Must I Toivel This?

Photo by Thomas Picard from FreeImages

Question #1: The Vanilla Cruet

“We received a gift of a glass cruet, a salad oil dispenser, that we doubt we will ever use for that purpose. We decided, instead, to use it is a flower vase and were told that we do not need to toivel it. Subsequently, we decided that we might use it for soaking vanilla beans and alcohol to make our own natural vanilla extract. Do we need to toivel it?”

Question #2: Restaurant Silverware

“I have always assumed that caterers and restaurants toivel their silverware and glasses. Recently, I was told that some hechsherim do not require this. Is this true? Am I permitted to use their silverware and glasses?”

Question #3: The Salami Slicer

“I have a knife that I use for my work, which is not food-related. May I occasionally slice a salami with the knife that I have never immersed in a mikveh?”

Question #4: The Box Cutter

“Before I toivel my new steak knife, may I use it to open a box?

Answer:

After the Bnei Yisroel’s miraculous victory over the nation of Midyan, they were commanded regarding the booty that they had now acquired: Concerning the gold and the silver; the copper, the iron, the tin and the lead: any item that was used in fire needs to be placed in fire to become pure – yet, it must also be purified in mikveh water. And that which was not used in fire must pass through water (Bamidbar 31:22-23). From these verses, our Sages derive the mitzvah of tevilas keilim — the requirement to immerse metal implements used for food in a spring or kosher mikveh prior to use. According to the Talmud Yerushalmi (Avodah Zarah 5:15), the immersion of the implement elevates it to the sanctity of Jewish ownership, similar to the requirement that a non-Jew converting to Judaism submerges in a mikveh (Issur Vaheter 58:76; see also Ritva, Avodah Zarah 75b).

The Gemara (Avodah Zarah 75b) rules that, in addition to metal items, we are also required to immerse glass utensils, because both metal and glass are similar: they are recyclable. When they break, one can melt or weld the broken parts to create new utensils or to repair old ones. As a matter of fact, in the time of the Gemara, people kept broken pieces of metal and brought them to the blacksmith when they needed to manufacture new items (see Shabbos 123a). It is also interesting to note that this function is the basis of the Hebrew word for metal, mateches, which means meltable or dissolvable (see Yechezkel 22:22; Rashi, Shemos 9:33). In this characteristic, metal ware and glassware are different from items made of stone, wood or earthenware, which cannot be recycled in this manner.

Prior to dipping the metal ware or glassware, one recites a brocha, Asher ki’deshanu bemitzvosav vetzivanu al tevilas keilim. As we will soon see, this brocha is recited only when there is a definite requirement to toivel (immerse) an item.

Used without immersing

If, in violation of the Law, someone used an item that was not immersed, may one eat the food that came in contact with it? According to many authorities, this is the subject of a dispute between two opinions in the Gemara. Some early authorities (Baal Halachos Gedolos, Chapter 55; Or Zarua, Piskei Avodah Zarah #293) conclude that, indeed, this food is prohibited. However, the consensus of halachic authority is that it is permitted to eat food that was prepared using non-toiveled equipment (Tosafos, Avodah Zarah 75b s.v. Vechulan; Ritva, ad locum; Rema, Yoreh Deah 120:16). This is useful information when visiting someone who, unfortunately, does not perform the mitzvah of tevilas keilim. Although one may not use non-toiveled utensils to eat or drink, the food prepared in them remains kosher. According to most authorities, if the food is served in non-toiveled utensils, one should transfer it to utensils that do not require immersion or were properly immersed.

The halachah is that when I know that someone will use pots and other equipment that were not immersed, I may not ask him to cook for me, since I am causing him to violate the Torah (lifnei iveir).

A matir or a takkanah?

Why is it forbidden to use a utensil that has not been toiveled? There are two different ways to understand this halachah.

A matir

The first approach explains that min HaTorah one may not use a utensil that has not been immersed, similar to the halachah that one may not eat meat without first shechting the animal. This logic holds that when the Torah created the mitzvah of tevilas keilim, it prohibited use of any food utensils that require immersion, and the immersion is what permits me to use the utensils. I will refer to this approach as holding that tevilas keilim is a matir.

