In contrast to the reported 1,500 mikvehs in Israel, the United States has approximately 300. Interestingly, a good number of mikvehs in America date back more than one hundred years.
The first mikveh built in what is today the continental United States was that of Congregation Shearith Israel in approximately 1655 in lower Manhattan (then New Amsterdam). Rabbi David and Tamar De Sola Pool, in their An Old Faith in the New World (Portrait of Shearith Israel 1654-1954), write that “In the early days, it was the synagogue alone which had the ritual bath to which the Jewish woman could go.” The authors note the kehilla in 1791 was making use of five buildings, one of which was the ritual bath.
Presently in Israel, the Vaad Hamikvaos, literally the “Committee on Mikvehs,” oversees the design, construction, and maintenance of mikvehs. The Vaad, under the direction and scrutiny of universally acknowledged Torah giants in Israel, is staffed by eighteen kollel members who devote themselves exclusively to the study and implementation of hilchos mikvaos.
The disparity between the number of mikvehs in Israel and the United States is discomforting. Traveling long distances to use a mikveh, though accepted in America as a fact of life for those who live outside major Jewish population centers, is just not tolerated in Israel. Every community in Israel with observant Jews – even communities populated by “traditional” Jews – strives for and demands to have a kosher mikveh within reasonable walking distance.
The kashrus of older mikvehs, such as those found outside the Jewish population centers in the U.S., are assumed kosher in accordance with poskim such as the Rosh and the Rema, who maintain that mikvehs are built only by those who have expertise.
However, the Satmar Rav, zt”l, in his Divrei Yoel, suggested that principle is not applicable in the U.S. since individuals not proficient in the relevant laws could easily have played significant roles in the building of mikvehs here. And with the passing of time (sometimes a century or more), the maintenance and repair of mikvehs may well have become the province of local handymen unfamiliar with hilchos mikvaos.
Mikveh Discussions, 1920
As an interesting footnote to this discussion, I searched through my library and found a rare copy of a Yiddish pamphlet titled Mikveh Yisrael, published in about 1920 (available on hebrewbooks.org), authored by Rabbi Dovid Miller, zt”l (1869-1939), then residing in Oakland, California. Ordained by leading European rabbis, including Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Spector, zt”l (1817-1896), chief rabbi of Kovno and author of Be’er Yitzchok, Rabbi Miller came to this country in around 1890 and served as rav at congregations in New York City and Providence, Rhode Island, and later resided in California.
The learned and innovative author recommends, and provides detailed plans on, building home mikvehs with what might well be called Yankee ingenuity. In a space slightly larger than two feet wide, four feet long and four feet high, a mikveh, according to the author, can easily and discreetly be built in a bathroom or closet, in a basement or on a high-rise floor. All necessary supplies are listed and specific instructions on how to fill the mikveh are furnished, as well as instructions on how to release the water from the homemade mikveh.
The author felt that with the immediate availability of home mikvah use, Jewish marital laws would be more widely and more carefully observed. Modesty would be maintained by keeping mikveh use private. The cost of building such a mikveh would be inexpensive, giving every family the opportunity to have its own in-home mikveh.
The concept received written approbations from Rabbi Sholom Elchanan Yaffe, zt”l (1858-1923), rav of Beis Medrash Hagadol of New York and a leading scholar; Rabbi Gavriel Zev (Wolf) Margolis, zt”l (1848-1935), chief rabbi of Boston and later a rav in New York City; and Rabbi Zvi Shimon Elbaum, zt”l, a rav in Chicago.
In addition, the author describes a meeting at the Chicago home of Rabbi Elbaum at the time he received the written approbation. On that occasion, he writes, he also obtained the consent of Rabbi Sholom Mordechai Silver, zt”l (d. 1925) of Minneapolis, Rabbi Horowitz of St. Paul, Rabbi Deidtzik of Des Moines, Iowa, and Rabbi Kordon of Chicago.
The idea was great. There was, however, a “catch” – namely, the question of using tap water. The author maintained that city tap water comes from reservoirs fed by rivers and/or springs and is therefore acceptable for use in a mikveh. Despite the approbations he received from the aforementioned great scholars, the author’s proposal was not accepted by the overwhelming majority of poskim of the time, nor by those of subsequent generations.
Rabbi Nissen Telushkin, zt”l (1881-1970), author of Taharas Mayim, believed Rabbi Miller’s thesis was unfairly scorned. Rabbi Telushkin maintained that the observance of the mitzvah of mikveh would have been far more widely observed in this country had rabbis not been so quick to condemn Rabbi Miller. In fact, Rabbi Telushkin has a rather lengthy treatment in his sefer of the New York City water system and makes mention of Rabbi Miller’s ideas as having some validity, referring to Rabbi Miller as a “gavra rabbah [great person] who dedicated his life to strengthening the observance of taharat hamishpachain this country.”
