Machberes: Inside The Chassidish And Yeshivish World
By Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum
In contrast to the reported more than 1,500 mikvehs in Israel, the United States reportedly has a grand total of only approximately 300 mikvehs. Interestingly, a good number of mikvehs in America date back more than 100 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, “In the early days, it was the synagogue alone which had the ritual bath to which the Jewish woman could go.” The authors mention that the kehillah in 1791 was making use of five buildings, one of which was the ritual bath.
Presently in Israel, the Vaad Hamikvehs, literally the “Committee on Mikvehs,” oversees the design, construction, and maintenance of mikvehs. The Vaad Hamikvehs is under the direction and scrutiny of the universally acknowledged Torah giants there. The Vaad is staffed by 18 kollel members who devote themselves exclusively to the study and implementation of hilchos mikvaos.
The disparity of the number of mikvehs in Israel and the United States is discomfiting. Traveling long distances to use a mikveh, though accepted in America as a cost-of-life factor for those who live outside the major centers of Jewish population, is just not tolerated in Israel. Every community in Israel that has observant Jews, and often communities that seem to be populated by traditionally minded Jews, strive for and demand to have a kosher mikveh within reasonable walking distances.
Older mikvehs, such as those found outside the centers of Jewish populations in the United States, are assumed kosher in accordance with poskim such as the Rosh and the Rema, who maintain that mikvehs are only built by those with expertise. The Satmar Rav, zt’l, in his Divrei Yoel, however, suggested that principle is not applicable to the United States since some not proficient in the laws of mikvehs have played significant roles in the building of mikvehs here. 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.
In 1920 America
As an interesting footnote to this discussion, I searched through my library and found a rare copy of a pamphlet titled Mikveh Yisrael, published about 1920 (available on hebrewbooks.org), authored by Rabbi Dovid Miller, zt’l (1869–1939), then residing on Sheridan Road off Broadway Terrace in Oakland, CA. Ordained by leading European rabbis, including Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Spector, zt’l (1817–1896), chief rabbi of Kovno and author of Be’er Yitzchak, Rabbi Miller came to this country in approximately 1890 and served as rav at congregations in New York City and Providence, RI, and later resided in California. The 32-page Yiddish pamphlet is generally considered an interesting novelty.
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 mikveh use, Jewish marital laws would be more widely and carefully observed. Modesty would be maintained by keeping mikveh use private. Building such a mikveh would be inexpensive, giving every family the opportunity to have its own in-home mikveh.
The concept received the written approbations from Rabbi Sholom Elchanan Yaffe, zt’l (1858–1923), rav of Beis Medrash HaGadol of New York and leading scholar; Rabbi Gavriel Zev (Wolf) Margolis, zt’l (1848–1935), chief rabbi of Boston and later rav in New York City; as well as from Rabbi Zvi Shimon Elbaum, zt’l, 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, where the author 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; and Rabbi Kordon of Chicago.
The idea was great. However, there was a “catch,” namely the kashrus of using tap water. The author maintained that city tap water comes from reservoirs that are fed by rivers and/or springs and is therefore acceptable for use in a mikveh. In spite of the approbations that he did receive from the great scholars named, nevertheless, the author’s proposal was not accepted by the overwhelming majority of poskim of the time, or by subsequent poskim.
His ideas did garner some support. Rabbi Nissen Telushkin, zt’l (1881–1970), author of Taharas Mayim, believed Rabbi Miller’s thesis was unfairly scorned and that he, Rabbi Telushkin, believed that mikveh use would have been more widely observed in this country had rabbis not been so quick to dismiss Rabbi Miller’s proposed mikveh design. 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, and refers to Rabbi Miller as a “great person (gavra rabba) who dedicated his life to strengthening the observance of taharat ha’mishpachah in this country.”
Do We Need
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 community mikveh. This obligation includes those individuals who do not use a mikveh. 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 very highest possible standards of aesthetics and cleanliness. Rabbi 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 obligation develops when there is no mikveh within a two-mile radius (ibid. 1:40).
Mikvah U.S.A. is currently one of the leading organizations in the building of new mikvehs in the United States. They are presently participating in the building of kosher mikvehs in Norcross, VA; Starett City, Brooklyn; Providence, RI; Kingston (Poconos), PA; and elsewhere. The organization has in excess of 100 additional applications for financial and design assistance in the building of mikvehs in communities across the United States, several of which are well under way. 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 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 ha’mishpachah, preserving family sanctity, thus ensuring Jewish continuity. Mikvah.org is outstanding in encouraging and assisting in the building of mikvehs. They report extensively on mikvehs that were recently started, just completed, as well as those that are well on their way.
Mikvah.org presents many facets of mikveh and family sanctity. Their Internet directory of mikvehs around the globe is the most complete available. They have a Mikveh Mall offering items that are sure to enhance the mikveh experience. Their wide range of stories, essays, and articles are absolutely inspiring. Taharas Hamishpacha International is a division of Chabad-Lubavitch World Headquarters. ϖ
Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum is the rav of B’nai Israel of Linden Heights in Boro Park and director of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.