A takkanah

Alternatively, one can explain that, although the requirement to immerse food utensils is min HaTorah, the prohibition to use non-toiveled utensils is a takkanah, a rabbinic prohibition. The reason for this prohibition is to encourage people to immerse their utensils in a timely fashion. Chazal were concerned that if it is permitted to use utensils without immersing them, people would postpone, indefinitely, fulfilling the mitzvah.

This second approach appears to be how the Mishnah Berurah understood this mitzvah, since he states that although most authorities contend that the mitzvah to immerse utensils is min HaTorah, the prohibition to use them if they were not immersed is only rabbinic (Biur Halachah 323:7 s.v. Mutar). This exact idea is expressed by Rav Shlomoh Zalman Auerbach (Minchas Shlomoh 2:66:13, 14).

Notwithstanding the Mishnah Berurah’s understanding of this mitzvah, the Or Zarua,a rishon, writes that the prohibition to use non-immersed equipment is min HaTorah (Or Zarua, Piskei Avodah Zarah #293; A careful reading of Shaagas Aryeh #56 will demonstrate that he was of the same opinion.) This implies that the mitzvah is indeed a matir, its purpose is to permit the use of the utensil. If not, where do we have any evidence that the Torah prohibited use of a non-immersed vessel?

Rushing to immerse

Is there a halachic requirement to immerse a utensil as soon as I purchase it, or may I wait for a convenient time to immerse it, as long as I do not use the utensil in the interim?

We find a dispute among the poskim concerning this. Some rule that there is no requirement to immerse a utensil as soon as possible (Levush, as explained by Pri Megadim, Mishbetzos Zahav, Orach Chayim 323:5),whereas the Maharshal (Yam shel Shelomoh, Beitzah 2:19) explains that this question is dependent on a dispute in the Gemara (Beitzah 17b-18a). The Maharshal concludes that one is required to immerse the utensil as soon as possible, out of concern that one will mistakenly use it before it was immersed. The latter ruling is quoted by other authorities (Elyah Rabbah 323:12).

Better to borrow?

The Gemara (Avodah Zarah 75b) explains that the mitzvah of tevilas keilim does not apply to utensils that a Jew borrowed or rented from a non-Jew (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 120:8). The Torah taught that utensils that a Jew acquires require immersing, but not items that are not owned by a Jew. Furthermore, whether a utensil requires immersion is determined by who its owner is and not by who is using it. We will soon see another ramification of this ruling.

The poskim rule that, under circumstances when one cannot immerse utensils, one may transfer ownership of a utensil from a Jew to a non-Jew to avoid immersing it. Therefore, should a Jew own a utensil and have nowhere to immerse it, or if he does not have time before Shabbos or Yom Tov to immerse it, he may give it to a gentile and then borrow it back from the gentile (Mordechai, Beitzah #677; Shulchan Aruch and Rema, Yoreh Deah 120:16). Since the utensil is now owned by a gentile, there is no requirement to immerse it. Consequently, borrowing it from the gentile does not present any problem.

This ruling applies only to utensils that are owned by a non-Jew and borrowed from him by a Jew. However, if a Jew owns a utensil that he has not immersed, another Jew may not borrow or use it without immersing it (Tosafos and Rosh ad loc., both quoting Rashbam). Once the owner is required to immerse the utensil, no other Jew may use it without immersing it first.

Only klei seudah

The Gemara concludes that the mitzvah of tevilas keilim applies only to klei seudah — literally, implements used for a meal. This includes items used to prepare food or to eat. As we will soon discuss, there are some interesting ramifications of this law.

“Rav Nachman said in the name of Rabbah bar Avuha: ‘One can derive from the verse that one must immerse even brand-new items, because used vessels that were purged in fire have the same kashrus status as brand new, and yet they require immersion.’

Rav Sheishes then asked him: ‘If it is true that the mitzvah of immersing vessels is not because of kashrus concerns, then maybe one is required to immerse even clothing shears?’