Do We Need More Mikvehs?
The Rema (Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 163:3), citing the Mahari Mintz (#7), requires the entire community to fund the building and maintenance of a public mikveh. This obligation pertains as well to those who do not use a mikveh themselves. The Chofetz Chaim in his Kuntress Ma’amorim (p.26) clearly states that building a mikveh (where there is none) takes priority over the building of a shul (where there is none), and precedes the purchase of a sefer Torah (where there is none).
Further, the Chazon Ish (Yorah Deah 1:23:5) calls for a mikveh to be maintained at the highest possible standards of aesthetics and cleanliness. Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l (Igros Moshe, Choshen Mishpat 1:42), finds that the obligation of building a mikveh applies when another mikveh is not within walking distance. This becomes incumbent when there is no mikveh within a two-mile radius (ibid. 1:40).
Mikvah U.S.A. is one of the leading organizations in the building of new mikvehs in the United States, participating in the building of kosher mikvehs in, among other locales, Ashland, Oregon; Bakersfield, California; East Denver, Colorado; Dayton, Ohio; Dunwoody, Georgia; Fairfield, Connecticut; Hillside, New Jersey; Irvine, California; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Port Washington, New York; Springfield, New Jersey; Stamford, Connecticut; and Yorba Linda, California.
And the organization has more than 100 additional applications for financial and design assistance in the building of mikvehs. Several of the projects are well underway. The organization, headquartered at 1461 42nd Street in Brooklyn, is led by Rabbi Yitzchok Bistritsky, Rabbi Shlomo Frand, Rabbi Yoel Israel, and Hershel Indig. Mrs. Shifra Grinblatt is the unheralded secretary and anchor of this organization.
Mikvah.org is a project of Taharas Hamishpacha International, presenting a deeper understanding of mikveh to families worldwide. Mikvah.org is dedicated to promoting and strengthening the observance of Taharas Hamishpacha, thus ensuring Jewish continuity. Mikvah.org is outstanding in encouraging and assisting in the building of mikvehs and reports extensively on mikvehs that were recently built, just completed, or presently under construction.
Mikvah.org publicizes many facets of mikveh and family sanctity. Its Internet directory of mikvehs around the globe is the most complete available; its wide range of stories, essays, and articles are absolutely inspiring; and the organization offers items that are sure to enhance the mikvehexperience. Their Taharas Hamishpacha International is a division of Chabad-Lubavitch.
Established in 1906, Beth Israel of Westport/Norwalk, Connecticut, is currently the epicenter of a population of more than 10,000 Jewish families. Led by Rabbi Yehoshua S. Hecht since 1984, the shul is a bastion of outreach. Rabbi Hecht is also the long-serving president of the Rabbinical Council of New England.
In 2007, Israeli Chief Rabbi Yonah Metzger encouraged the establishment of a community mikveh in Westport/Norwalk that would cater to the needs of today’s Jewish women, offering the opportunity of a deeply moving religious experience. Rabbi Metzger was introduced to this mikveh project – Mikveh Chana-Mei Leiba – at a special reception held by the Rabbinical Alliance of America at Congregation B’nai Israel of Linden Heights in Brooklyn.
The mikveh must be a gorgeous facility, a spa for the body as well as the soul. As such, the mikveh will serve as a powerful magnet drawing women to the fullness of Judaism, guaranteeing the purity of future generations.
The Westport/Norwalk area boasts beautiful homes and high-income families. One of the great spiritual leaders of Beth Israel was the much beloved Rabbi Israel Yavne, zt”l, who was responsible for the relocation of the synagogue from downtown South Norwalk to its present location in the beautiful tree-lined area of King Street on the Norwalk/Westport town line.
A functioning mikveh in the Norwalk area was originally built as early as 1875, but in 1955 the mikveh that was located in the basement of the old beautiful South Norwalk shul was filled in due to disuse and disinterest. Rabbi Hecht has assumed the mission of seeing the new mikveh materialize. In addition, his father, Rabbi Abraham B. Hecht, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Share Zion of Brooklyn and president of the Rabbinical Alliance of America, has contributed a substantial sum to hurry its development from planning to reality.
The new mikveh is masterfully designed to infuse the area with the purity of Ahavas Yisrael and Ahavas Torah. Once established, the mikveh will play a vital role in the ongoing transformation of the Norwalk/Westport area into a thriving Torah community.Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum
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