By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow
Rabbi Gross, a community rabbi in Omaha, Nebraska, commented that probably one of the weirdest questions he had to ask a gentile in his tenure as rabbi was “Hey, Mr. Electric Company Guy. Can we hang up some wires from your poles so that we can push our babies to synagogue on Saturday?” Last year around this time, he was facing the prospect of asking another similarly weird question. “Hey, Mr. Ice Delivery Guy. Can we get 250 ten-pound blocks of ice for our in-ground swimming pool?”
Before an attempt is made to explain that last question, some background is in order. This week’s daf yomi took a break from discussing the laws of Passover, to delve into the laws of ritual purity.
Rebbe Shimon is of the opinion that liquids can biblically contract tumah if they come into contact with a source of tumah such as certain dead animals. Yet water in the ground cannot become tamei. Rav Papa explains that this is because water in the ground is really a mikveh. Mikveh water in its proper place in the ground cannot contract tumah. Rashi notes that the minimum size of a mikveh is 40 seah (according to the Chazon Ish, 575 liters). Rav Papa states, however, that any gathering of water in the ground that contains more than approximately 3 ounces of water can be considered a mikveh.
Rashi explains the discrepancy. On a biblical level, a mikveh for use by people must contain 40 seah. A mikveh used for utensils must be able to completely cover the utensil at one time and needs to contain a minimum of just 3 ounces. However, to avoid confusion, the rabbis instituted that every mikveh, regardless of its intended use, contain 40 seah. It may be hard to visualize 575 liters, but the Shulchan Aruch gives us the minimum spatial dimensions of a full mikveh. According to the Chazon Ish, it’s 2 feet by 2 feet by 6 feet.
It is a well-known halachah that one cannot form a mikveh by pouring water from a utensil. When water is gathered in a utensil, it is called mayim sheuvim, drawn water, and it is invalid for a mikveh (at least the initial 40 seah). It is interesting to note that Tosfos (Pesachim 17b) says this requirement is only rabbinic in nature. Biblically, one could pour water into an enclosure built into the ground that doesn’t leak and it would qualify as a mikveh. However, now that mayim sheuvim is invalid, we need some creative ways to generate mikveh water. By far the most common method is to gather rainwater from the roof of the mikveh and use half-pipes to transport it to the holding pool.
The mikveh in Omaha made use of such a system. However, on one fine day in the summer of 2012, Rabbi Gross received a rather disturbing phone call. Apparently, a custodian was instructed to clean the mikveh. He thought he was supposed to drain it first! This meant that both the actual pool that people used and the adjacent pool that holds the rainwater were emptied. This was the only kosher mikveh in Omaha. While the mikveh was down, patrons had to drive two hours to the closest available mikveh, in Des Moines. Generally, the problem wouldn’t have been so severe. After all, they could just wait for the next rainstorm for the mikveh to fill up. However, Nebraska was in the middle of a drought. They decided not to bank on receiving adequate rain and looked for other alternatives.
There is a little-known paragraph in Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 201:31) that discusses a mikveh that was invalid because it was filled up with mayim sheuvim. If the mikveh froze over and subsequently melted, the mikveh is kosher! At first glance, this scenario seems unlikely and irrelevant. However, the import of this ruling is far-reaching. The Shulchan Aruch is ruling that melted ice is akin to rain falling from the sky. You could theoretically go to your icemaker, fill up a huge container with 40 seah worth of ice, and place it in the mikveh. When the ice melts, the mikveh is kosher! Generally, we don’t rely on this ruling unless there is a pressing need. However, in Omaha there was indeed a pressing need.
The mikveh in Omaha is located in the Rose Blumkin Jewish Home, where Rabbi Yaakov Weiss is the pastoral service coordinator and one of the supervisors of the mikveh. He pursued the option of using ice to replace rainwater that had literally gone down the drain. Rabbi Weiss located a supplier who could deliver 250 ten-pound blocks of ice. But the challenge of using ice is to get it into the mikveh before it melts.
He arranged teams of volunteers to transport the ice directly from the delivery truck to the mikveh. As it turns out, the delivery truck was late and some volunteers had to leave before the shipment arrived. It was of no consequence. The “ice” was frozen slush delivered in a non-refrigerated truck. It was hopelessly melted before being placed into the mikveh. The delivery man was baffled at their disappointment, stating, “It’s ice. Ice melts.”
After numerous unfruitful attempts at locating an ice distributor who could meets their needs, Rabbi Weiss decided to use Muzzy Ice, a company specializing in 300-pound ice blocks used for ice sculptures.
Rabbi Weiss wrote, “I talked with them to find out if it was at all possible to have the blocks made smaller so they would be easier to move. One option was to hire an ice sculptor who would use a chainsaw. Not only would our cost greatly increase, but the chainsaw would cause some of the ice to chip, melting and breaking apart, in addition to adding grease from the chainsaw to our ice, making it unsuitable for our needs. The other option was for us to use a Flintstones-style ice pick to chip away at the huge blocks. I came to the conclusion that we just had to go ahead and use the full-size 300-pound blocks. To achieve the amount of melted water necessary, we would need seven of them. That is more than a ton of ice.”
It was an ordeal to transport the 300-pound blocks of ice down to the mikveh. The process took a little over an hour. After the mikveh was filled with ice, they only had to wait for it to melt.
However, on September 12, an unusually heavy (for Omaha) storm dumped 1.37 inches of rain on the area. That was more than enough to fill up the pool of water in the mikveh that actually held the rainwater. (A rough calculation: The minimum area of a mikveh is 6’ × 2’ × 2’. That works out to 24 cubic feet of water. The roof of the mikveh measured, using a very rough estimate, 15’ × 15’. Assuming they captured all that rainwater, every inch of rain produces 18.75 cubic feet of water, so 1.37 inches of rain produced 25.7 cubic feet of water.)
After all the effort to formulate and implement the ice plan, it turned out to be unnecessary. Was it just a wasted effort? Certainly not. Rabbi Weiss writes, “Jewish tradition teaches that however much we as humans attempt to bring G‑d into our lives, G‑d reflects back the same amount of involvement in this world. I can see no better manifestation of this teaching than in the story of the Omaha mikveh. We as a community worked so hard together to ensure that a proper mikveh be available for our community.
“At times, it seemed like it might not be worth the effort, or perhaps there was just no way to do it, but we persevered and made it happen. While a mikveh filled with melted ice certainly would have been kosher for use and would have fulfilled the immediate needs of our community, it still would not have been a mikveh created in the ideal way, with rainwater. . . . I believe that G‑d responded in kind to our community’s effort and provided for us a magnificent rainfall enabling Omaha to have a top-tier mikveh that meets the highest qualifications that Jewish law demands.” v
Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead. He can be contacted at ASebrow@gmail.com.