Rav Nachman responded: ‘The Torah mentions only vessels that are used for meals (klei seudah)'” (Avodah Zarah 75b).

Rav Sheishes suggested that if the immersion of utensils is not a means of kashering a non-kosher vessel, then perhaps we have many more opportunities to fulfill this mitzvah, and it applies to any type of paraphernalia — even cameras, cellphones and clothing shears! However, the conclusion is that the mitzvah is limited to items used for food.

Kitchen or Leather?

Reuven is a leather worker who purchases a brand-new kitchen knife that he intends to use exclusively for this leather work. Does this knife require immersion in a mikveh?

Although this utensil was manufactured for food use, since Reuven is now the owner and he purchased it for leather work, it is no longer a food utensil.

The early authorities dispute whether someone who borrows the knife from the owner to use it for food is required to immerse it. The primary position contends that the borrower is not required to immerse the knife (Hagahos Ashri, Avodah Zarah, 5:35; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 120:8). This approach understands that the halachic status of a utensil is determined by its owner and not by the person borrowing it. There is, however, a dissenting opinion that contends that since the owner himself would not be allowed to use the knife for food, even temporarily, someone else may not either (Issur Vaheter 58:89, quoted by Shach, Yoreh Deah 120:16). Thus, the latter approach requires that the borrower immerse this knife before using it for food. As a compromise position, some authorities conclude that one should immerse this utensil, but should not recite a brocha before doing so (Shach, Yoreh Deah 120:16).

However…

All this holds true as long as the owner, our leather worker, uses the knife exclusively for non-food use. The owner may not use it for food, even temporarily (Rema, Yoreh Deah 120:8). Furthermore, later authorities note that the Shach implies that, should Reuven decide to use the knife for food, albeit only once, he may not use the knife even for non-food use without first immersing it (Darchei Teshuvah 120:39, quoting Ginzei Elimelech; Sefer TevilaskKeilim, page 104, quoting Pri Eliyahu).

We see from this Shach a very interesting ruling. The halachah is not that food use requires that the vessel be immersed. The halachah is that a food utensil must be immersed before use – no matter what type of use.

This last ruling means that someone who purchased a knife that he intends to immerse, may not use it, even to open a package, before it has been immersed.

We can therefore answer one of our opening questions:

“I have a knife that I use for my work, which is not food related. May I occasionally slice a salami with the knife that I have never immersed in a mikveh?”

Although many people may find this ruling to be surprising, according to the Shach, you may not.

The vanilla cruet

At this point, I would like to discuss one of our opening questions, an actual shaylah that I was asked: “We received a gift of a glass cruet, a salad oil dispenser, that we doubt we will ever use for that purpose. We decided, instead, to use it is a flower vase and were told that we do not need to toivel it. Subsequently, we decided that we might use it for soaking vanilla beans and alcohol to make our own natural vanilla extract. Do we need to toivel it?”

This is an interesting question. I agree that if someone receives a vessel that is usually klei seudah, but one does not intend to use it for this purpose, there is no requirement to immerse it. Subsequently, the individual decides that he might use the cruet to process vanilla flavor, a use that would require immersing. (For reasons beyond the scope of this article, I would suggest not reciting a brocha, when immersing the cruet.) According to the Shach, once they decide to use the cruet for making vanilla flavor, not only do they now need to immerse it, but they can no longer use it for anything else. This is because a cruet is inherently a vessel that should require immersion. The only reason they were not required to immerse it until now was because they had decided not to use it for food. But once they decide to use it for food, they may not use it for anything without immersing it.

The salami knife

We can also now address a different question that was asked above: “I have a knife that I use for my work, which is not food related. May I occasionally slice a salami with the knife that I have never immersed in a mikveh?”

The answer is that, if this is a knife that was made for food use, one would not be allowed to use it for food without immersing it. On the other hand, if it is a box cutter, which is clearly not meant for food use, we have no evidence that one is required to immerse it. There are sources in halachah that state that an item that is not meant as klei seudah may be used occasionally for food, even by the owner, without requiring tevilah (see, for example, Darchei Teshuvah 120:70, 88).

