Since this is the parsha in which the mitzvah of tevilas keilim is taught, we ask:
Where Do I Toivel My Keilim?
Question #1: Gently in the stream
“Where I live, there is no mikveh that can be used for immersing new cutlery. May I dip the flatware in a local stream?”
Question #2: Make my own mikveh
“Alternatively, how difficult is it to make my own keilim mikveh?”
Question #3: Tap water mikveh
“If I make my own mikveh, may I use regular tap water exclusively?”
Metal and glass food implements that were previously owned by a gentile must be immersed in a spring or a mikveh prior to using them (Avodah Zarah 75b). I have written articles in the past on many of the halachos of this mitzvah. However, I have never written on the questions pertaining to where one may immerse these implements, so that will be the topic of this article. As always, the discussion here is not intended to provide final halachic guidance – that is for one’s rav or posek. The purpose of this article is to provide halachic background.
In many communities, a local keilim mikveh exists that was built under rabbinic supervision to expedite observance of this mitzvah. However, not all communities have such a facility, forcing people to seek alternative arrangements. Also, at times a person is traveling and needs to immerse some items that he has just acquired to use on the trip. May one use a nearby stream for this purpose? This is one of the questions we will be addressing in this article.
The Torah describes many different types of tumah (spiritual contamination), each with its own highly detailed laws. Although people or items contaminated by some of the more severe types of tumah, such as tumas meis or tzaraas, require other steps prior to immersion to become tahor (spiritually clean), the common denominator to remove all types of tumah is the requirement to immerse them in water. This means submerging the entire tamei person or item at one time, either in a spring or in a mikveh. (As we will see shortly, one category of tamei person, a zav, can become tahor only by immersion in a spring, not in a mikveh, and only in a spring whose water is potable.)
Conversion and tevilas keilim
In addition to purification from tumah, there are two other instances that require immersion in order to create sanctity. Someone converting to Judaism completes the process by immersing in a spring or mikveh. Similarly, a metal or glass food utensil previously owned by a gentile requires immersion when it is acquired by a Jewish person (see Talmud Yerushalmi, Avodah Zarah 5:15; Issur Vaheter 58:76; Ritva, Avodah Zarah 75b).
Ma’ayan versus mikveh
There are two types of water that can be used for these required ablutions. One is a natural spring that runs from underground, which is called a ma’ayan in Hebrew. The other type is a mikveh consisting of rainwater.
There are several halachic differences between a ma’ayan and a mikveh. As I mentioned before, although the immersion for virtually all types of tumah may be performed either in a mikveh or in a spring, the Torah specifies that one type of tumah, zav, becomes tahor only via immersion in a spring consisting of potable water (Mikva’os 1:8). There are two other halachos where use of drinkable spring water is essential. The ashes of a parah adumah must be mixed into spring water for its purification to be valid, and the purification of a metzora that involves two birds requires the use of spring water. In both of the latter instances, a small amount of spring water is drawn into a vessel to facilitate the procedure.
For the purposes of the rest of our article, we will focus on a different, critical distinction that exists between a mikveh and a ma’ayan. Whereas a spring can make things tahor even when its water is flowing, a mikveh’s water must be stationary for it to make people or items tahor. Even a leak in a mikveh could invalidate it; one should consult a rav for guideline as to when a leak is severe enough to nullify the mikveh.
We should also note that snow is treated like rain, and that, therefore, snow, or the water that results when snow melts, can be used for immersion only when it is stationary. We will soon learn of a major halachic ramification that results from this information.
The minimal quantity of water required for a mikveh is 40 sa’ah, which Chazal say is the amount required for someone to immerse fully and properly at one time. There are many opinions how much this equals in contemporary measures of volume. Accepted practice is to construct mikva’os that are far larger than halachah requires, even when building a mikveh that is meant only for keilim.
An essential requirement is that nothing that can become tamei may be part of the mikveh, may move the water into the mikveh or may be used to keep its water stationary. This means that the piping used to transport the rainwater to the mikveh must not be susceptible to become tamei, and that no part of the mikveh itself be made of anything that is mekabeil tumah. Therefore, if a mikveh has a plug somewhere, it may not be made of material that is susceptible to tumah.
