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Just outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, amidst overturned rocks and ruins, are dozens of mikva'ot (plural for mikveh). It did not surprise archeologists to find these. In fact, many mikva'ot have been intentionally left unexcavated, for future generations to uncover. During the periods of the First Temple (destroyed in 586 BCE) and the Second Temple (destroyed in 70 CE) dozens of mikva'ot were required to accommodate thousands of pilgrims who made their way to Jerusalem each year for a Festival, Shabbat, or other occasion. They would arrive at the Temple with their sacrifices, as specified in the Torah. Before ascending to the Temple Mount, where the altar was located, they first needed to become ritually pure. Most ritual purity was and still is established by immersing in a mikveh.

With the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the pressing need for ubiquitous mikva'ot disappeared. Since that time, mikveh usage became the practice of pietists preparing for holidays and other occasions. Mostly, however, use of a mikveh became associated with women, who would use a mikve monthly to restore their ritual purity following menses. This practice has been scrupulously followed by observant women throughout history. To our knowledge, no Jewish community has ever existed without a mikveh for women to use. Today, the use of a mikveh is essential in order for one to convert to Judaism.

The abrupt end to widespread mikveh use is curious. Although a mikveh has been used by women continually since the destruction of the Second Temple, the vast majority of Jews since that time have neither knowledge nor experience with this ancient practice. In fact, as a rabbinical student, the only mention of mikveh in my studies was in the context of conversion. Yet, in officiating at many conversion ceremonies, it was obvious that even when used for conversion there was great meaning and power in this ritual.

Twenty years ago, in Philadelphia, non-Orthodox rabbis did, not have regular access to a mikveh which could be used by rabbis for their conversion candidates. For the sake of the increasing number of conversions we were witnessing, it became clear the Jewish Community of Greater Philadelphia needed a mikveh which would allow all rabbis unfettered use for conversion ceremonies. In addition rabbis began to wonder if there might be uses for the mikveh beyone the use by women or the use by candidates for conversion. The notion of new uses of a mikveh came not so much from the creative musings of rabbis, but from the origins of a mikveh itself

The notion of a mikveh, a Jewish ritual bath, literally goes back to the beginning. The Book of Genesis begins when God creates the world in six days. On the third day, God creates mountains and high places in order to separate water and land. As mountains rise, water runs down, gathering below to form lakes, rivers, and seas.

In Hebrew, there is a specific word which describes the collection of the primordial water collected as it runs down naturally and pools. The Torah describes: yikavu ha-mayim (the waters were collected). The three-letter Hebrew root of this word, yikavu, is the same root of the word "mikveh." A mikveh is a pool filled with water that flowed, as during Creation, without stopping until it was gathered below. It is this unique system of gathering water which defines a mikveh.

Rabbi Neil Cooper, Foreward, “Living Well: 99 Stories from the Mikveh” by Lori Cooper

Rabbi Neil and Lori Cooper

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