Southern Mikveh on Masada

One of the most exciting discoveries on Masada was that of the Mikvahs. They were the first pools to be identified as Mikvahs in Israeli archeology by Yigal Yadin, during his expedition in 1963. Since then hundreds of Mikvahs have been found or re-identified as such, through out Israel. This particular mikvah is almost 2,000 years old, but probably the most fascinating thing about this Mikvah was that it was constructed according to the standards of the Mishnah, about 120 years before Rebbi Yehuda HaNasi compiled it.

The news that Yadin had discovered a mikveh from the Second Temple period spread like wild fire throughout the country, arousing particular interest in the religious world specifically among Talmudic scholars. The laws relating to the ritual bath are quite complex and no mikveh had so far been discovered belonging to that period.

This special interest in the mikveh led to what Yadin later termed “one of my strangest meetings on the Masada summit.” They had received information one day that Rabbi David Munzberg, a specialist in the laws of the mikveh, and Rabbi Eliezer Alter, were anxious to visit Masada and see the mikveh for themselves. Yadin signaled that he would be pleased to receive them. Then on one hot summer day, the two Rabbis arrived on the summit. They had ascended via the treacherous “snake path” on the east face under the broiling sun wearing their full rabbinic attire (hats and jackets), and accompanied by a group of their Talmidim (students).

Think about what a feat that was. Today most people who wish to climb the widened snake path usually do so in the early morning. Despite the fact they were not young, neither agreed to rest when they finally reached the top; nor did they have any desire to see the impressive structures of King Herod. They wanted only one thing: to be led directly to the mikveh. The aged Rabbi Munzberg immediately went into one of the pools; a tape-measure in his hand. What was he measuring? He was essentially checking for three things:

•According to our sources any person or vessel which has become ritually impure must immerse in water that has gathered on the ground. In the language of the Mishnah any body of water that fits this description is called a Mikvah. We derive this from 2 verses in the Torah, the first verse is found in Genesis 1:10 says: “and the gathering (Mikvah) of waters He called seas.” The second verse is found in Leviticus 11:36 it says: “only a spring or a pit of a gathering (Mikvah) of water shall be pure.”

•The second condition to validate it is that a Mikvah is only fit for immersion if it contains enough water to immerse the entire body. The sages estimated that the area of 3 amot by 1 amah square would be the minimum amount of water for the averaged sized person to immerse. This amount of water came out to the measurement of 40 se’ah. Opinions vary on what the exact amount would equate to in modern measurements, but it would range from 648 liters to approx. 455 liters . Once this minimum measure had been attained it is permissible to add as much drawn water as one would like to the pool.

•The third condition was that the waters used in the Mikvah could not be drawn manually using vessels. They had to either be from stationary rain water, or come from a spring. The Midrash Torat Cohanim states: You might think that a Mikvah that was filled manually would also be pure; however it says (in our verse) “a spring”, which comes to teach you that just as a spring is made by heaven so must a Mikvah be filled by Heaven. There is a debate in the Poskim as to whether this is a Torah rule or Rabbinic in nature. Most Poskim hold that it is rabbinic.

These conditions are prerequisites for any Mikvah. It was for these facts which Rabbi Munzberg checked for, and found, ultimately he concurred with Yadin’s premise.

This mikvah as well as the 5 others that have subsequently been found bear silent testament to the religious observance of the people. They knew that they would ultimately fall under Roman dominion, and most likely be killed in the process. Yet, they went out of their way to keep Jewish law in the most stringent manner (they were shomer on Tumah and Taharah). These relics scream out defiantly to the world that Jews can be killed physically, but their spirit and Torah live forever!

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About The Torah Tour Guide

Yosef Back, a.k.a. “The Torah Tour Guide” has been a tour guide for over five years. Yosef seamlessly meshes together his yeshiva experience and his professional training to provide what he calls “Torah Tours”, which brings the Torah to life by experiencing the Land of Israel and thereby gaining an understanding of our traditions. He is thoroughly versed in Jewish history and sources relevant to the land of Israel, and has led numerous tours for institutions such as: Aish HaTorah, JLE, Hamercaz, PERI, Pisgah, Ohr Samayach Center Program, Beis Yaakov, and JEWEL. A graduate of the Ner Le’Elef Jewish Leadership Institute, Yosef received his rabbinical ordination from Yeshivas Aish HaTorah and from Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg of Jerusalem. His study of Judaism sparked his interest in Biblical archaeology that finds expression in his work as a tour guide and in his upcoming book “Abrahams Shard: A Jewish Perspective on Biblical Archeology.” Originally from Los Angeles, Yosef moved to Israel in 2001 he lives in Jerusalem with his wife and three children.
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