Klei sechorah — “merchandise”

The halachic authorities note that a storekeeper does not toivel vessels he is planning to sell, since for him they are not klei seudah, but merchandise. Later authorities therefore coined a term “klei sechorah,” utensils used as merchandise, ruling that these items do not require immersion until they are purchased by the person intending to use them (based on Taz, Yoreh Deah 120:10).

In the nineteenth century, a question was raised concerning the definition of klei sechorah. When rail travel became commonplace, enterprising entrepreneurs began selling refreshments at train stations. (No club car on those trains!) A common occurrence was that Jewish vendors would sell beer or other beverages at the stations, which they would serve to their customers by the glassful. The question was raised whether these glasses required immersion and whether one was permitted to drink from them when the vendor presumably had not immersed them. Although it would seem that one may not use them without tevilah, there are authorities who rule that these vessels are considered klei sechorah for the merchant and that, therefore, the customer may use them (Darchei Teshuvah 120:70, 88; Shu”t Minchas Yitzchak #1:44).

According to this approach, a restaurateur or caterer is not required to immerse the utensils with which he serves his guests. Although most authorities reject this approach (Minchas Shlomoh 2:66:14), I have found many places where, based on this heter, hechsherim do not require the owner to toivel his glassware, flatware and other items.

Conclusion

According to Rav Hirsch, metal vessels, which require mankind’s mining, extracting and processing, represent man’s mastery over the earth and its materials. Whereas vessels made of earthenware or wood involve man merely shaping the world’s materials to fit his needs, the manufacture of metal demonstrates man’s creative abilities to utilize natural mineral resources to fashion matter into a usable form. Consuming food, on the other hand, serves man’s most basic physical nature. Use of metal food vessels, then, represents the intellectual aspect of man serving his physical self, which, in a sense, is the opposite of why we were created; to use our physical self to assist our intellect to do Hashem’s will. Specifically, in this instance, the Torah requires that the items hereby produced be immersed in a mikveh, to endow them with increased kedusha before they are put to food-use. This demonstrates that, although one may use one’s intellect for physical purposes, the product of one’s creative power must first be sanctified in order that we focus on the spiritual.

Which Utensils Must I Immerse?

Question #1: With Cookie Cutter Precision!

Rivkah Baker asks:

“Do I need to toivel the cookie cutter that I just purchased?”

Question #2: Butch’s Cleaver

Butch Katzav, the proprietor of the local glatt kosher meat market, inquires: “Under my previous hechsher, I was told that I did not need to toivel my meat cleavers, since they are used only for raw meat. However, my new rav hamachshir requires me to toivel them. Why is there a difference?”

Introduction:

In Parshas Matos, the Torah teaches: Regarding the gold and the silver; the copper, the iron, the tin and the lead: any item that was used in fire needs to be placed in fire to become kosher, yet it must also be purified in mikveh water. In addition, that which was not used in fire must pass through water” (Bamidbar 31:22-23). From these verses, we derive the mitzvah of tevilas keilim — the mitzvah to immerse metal implements in a kosher mikveh or spring prior to using them for food. The Gemara (Avodah Zarah 75b) notes that this immersion is required, even if the vessel has never been used. In other words, this mitzvah is unrelated to the requirement of koshering equipment that was used for non-kosher food, or to the laws related to purifying implements that became tamei.

The Gemara (Avodah Zarah 75b) further states that in addition to metal items intended for food use, we are also required to immerse glass dishes, because both metal and glass share a similarity – they are repairable by melting and reconstructing, what we call today recyclable. This renders them different from vessels made of stone, bone, wood or earthenware, all of which cannot be repaired this way.

Immediately prior to immersing something that definitely requires tevilah, one recites a beracha: Asher kideshanu bemitzvosav vetzivanu al tevilas keilim. One does not recite this beracha when it is uncertain that immersion is required, such as, when the authorities dispute whether tevilah is necessary. When there is no mitzvah to immerse a utensil, reciting a beracha is prohibited, becauses it constitutes a beracha levatalah, one stated in vain. Therefore, when we are uncertain whether an item requires tevilah, we immerse it — but without reciting a beracha. A better solution is to immerse something that definitely requires a beracha at the same time that one immerses the “questionable” item, and to recite a beracha on the “definite” item/utensil. We will soon see an example.

