The Mikva and the Mikdash

  • Rav Michael Hattin






The Mikva and the Mikdash


By Rav Michael Hattin





Last week, we continued our discussion of the laws of Tuma and Tahara.  We discovered that Tuma, in fact, is not some sort of inconsistent and incomprehensible concept, but rather is bound up with the essence of what it is to be human.  Human potential and its dissipation are the most significant factors governing the onset of the state of Tuma, but we have yet to see any evidence that a moral or ethical dimension is at work.  Quite the contrary, the parameters of Tuma and Tahara appear to operate quite independently of a person's moral choice, and appear to be a function of the natural process of growth and decay more than anything else.  This week, we shall conclude our investigation, by attempting to understand the centrality of the Mikva to the rites of Tahara, the as-of-yet unexplained link between Tuma and exclusion from the Temple compound, and the relevance of the matter to our lives today. 


Recall that the state of Tuma is cohesively bound up with the state of death.  Physical death, whether of man or beast, even the death of the potential for human life, or the spiritual death that necessitates the presentation of certain sin-offerings, are the breeding grounds that give rise to the doleful condition of Tuma.  The condition persists until it is relieved by immersion in a Mikva.  In some cases of Tuma, other rites are enjoined as well, but immersion in a Mikva at some stage of the process is common to them all.


The 'Roots' of the Mikva


What exactly is the Mikva, spelled out in the Parasha of Shemini and alluded to in many other related contexts?  In its discussion of the species of 'crawling things' that convey Tuma when dead, the Torah remarks: "However, the spring or pool, a gathering of waters shall be 'Tahor,' but he who comes into contact with the carcass of these things shall be 'Tamei'" (Vayikra 11:36).  This 'gathering of waters' in Hebrew is 'Mikvei Mayim,' the Scriptural basis for the familiar Mikva.  Although the text fails to spell out its features in more exact detail, it is clear that the element of water is its defining quality.


The commentaries are in almost universal agreement that 'Mikva,' from the Biblical root 'KaVaH,' means a 'gathering of waters,' just as we find concerning the early stages of Creation, when God gathered the deep waters that initially covered the entire terrestrial surface, and caused the dry land to emerge. 


"The Lord said: Let the waters be gathered ('yiKaVu hamayim') from under the heavens to one place, so that the dry land can emerge, and it was so" (Bereishit 1:6).


Curiously, though, this very same root has at least two other distinct meanings.  It is the foundation of the familiar 'tiKVaH' or 'hope,' as well as forming the basis of the less-well-known 'KaV' or twisted cord. 


Of Jericho and Job


Occasionally, these latter two meanings are brought together for literary effect to produce an unusual play on words.  Thus, when Rachav the Harlot hides the spies that Yehoshua had sent to descry the city of Jericho, and later aids their escape through her well-situated window, she asks for her life and for the life of her family in return.  The men advise her: "Behold, we will soon attack the city.  Tie this cord of scarlet in the window by which you lowered us down, and gather your parents and family into your home…if any harm shall come to whosoever shall be inside your house, we shall be held accountable…" (Yehoshua/Joshua 2:18).  Here, the pivotal 'CORD of scarlet,' the means of her deliverance and thus a dazzling symbol of HOPE, is 'tiKVaT choot ha shani'.


In a less optimistic context, as the anguished Iyov/Job contemplates his misery and awaits his bitter and untimely end, he sadly remarks:


"My days expire faster than the weaver's shuttle, to be ended without hope" (Iyov/Job 7:6). 


Here, Iyov sees his fleeting life passing before him, just as quickly as the weaver thrusts the shuttle of yarn through the extended threads of the warp.  They will end 'without hope,' rendered in the original Hebrew as 'b'efes tiKVa,' a poignant play on words.   Here, 'tikva' can also refer to the yarn of the shuttle, the cord that Iyov sees suddenly running out before the fabric can be completed!  His own life, like the weaver's yarn, will be cut off before he has accomplished all that he had wished, and dejectedly he watches, as his 'hope' for better days vanishes.


