Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Great Mikvah Coverup

Another interesting letter in the September/October issue of Biblical Archaeology Review is from one Urban C. Von Wahlde, Professor of New Testament at Loyola University, Chicago. In it, Professor Wahlde reminds us of a halacha that – if adopted by the Orthodox (I believe that some Conservative Jews already rely on it) - will promote both greater modesty and less anxiety during a woman’s tevilah.

The gist of the letter relates to a debate concerning the Pool of Siloam uncovered in Jerusalem. Archaeologists Ronny Reich and Eli Shukron identify it as a huge mikvah meant for public use by crowds coming to the Holy City for the Shalosh Regalim (Pesach, Shavuos, & Succos). Israeli scholar Yoel Elitzur, however, argues that it must be a swimming pool because bathing in a mikvah must be in the nude and there is a Jewish abhorrence of public nudity.

Wahlde brings a couple of very good arguments against Elitzur's swimming pool hypothesis by challenging the "mikvah in the nude" claim. For example, Josephus mentions that men of the Essene community would wear a loincloth in the mikvah, while women who married (most Essenes were celibate) would wear a dress. Since the ritual purity laws at Qumran were more strict than those of other Jewish sects, "the fact that the Essenes could wear a loincloth or dress would indicate that this would also be possible for other Jews whose interpretation of the Law was less strict than that of the Essenes."

He then quotes Mishna Mikvaot 9:1 (he says 9:5, but it must be a typo or a different compilation) regarding chatzitzah (interposition) which states that strips of wool or linen "interpose" between the skin and the water and so the person remains unclean. Rabbi Yehudah says that strips of wool do not interpose since the water can penetrate them. "Whatever opinion ended up being considered the correct one, the only reason for such a ruling in the first place was that it was common for people to wear some items of clothing while immersing. If this was true of strips wrapped closely to the body then all the more so would a loose-fitting garment be allowed." (By the way, although Wahlde uses the mishna in Mikvaot as a source, Kehati refers one to Shabbos 57 which discusses this at much greater length.)

Wahlde continues to describe the clothing used in 1st-century Palestine. It "typically consisted of two loose—fitting garments: an undergarment or tunic, called a chiton in Greek, and an outer garment or mantle, called a himation. Both of these garments were loose-fitting and would allow proper circulation of water during immersion. Of course, only one garment would need to be worn in the mikvah. The other one would be dry and donned on emergence."

His conclusion: "There should be no hesitancy in identifying the Pool of Siloam as a mikvah."

(By the way, I'm surprised that - as a Professor of New Testament - Wahlde didn't also quote John 9, which mentions that Jesus - as part of his blindness miracle cure - sent a blind man to immerse in the Pool of Siloam. It seems pretty clear that the story is about purification in a mikvah and not about taking a dip at the neighborhood pool.)

That one could wear clothes in mikvah is more explicitly stated in the gemara, Beitzah 18a: "Come and hear, for Rav Chiyah bar Ashi said in the name of Rav: A niddah who has no [ritually clean] clothes, may use guile and immerse herself in the mikvah".

The topic of the gemara relates to the general prohibition of purifying impure objects in the mikvah on festivals. Here it states that a woman may immerse herself wearing unclean clothes and we aren't worried that she will later come to immerse only her clothes in order to purify them. The gemara obviously takes it for granted that there is no problem wearing clothes in a mikvah!

So, ladies, feel free to wear (loose-fitting) clothes to the mikvah the next time you go. But if the mikvah lady tries to stop you, don’t even bother quoting the gemara. Just tell her – in the name of Rabbi Yitzchak Abadi ( – that she only has one job, and that is to make sure that your hair is fully immersed!


Anonymous said...

Normally wouldn't comment, but since no one else is (connection to XGH's retirement?), might as well give you kudos on an excellent post. Keep it up.

Frum Heretic said...

Thanks. People are much more extreme - on both sides of the aisle - when the topic is that of Biblical criticism, and are thus much more vocal. But I am also quite interested in the historical development of halacha and so will continue to blog on this topic as well.