Is this a kashrus law?

The Gemara cites a highly instructive dialogue about the mitzvah of immersing new vessels:

“Rav Nachman said in the name of Rabbah bar Avuha: ‘From the verse, one can derive that one must immerse even brand new items, because used vessels that were purged in fire are as kosher as those that are brand-new, and yet they require immersion.’

Rav Sheishes then asked him: ‘If it is true that the mitzvah of immersing vessels is not because of kashrus concerns, then maybe one is required to immerse even clothing shears?’

Rav Nachman responded: ‘The Torah mentions only vessels that are used for meals (klei seudah)'” (Avodah Zarah 75b).

Rav Sheishes suggested that if the immersion of utensils is not a means of koshering a non-kosher vessel, then perhaps we have many more opportunities to fulfill this mitzvah, and it applies to any type of paraphernalia — even cameras, cellphones and clothing shears!

To this, Rav Nachman retorted that the Torah includes only items used for klei seudah – as Rashi explains, household implements used with fire are normally pots, pans and other cooking implements. Thus, the mitzvah of tevilas keilim applies only to utensils used for preparing food, and not those intended for other purposes.

Klei Seudah – appliances used for meals

We should note that Rav Nachman did not say that all food preparation utensils require immersion, but he required immersion only of klei seudah, items used for meals. We will soon see how this detail affects many of the halachos of tevilas keilim.

What exactly are considered klei seudah, and how is this different from simply saying that all food implements must be immersed?

Early halachic authorities provide some direction about this issue. For example, the Mordechai (Chullin #577, quoted by Beis Yosef, Yoreh Deah 120) rules that a shechitah knife does not require immersion. Why not? After all, it is used to prepare food.

The answer is that since meat cannot be eaten immediately after shechitah, this knife does not qualify as klei seudah. Only utensils that prepare food to the point that they can be eaten are called klei seudah. This is the approach that the Shulchan Aruch follows (Yoreh Deah 120:5).

Making a point!

According to this approach, cleavers used for raw meat, tenderizers (mallets used to pound raw meat), and reidels, the implements used to perforate matzoh dough prior to baking, would all not require tevilah, since the meat or dough is not edible when these implements complete their task (Darkei Moshe, 120:4, quoting Issur VaHeter).

However, not all authorities reach this conclusion. Indeed, the same Darkei Moshe, who ruled that reidels do not require tevilah, quoted that both the Rash and the Tashbeitz, two prominent early authorities, toiveled shechitah knives before using them. Why did these poskim toivel their shechitah knives? Did they contend that any implement used to process food at any stage requires tevilah? If so, would they also require immersing reidels, meat grinders and rolling pins?

We find a dispute among halachic authorities how to explain this opinion. According to the Taz (120:7) and the Gra (120:14), the Rash and the Tashbeitz indeed require immersing appliances whose finished product is not yet edible. In their opinion, the Rash and the Tashbeitz require the toiveling of reidels and presumably, also, meat grinders. Since the matter is disputed – the Mordechai contending that these items do not require tevilah, and the Rash and the Tashbeitz requiring tevilah — the Taz and the Gra rule that we should follow a compromise position, immersing shechitah knife and reidels before use, but without reciting a beracha, because maybe there is no requirement to immerse them, and the beracha will be in vain.

What is the difference between a reidel and a knife?

On the other hand, the Shach (120:11) disputes the way the Taz and the Gra understand the opinion of the Rash and the Tashbeitz. The Shach contends that although the Rash and the Tashbeitz rule that one must toivel a shechitah knife, they would not require the immersion of a reidel before use. A shechitah knife must be toiveled because it can potentially be used for food that is ready to be eaten. The Shach concludes that an implement that can be used only for items that are not yet edible does not require immersion, and therefore a reidel does not require tevilah.