The Root 'KaVaH' and its Disparate Meanings


Rabbi David Kimchi (13th century, Provence) explains in his 'Sefer HaShorashim' (Book of Biblical Roots) that the three meanings of the root 'KaVaH,' namely 1) GATHERING, 2) HOPE, and 3) CORD, are in fact completely unrelated, notwithstanding their unusual feature of sharing the same exact consonantal basis. The 'Mikva,' then, is the 'gathering of waters,' and is constructed as a pool within the earth or rock (and not on it) into which rainwater is naturally collected.


It is the Ramban (13th century, Spain), in an unrelated context, who provides us with an insight that propels our investigation forward.  In an involved discussion concerning the nature of the primordial matter, the Ramban suggests that in the initial act of creation, God brought forth from absolute nothingness a primary substance so incorporeal that it lacked any physical qualities whatsoever.  It is called in the account of the Torah 'Tohu' (see Bereishit 1:2), and corresponds to what modern physics refers to as 'energy'.  With that potential-laden medium, God then fashioned the first tangible substance, tenuous and transitory (the earliest unstable elements?), from which all other matter is ultimately derived.  It is referred to as 'Bohu,' literally 'in it,' for it contains in its latency the possibility of everything else in the material cosmos.  Working with these remarkably prescient definitions, the Ramban goes on to explain an otherwise obscure verse from the Book of Yeshayahu/Isaiah. The context of the verse is a frightful vision of destruction that God will visit upon rebellious Edom, the archetypal plunderer of the Jewish state:


"…their land will become as burning pitch…it shall be forever desolate…a habitat for the…owl and raven…for He shall stretch upon it the line (KaV) of 'tohu,' and stones of 'bohu'" (34:9-11).


"The 'kav' or line belongs to the builder, it is his plumb line, and with it he marks out his plans for the building and what he hopes to accomplish.  The usage is similar to that of the verse: 'Hope ('KaVee') for God and be strong hearted'(Tehillim/Psalms 27:14). The stones are the form that the building assumes…" (commentary to Bereishit 1:2).  In other words, says the Ramban, this 'tohu' or pure potential is analogous to the 'kav' or line of the builder, for both personify the possibilities and plans that wait to be realized in the material world.  The stones or building blocks, in contrast, invoke the following stage, the 'bohu' or primary tangible matter that must be arranged and rearranged to yield the building.  In a similar vein, God's eschatological plans for Edom will also come to fruition, for in the end His retribution will be visited upon it.


The Similar Meanings of 'KaVaH'


For our purposes, what is most significant is that the Ramban suggests an explicit linkage between the two meanings of the root 'KaVaH'.  The line is called a 'kav' because it is related to the hopes and aspirations, the 'tiKVot,' of the one who wields it.  The edifice or object that can only be perceived in the mind's eye of the artisan as a latent promise, is already delineated symbolically by the drawn out cord.  The perceptive observer can detect in its early extension the subtle elements of the completed thing.  Thus, two of the meanings that for the Radak were disparate, for the Ramban are the same.  The yarn or thread ('tiKVa') of the weaver also quite naturally belongs to this definition, for it too speaks of the potential cloth that awaits realization.  We may easily relate the third meaning of the root to this framework as well, for to GATHER something up is to augment its potential for purposeful use.  By gathering the waters, God not only reveals the dry land, but also increases the potential of the seas, for they are now concentrated in a more localized volume.  And so it is with every other material.  To be scattered is to have less potentiality, while to be consolidated is to have more.  In short, 'KaVaH' speaks of promise, opportunity, and potential.


Let us now apply this idea to our topic of the Mikva. Elsewhere (see Introduction to Parashat Bemidbar, 2000) we have seen how the Hebrew language organizes words not only by definition, but by grammatical form as well. The morphology of Mikva relates it to an entire category of nouns that all mean the 'place of xyz,' where 'xyz' is the relevant root.  Thus, to be precise, the word 'Mikva' actually means the place of 'KaVaH'. Up until now we have understood the term to mean 'the place of the gathering (of waters),' and this has provided us with an eminently plausible reading.  Now recognizing, however, that the 'gathering' of 'KaVaH' is the same as the 'hope' of 'tiKVa' as well as being related to the 'KaV' of the thread or line, we may confidently translate the term 'Mikva' differently.  The 'Mikva' is 'THE PLACE OF POTENTIAL,' for the gathered waters that it contains personify the hopes and aspirations of all who enter its fluid folds.  Of course, it is necessary to indicate that we are speaking of more than symbolic values, for the mitzvot embody spiritual truths as well.


