Mikveh represents a return to the original state of the world, which began as simply water (Bereishit 1:2). Taharah, purity, is return to the aboriginal state of the world. Immersion in a Mikveh is an opportunity to press the restart button and begin anew. Complete and total immersion, a sine qua non of Mikvah immersion, replicates the fetus in the womb enveloped by amniotic fluid. New beginnings, with the shedding of the burdens of past missteps, constitute the essence of the immersion experience. For this reason, immersion is the Mikveh is so central to both conversion and also the Yom Kippur service.
Seeking to Satisfy Every Opinion
The degree of stringency regarding which we treat the construction and maintenance of Mikveh is unparalleled in any other area of Halacha. Since the time of the Rishonim, the practice has been to act with rigorous attention to every detail of the a Mikveh’s construction and maintenance. We seek to accommodate even opinions that represent a small minority of halachic authorities and are not even cited in the Shulchan Aruch.
A popular story about the Chazon Ish claims he once remarked that he had never seen an invalid Mikveh, due to the many stringencies that we practice when constructing mikva’ot. Moreover, Rav Yosef Singer (who for many decades supervised the Lower East Side of Manhattan Mikveh under the guidance of Rav Moshe Feinstein) relates that Rav Moshe utilized every possible opportunity to enhance and upgrade the Mikveh. For example, although the Mikveh originally used metal pipes to transport water from the roof to the Mikveh, Rav Moshe later installed plastic pipes due to their halachic superiority (Mebechinat HaHalacha).
The most obvious situation in which we seek to accommodate every opinion is Natan Se’ah V’Natal Se’ah (the method of preserving the original rainwater used to create the Mikveh) in accordance with both the opinion of the Rambam and Ra’avad. The split level Bor HaShakah, introduced for the first time in Zurich in 1959 by Rav Yaakov Breisch, is an extraordinary means of satisfying this opinion. This style of Mikveh construction has emerged in the last fifty years as the standard approach in communities of significant size throughout the Jewish world.
The poskim offer a number of reasons for stringency regarding the construction and maintenance of the Mikveh. The Divrei Chaim (Yoreh Deah 2:99) writes, One should strive to construct a Mikveh that will be acceptable to all opinions because Mikveh embodies the holiness of the Jewish People. Rav Yaakov Breisch (Teshuvot Chelkat Yaakov 3:57) notes that if a community’s rabbis decide to rule leniently when certifying the kashrut of a particular food product or establishment, then those rare individuals who observe additional chumrot (stringencies) may simply decline to purchase their food there. However, we must create a Mikveh with the highest possible standards, accommodating the needs of even the most pious and stringent individuals, for they cannot refrain from using the Mikveh. The most intriguing of the explanations for this practice is that of the Satmar Rebbe. He is quoted as saying that the Mikveh is supposed to purify us, rather than us needing to “purify” it or defend its validity (Teshuvot Minchat Yitzchak 9:94, Teshuvot Chelkat Yaakov 3:57).
We seek to prove that the practice to satisfy every opinion reveals the essence of what a Mikveh represents.
Rabbi Akiva – Man’s Work is Greater than God’s Work
This relentless and unique pursuit of perfection may be explained in light of the most basic rule of Mikveh construction. The Torah (Vayikra 11:36) presents two means of purification – a “Ma’ayan” (spring) and a “Bor Mikveh Mayim” (Mikveh), a collection of rainwater. The Sifra (commenting on Vayikra 11:36) draws a parallel between the Ma’ayan and the Mikveh, teaching that just as God creates Ma’ayanot naturally, without human intervention, so, too, the water in a Mikveh must enter without passing through receptacles.
This preference for the natural runs counter to basic Jewish philosophy. Unlike classic Greek philosophy which reveres nature or classic Christian thinking which rejects nature, Judaism adopts the view that nature needs man to intervene and improve it. This approach is best expressed in a stunning Midrash Tanhuma (Parashat Tazria) which records a poignant debate between Rabbi Akiva and a leading Roman figure named Turnus Rufus.