To apply this halachah, we need to define what it means that something is mekabeil tumah. Usually, it means that the item has been fashioned in a way that it is now considered to be a “vessel” or a “utensil.” Most vessels that can hold a liquid qualify as mekabeil tumah, although the term mekabeil tumah is not restricted to such utensils. For example, a metal plug is mekabeil tumah and therefore cannot be used as a stopper in a mikveh. If a mikveh requires a stopper, a rubber plug is used, since this is an item that is not susceptible to tumah. A full treatment of the topic of what is mekabeil tumah is beyond the parameters of this article, and it is one reason why someone who is constructing a mikveh should always be in contact with a posek familiar with mikveh construction, even if it is meant only for keilim.
For a mikveh to be kosher it must also meet several other requirements. The mikveh must, originally, be filled with water that was never inside a vessel. Water that was once in a bucket, drum or similar container is called she’uvim (literally, drawn) and invalid for use for purification, unless it became connected to a kosher mikveh or spring. The laws here are highly complicated, again providing a reason why one should not construct a mikveh without guidance from someone well familiar with these halachos.
Once a mikveh contains the minimal amount of water needed to be kosher, one may add she’uvim water to the mikveh, and it remains kosher. There are early authorities who contend that this holds true only as long as one is not actively removing water from the mikveh, but that once one begins to remove water from the mikveh one must be certain that the majority of the remaining water in the mikveh is not she’uvim. Although many authorities rule that one does not need to be concerned about this minority opinion, the Shach (Yoreh Deah 201:63) and others rule that one should build a mikveh that is kosher even according to this opinion, and that is the usual practice. (However, see Shu”t Chasam Sofer, Yoreh Deah #203, 212, 214, who did not feel it necessary to take this into consideration when constructing a mikveh.)
In order to accommodate the Shach’s concern, most mikva’os are built according to one of three basic designs or a combination of them. In one design, a mikveh that was originally filled with rainwater lies alongside the pool used for immersion, but with a concrete wall between them in which there is an opening in the concrete above the point to which the pool will be filled. Regular tap water is added to the mikveh until its water rises high enough so that it spills through the hole into the adjacent pool that is meant for immersion. After this process is performed, the pool may be used for ablution according to all opinions. This approach, which is called zeriyah, was the approach recommended by the Chazon Ish (Yoreh Deah 123:5) and the Taharas Hamayim (Chapter 46), and is the most common construction used in most mikva’os today.
The second approach has a similar appearance, in that there are two adjacent pools separated by a concrete wall which has an opening between them that is high on the wall. However, in this instance, the water is added to the side that is used for immersion until the water level raises high enough that its water touches the mikveh water which is located adjacent to it. The minimum size for such an opening is kishefoferes hanod, the opening of a flask, which means that it is large enough for one to place two fingers inside and rotate them comfortably. This approach is called hashakah.
A third approach, used in some mikva’os, is that they are constructed such that there is an additional rainwater mikveh immediately below or alongside the ablution pool, and that there remains a small opening between the ablution pool and the mikveh that is always open. This approach is called hashakah beshaas tevilah. The intrepid reader wishing to read up on the controversy concerning this mikveh will read Shu”t Divrei Chayim 2:98 and Pischei Mikva’os by Rav Yaakov Blau, Chapter 9, footnote 41.
Sink or swim
As we have now seen, constructing a mikveh requires that one knows how to do so in a halachically correct way. It is unlikely that someone without this knowledge will be able to construct a mikveh correctly. It is for this reason that one should be careful not to use a mikveh without finding out which halachic authority sanctioned it. I have found mikva’os in hotels that were halachically problematic, because they were not constructed according to proper halachic instruction. Similarly, in many places it is common that hardware and houseware stores construct their own keilim mikveh on the premises. These mikva’os may indeed be kosher, but one should not rely on their kashrus without finding out which rav verifies that the mikveh was manufactured correctly or having the mikveh checked by someone familiar with the laws of mikva’os.
Make my own mikveh
The simplest type of mikveh, far easier to make than those described above, is sometimes constructed for immersing vessels. In these instances, water, usually gathered from the roof of an adjacent building, is channeled into a concrete basin. The pipes used for this endeavor may not be mekabeil tumah, susceptible to tumah, something not difficult to arrange, and the walls of the mikveh must be constructed in a way that they contain nothing that is mekabeil tumah.
By the way, there is nothing wrong with having steel mesh reinforcing the concrete walls of a mikveh. Although a steel vessel would be mekabeil tumah and is therefore unacceptable in the construction of a mikveh, steel mesh is not itself an implement and it may therefore be used to reinforce the concrete basin of a mikveh.
