Design and Maintenance of First-century Ritual Immersion Baths

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Archeologists and other scholars have not written prolifically about ancient mikvaot (or ritual immersion baths). Nevertheless, ritual immersion in the first century A.D. constitutes an important element of the overall historical, social and religious background of the New Testament. Here, Ronny Reich explains in non-technical language the intricacies of the design and maintenance of ancient mikvaot.

What we know about ritual immersion in the late Second Temple period derives mainly from archaeological digs, the Dead Sea Scrolls and rabbinic literature. The archaeological remains of mikvaot (ritual immersion pools; singular: mikveh) and the Dead Sea Scrolls date precisely from this period; whereas, the data coming from rabbinic literature, primarily from the Mishnah and Sifra, have been preserved in texts compiled and edited 150 years after the destruction of the Second Temple. Despite the gap in time between the close of the Second Temple period in 70 C.E. and the completion of the Mishnah and Sifra at approximately 250 C.E., these early rabbinic texts contain information that dovetails remarkably with the archaeological record, and therefore, is relevant for studying ritual immersion in the late Second Temple period.

In the tractate Mikvaot, one of the tractates of the Mishnah, and in Parashah Metsora and Parashah Shemini, two sections of Sifra, the rabbis recorded highlights of their discussions resolving various problems concerning ritual immersion. From their discussions we learn five requirements for a ritually proper mikveh:

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This article originally appeared in issue 56 of the Jerusalem Perspective magazine. Click on the image above to view a PDF of the original magazine article.

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  • Ronny Reich

    Ronny Reich

    Archaeologist and epigrapher, Professor Ronny Reich is head of the Department of Archaeology of Haifa University in Israel. Reich received his Ph.D. in Archaeology in 1990 from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for a dissertation, " Miqwa'ot [Jewish ritual immersion baths] in the Land of…
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