Turnus Rufus asked Rabbi Akiva, “Whose acts are greater, man’s or God’s?” Rabbi Akiva answered him that man’s acts are greater. Turnus Rufus suggested that the creation of heaven and earth cannot be equalled by human action. Rabbi Akiva retorted that the comparison was unfair since that is beyond human capability. Turnus Rufus then asked why Jews are circumcised. Rabbi Akiva responded that he knew that this question was coming, and that was why he answered the way he answered. But to prove the point itself, Rabbi Akiva brought sheaves of wheat and cakes, and said to Turnus Rufus: These sheaves were made by God, while these cakes were produced by man! Turnus Rufus then reformulated his previous point: If God wants children to be circumcised, why does the child not leave the womb circumcised? Rabbi Akiva responded: And why does his umbilical cord come out with him, with the child hanging by his stomach until the mother cuts it? Rabbi Akiva concluded: Regarding your question as to why the child is not born circumcised, this is because God gave the mitzvot to the Jewish people in order to refine them, an idea expressed by David in the verse, “God’s word is refined” (according to his understanding of Tehillim 18:31).
Asher Bara Elokim La’asot
This fundamental point is expressed in Bereishit 2:3 which describes Creation “Asher Bara Elokim La’asot” (Hashem created to make) meaning for humanity to improve and make better. The divine preference for man’s actions applies even to the words of Torah, as expressed in the classic Talmudic story of the Tannur Shel Achnai (Bava Metzia 59b):
One day Rabbi Eliezer and the Chachamim (the other great rabbis of Yavneh including Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabban Gamliel) were having a Halachic argument over the purity of a specific type of oven referred to as a “Tannur Shel Achnai”. Rabbi Eliezer brought them all the evidence he possibly could to legitimize his argument but the Chachamim rejected him. Upon being rejected, Rabbi Eliezer said to the Chachamim, “if the halacha is with me, then let the carob tree prove it!” to which the carob tree uprooted itself and moved 100 (some say 400) cubits. The Chachamim responded by saying that one cannot prove anything from a carob tree. Rabbi Eliezer then said to him, “then if the halacha is with me, let the stream prove it!” to which the water responded by flowing in the opposite direction. The Chachamim responded by saying that one cannot prove anything with a stream. Rabbi Eliezer then said, “then if the halacha is with me, let these walls prove it!” to which the walls of the room began to cave in. Rabbi Yehoshua then rebuked the walls by saying that the walls had no authority in a halachic debate. The walls then stood at angles in respect to both of the rabbis. Finally, Rabbi Eliezer said, “if the halacha is with me, then may it be proven by heaven!” In response to this, a voice came down from heaven and said to the Chachamim, “why do you argue with Rabbi Eliezer? The Halacha is in accordance with him in every way”. Rabbi Yehoshua boldly arose and said to the heavenly voice, “Lo BaShamayim Hee, The Torah is not in heaven so we take no notice of heavenly voices since you have already written in the Torah to follow the majority.” Eliyahu HaNavi reported to Rabbi Natan that Hashem responded in delight, “my sons have defeated me, my sons have defeated me!”
Mikveh – God’s Waters
If the Torah’s preference is for man’s improvement of nature, why then does the Torah demand that Mikveh water be completely natural, free from human intervention? The answer is that Mikveh is the exception to the Torah’s mandate to man to conquer and improve the world (Bereishit 1:28 with Ramban’s commentary). When immersing in the Mikveh we seek to immerse in God’s water. This explains the great efforts to preserve the original rainwater, as per the opinion of both the Rambam and Ra’avad. It also explains the pursuit of Halachic perfection specifically in regards to Mikveh, since perfection is most appropriate in regards to God’s waters. The clarion call of Lo BaShamayim Hee is to be avoided when possible regarding a Mikveh, as we seek to satisfy every opinion in order to ensure we are creating God’s waters.
The Mikveh is a God focused center of purity. In order to achieve the purity of Mikveh, God’s rules and specifications must be adhered to the utmost degree, more than anywhere else in Creation, save perhaps for the Beit HaMikdash. All human agendas must be shed in this environment, as we seek to encounter Hashem purely on His terms.