Cookie cutting precision!

Most of our readers probably do not regularly use shechitah knives or reidels, but may have more experience with cookie cutters. If a cookie cutter is used only for dough, then according to the conclusion of the Mordechai and the Shulchan Aruch, it would not require tevilah. However, my wife informs me that cookie cutters are often used to form shapes in melons or jello; therefore, they must be immersed.

There are other items where this question is germane, such as items that would be used only for kneading, e.g., a metal rolling pin; or for items used for processing raw meat, e.g., a meat grinder, or a schnitzel mallet. Must one immerse these items?

The answer is that it is dependent on the above-quoted dispute between the Gra and the Shach. According to the Gra, those early authorities who require the toiveling of a shechitah knife require that all food implements be toiveled. Since we usually require toiveling shechitah knives, we must also toivel reidels, meat grinders, and rolling pins, although we would toivel all of these items without a beracha (see Pri Megadim, Orach Chayim 451:6).

However, according to the Shach, there is a big difference between a shechitah knife, which can be used to cut ready-to-eat foods, and a reidel, which can be used only for food that is not ready to eat. Since reidels are never used for ready-to-eat food, they do not require tevilah.

Major improvements

There is yet a third approach to this issue. Some other authorities contend that an item used for a major tikun, or change, in the food, such as shechitah, requires tevilah, even if the food is not edible when this step is complete. However, an item that performs only a minor tikun, such as the reidel, does not require immersion, if the food is not yet edible (Pri Chodosh and Aruch Hashulchan). In their opinion, the potential use of the shechitah knife is not what requires the tevilah. It is the fact that the shechitah performed with this knife is a major stage in making the finished product, the meat, edible. Those who follow this approach would rule that one need not toivel a meat grinder, whereas the Gra and the Taz would rule that one should.

The saga of Butch’s cleaver

We can now address Butch Katzav’s question:

“Under my previous hechsher, I was told that I did not need to toivel my meat cleavers, since they are used only for raw meat. However, my new rav hamachshir requires me to toivel them. Why is there a difference?”

In true Jewish style, let us answer Butch’s question with a question. Is a cleaver like a shechitah knife or like a reidel?

In certain ways, a cleaver is like a knife, in that it can be used both for raw meat and for cooked, ready-to-eat food. On the other hand, it is unlike a shechitah knife which performs a major tikun by making the meat kosher, and in this way, the cleaver is more similar to a reidel which performs a relatively minor function.

Now we can answer Butch’s question. The previous hechsher may have ruled like the Pri Chodosh and the Aruch Hashulchan that an item used for a minor change does not require tevilah, unless it is used with edible food. The current rav hamachshir may follow the opinion of the Shach that an item, such as a knife or cleaver, requires tevilah when used for food that is not yet edible, since it could be used for ready-to-eat food. It is also possible that the current rav follows the opinion of the Gra and the Taz that any food implement requires tevilah without a beracha, and would require that even a reidel be immersed.

Conclusion

According to Rav Hirsch, metal vessels, which require mining, extracting and processing, represent man’s mastery over the earth and its materials, whereas vessels made of earthenware or wood only involve man’s shaping the world’s materials to fit his needs. The manufacture of metal utensils demonstrates man’s creative abilities to utilize natural mineral resources to fashion matter into a usable form. Consuming food, on the other hand, serves man’s most basic physical nature. Use of metal food vessels, then, represents the intellectual aspect of man serving his physical self, which, in a sense, is the opposite of why we were created — to use our physical self to assist our intellect to do Hashem’s will. Specifically in this instance, the Torah requires that the items thereby produced be immersed in a mikveh, to endow them with increased kedusha before they are put to food use. This demonstrates that although one may use one’s intellect for physical purposes, when doing so, one must first sanctify the item to focus on the spiritual.

 

 

Where Do I Toivel My Keilim?

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?”

Background:

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.

Introduction:

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.

Snow

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.

Minimal mikveh

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.

Mekabeil tumah

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.

Drawn water

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.

City water

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.

Conclusion

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.

 

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