The Mikva and Life


The Mikva, therefore, becomes the repository of hope, the reservoir of aspiration, for water is the generative element that more than any other suggests life.  We are alive because of water and in its absence we wither and perish.  If there are worlds in the cosmos besides our own Earth that contain life at all, then those worlds also have water, for without this precious liquid, survival is impossible.  To enter the natural waters of the Mikva is therefore to be reinvigorated with an expression of the life force, to shed the death and demise of Tuma and to be created anew.  No wonder the Mystical teachings relate the Mikva to the watery womb and the act of immersion to the time before birth.   To enter its organic realm is to return to that pristine moment during which we could effortlessly drift in the warm sea of the Parent's watery embrace, borne by pleasant, indistinct dreams of life's endless potential, and unburdened by onerous reality.  How tragic indeed, that 'modern' approaches have one-dimensionally understood it as a primitive form of hygienic cleansing that can be thankfully dispensed with, now that we have indoor plumbing!  This represents a complete misreading of what Tuma is about, and of what the experience of immersion can be.


Tahara and the Temple


The rites associated with Tahara invariably involve the waters of the Mikva, because Tahara is the emergence from the state of Tuma, the death grip that seeks to seize us whenever we are confronted by the pain of mortal passing.  When in a state of Tuma, entry to the Temple precincts is curtailed, for the Temple is the place in which we experience God's immediacy and closeness, and God is LIFE. Bearing in mind the so-called 'negative theology' of the Rambam (12th century, Egypt) who explains that we cannot speak with certainty of what God is but only of what He is not, we might with absolute assurance say that God is not dead.  Quite the opposite, for God is the Life force that animates the cosmos.  Of all things, God alone is absolute and unconditional existence, undiminished and unlimited life that knows no cessation and no end.  God's proper name itself, the ineffable Tetragrammaton or 'four letter' appellation, is predicated upon a grammatical root that simply means 'Timeless Being' or 'Eternal Existence'.  When in a state of Tuma, therefore, one cannot stand in God's immediate presence, for first the veil of death must be lifted by immersion and Tahara.  To return to the words of the 'Kuzari,' authored by Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi (12th century, Spain): "…God's presence ('Shekhina' or 'Dwelling,' the experience of which was centered at the Temple) was associated with the people of Israel in the same way that the soul animates the body…" (2:62).


In a deliberate and provocative mixing of the metaphors, the Torah and Prophetic books often portray the Temple, not only as the source of proximity to God and therefore eternal life, but as a source of 'living waters' as well.  This is imagery that has its roots in Eden, for the Torah's description of that ideal state of eternal life in perfect harmony with God and Creation speaks of "a River that issued out of Eden to water the garden…" (Bereishit 2:1).  The notion is alluded to in a number of other places (see for example Yoel/Joel 4:18, Zekharia 14:8), and most especially in Yechezkel/Ezekiel's vision of the restored Temple (Chapter 47:1-13), where the Eden parallel is revisited: "…behold, on the banks of the stream (that issued forth from under the threshold of the Temple gate), on either side, were all manner of fruit trees.  Their leaves did not wither, nor did they cease giving forth their fruits.  Monthly, their fruits would grow anew, for the waters of the stream issued forth FROM THE HOLY TEMPLE. The fruits were for eating and the leaves had curative qualities."   What we saw elsewhere as an implied linkage is here spelled out explicitly: the Temple and the Mikva are both bound up in a tight matrix that stands in dazzling opposition to the state of Tuma and death that hovers over it.




Thus, we have come full circle.  The state of Tuma, associated with death, excludes one from the place of life, the Temple, until one performs rites of Tahara that restore the state of life.  The concept of Tuma reminds us that the world is not yet perfect, that there is still sickness, sadness and mortality. These realities often operate independently of the moral choices that we may personally make, and are better understood as forces that impact upon the world as long as humanity as a whole remains committed to destructive plans.  At the same time, however, we are inspired by the assurance of the Mikva that life will one day triumph and that the state of Eden will be restored.  In the meantime, we may continue to consider how the choices we make can make a difference, how the potential for good that we embody can be transformed into a living reality that can remake the world.


Shabbat Shalom