and Teshuvot Chelkat Yaakov) as stating that the Mikva is supposed to purify us, and not that we should have to “purify” the Mikva with explanations of why the Mikva is Kosher. Rather, the Kashrut of the Mikva should be beyond question.
On the other hand, Rav Moshe (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe Y.D. 1:111) cautions that it is virtually impossible to create a Mikva that will satisfy all opinions. He notes that the practice is to immerse in a warm Mikva even though a minority of Rishonim forbid this (see Shulchan Aruch Y.D. 201:75 and Aruch Hashulchan Y.D. 201:214-217) and that a small group of Rishonim require a Zavah (see Niddah 67b that today all are considered Safek Zavah) to immerse in a Maayan, a natural spring (see Rashi Shabbat 65b s.v. Vesavar). Elsewhere Rav Moshe writes (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe Y.D. 2:89) “in small Jewish communities one should certainly not be especially strict to impose an enormous financial burden” to accommodate minority opinions. Indeed, Rav Yirmiya Katz stated at a conference of Young Israel Rabbis that it is possible to create a small, basic Kosher Mikva (that does not accommodate every stringency) in the range of ten thousand dollars for a Jewish community.
The Baal Shem Tov (cited in Mikveh Mayim 3:6 and elsewhere) is cited as interpreting the Pasuk in Chabbakuk 3:12 (and see Metzodot David) “Bezaam (Bet, Zayin, Ayin, Mem) Hashem will remove the enemies of the Jews from Eretz Yisrael.”
The Baal Shem teaches that Zaam is an acronym: Zayin=Zevicha (ritual slaughtering, i.e. Kashrut), Ayin=Eiruvin, and Mem=Mikva. In other words, scrupulous observance of the Halachot of communal Kashrut, Eiruvin, and Mikvaot will bring the removal of the enemies of Am Yisrael from Eretz Yisrael. Moreover, Rav Katz records that in 1943 when Hitler (Yimach Shmo Vezichro) was at El Aleiman and poised to conquer Eretz Yisrael, a group of leading Chassidic Rebbes assembled in Jerusalem and pledged to do their utmost to build and upgrade Mikvaot throughout Eretz Yisrael to prevent the Nazis from entering our Holy Land. Indeed, that meeting sowed the seeds of the establishment of the Vaad Letaharat Hamishpacha that supervises the functioning of the more than one thousand five hundred Mikvaot in Medinat Yisrael today. Perhaps it is partly in merit of these heroic efforts that our beloved Medinat Yisrael has witnessed so many miracles from the beginning of the modern Zionist movement until today.
Rav Katz mentioned at the Young Israel Rabbi’s gathering, that in contrast to Eretz Yisrael, there are only approximately three hundred functioning Mikvaot in the United States. He urged rabbis and community leaders to do their utmost to change the facts on the ground and establish a wider network of Mikvaot in this country to facilitate easy access to Mikvaot where it is not necessary to aesthetically pleasing endure long lines to immerse.