At this point, we can address the second of the questions raised at the beginning of this article: “How difficult is it to make my own keilim mikveh?”
If someone is looking to make a small keilim mikveh, it is not that difficult or expensive a project. However, prior to making the mikveh, he should contact a rav or posek who knows how a mikveh is constructed. Indeed, someone building a proper keilim mikveh is performing a major chesed for his community and receives reward for everyone who ultimately uses it.
Let me explain what one needs to do. A keilim mikveh requires two basic factors: a pool where the keilim will be dipped, and the means of draining rainwater into that pool. The manufacture of the pool requires only that one pour concrete in a way that the pool will hold the requisite volume of water. Since this is being used only for vessels, there is no need to construct any building around it, and one does not need to be concerned about hot water, plumbing, or heating. Again, I suggest that this construction should not be undertaken without first consulting with someone who has the halachic expertise to ascertain that it is done properly.
Why don’t we use only regular tap water for the mikveh? What could be wrong with this?
Although indeed some have advocated that regular piped water does not qualify as she’uvim and can therefore be used all by itself for filling mikva’os (see, for example, the work, The Secret of the Jew, by Rabbi David Miller), most authorities are hesitant in recommending its use. To understand why, there is a thorough essay on the topic in Chapter 40 of Taharas Hamayim, an encyclopedic work on the laws of mikveh with an emphasis on contemporary issues, authored by the late Rav Nissen Telushkin. In that chapter, Rav Telushkin describes how he made an exhaustive study of the New York City water system, and includes the various sources of water that New York City used in the 1950’s when he performed his study. The chapter includes detailed diagrams and descriptions of the various pumps, holding tanks, filters, meters, and pressure tanks that were used then in the processing and the transporting of the water. Rav Telushkin carefully analyzed each piece of equipment to see whether it was mekabeil tumah. He concluded that, in his day, in most places of New York City, the city water supply could be used, if needed, as the main source for the water in a mikveh, but that there were areas where this would not be allowed. The reason for these exceptions was that in these places, the water was transported through a pressure tank that, halachically, might have been equivalent to it being in a vessel. Based on all his research, he concludes that one should never use the publicly- supplied tap water as the original water of a mikveh unless one has done the exhaustive research necessary to see that in your locale such water is indeed kosher for mikveh use.
In the stream
At this point, let us examine the first of our opening questions: “Where I live, there is no mikveh that can be used for immersing new cutlery. May I dip the flatware in a local stream?”
Obviously, this stream is not a kosher mikveh, because its water is flowing. The question that we need to determine is whether a stream qualifies as a ma’ayan, according to halachah, in which case it can be used, even though its water is flowing constantly. How does halachah determine whether the water source of a stream is a spring, or whether it is rainwater?
Halachah recognizes three types of streams. One is a stream which is fed mostly by spring water, but has a minority of its water (that is, less than fifty percent) from rainwater. Since a majority of its water volume is composed of spring water, this stream can be used while it is flowing (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 201:2).
A second type is a stream that normally consists of spring water but that now has swollen to more than twice its volume after a rainfall, or when the snow melts. According to the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch, since most of the volume of the stream is now rainwater, it may not be used to make items tahor, unless one can make its waters stationary. The Rema (ad loc.), however, rules that, although it is preferable to follow this ruling, there was a prevalent custom based on halachic sources to permit use of this stream, even when it is flowing. He concludes that one need not correct someone who relies on this approach.
The third type of stream
The third type is a stream that dries up completely when there has been no rainfall. Such a stream may not be used as a spring and can be used only if one can make its water stationary (Rema ad loc.).
We can now answer the question raised: May a stream be used to dip vessels that require immersion? When the stream’s volume does not double after a rainfall, all opinions agree that one may use it, even when its water is flowing. When its volume is doubled, or more, there is halachic basis to permit its use when its water is flowing, although the Shulchan Aruch and others prohibit this. A stream that dries up completely when there is no rain may be used to immerse utensils only as a mikveh, which means one would have to make the water stationary in order to use it.
The Torah provides us with a mitzvah to immerse food utensils, because this immersing elevates their sanctity so that they can now be used for a Jew’s table. Thus, we see that not only is the food that a Jew eats required to have special care, but also the equipment with which he prepares and eats that food.