Many Jews see the shul as the central institution in Jewish life, but Halacha states that constructing a mikvah takes precedence even over building a shul. Both a shul and a Sefer Torah may be sold to raise funds for building a mikvah. In fact, in the eyes of our Sages, Jewish families living together only attain the status of “community” once they have a communal mikvah.
To the uninitiated, a modern-day mikvah looks like a miniature swimming pool. In a religion rich with detail, beauty and ornamentation—against the backdrop of the ancient Temple or even contemporary synagogues—the mikvah is surprisingly nondescript, a humble structure.
Its ordinary appearance, however, belies its primary place in Jewish life and law. The mikvah offers the individual, the community and the nation of Israel the remarkable gift of purity and holiness. No other religious establishment, structure or rite can affect the Jew in this way and, indeed, on such an essential level. Its extraordinary power, however, is contingent on its construction in accordance with the numerous and complex specifications as outlined in halachah, Jewish law.
A mikvah must be built into the ground or built as an essential part of a building. Portable receptacles, such as bathtubs, whirlpools or Jacuzzis, can therefore never function as mikvahs. The mikvah must contain a minimum of 200 gallons of rainwater that was gathered and siphoned into the mikvah pool in accordance with a highly specific set of regulations.
Immersion in the mikvah has offered a gateway to purity ever since the creation of man. The Midrash relates that after being banished from Eden, Adam sat in a river that flowed from the garden. This was an integral part of his teshuvah (repentance) process, of his attempt at return to his original perfection.
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