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Mayim Chaim – Living Waters

February 5, 2008
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The Jewish Ritual Cleansing of the Mikveh

Ritual cleansing has long been an important part of Judaism for fulfilling the ordinances of the Torah (Gen.–Deut.). In ancient times, early Israelites built bathing cisterns or mikvaot (plural form of mikveh) in public and private buildings in Jerusalem and throughout their towns and villages. Masekhet Mikvaot, in the Mishnah (the first written recording of Jewish tradition), notes the importance of self-immersion of the entire body in water for spiritual purification and lists the requirements for such ritual baths.

Roman aquaduct at Caesarea According to the Jewish Virtual Library, even the Jewish Qumran settlements of the desert had many ritual baths, supplied by constantly flowing water from an aqueduct. Their mikvaot were excavated in the soil, waterproofed with thick, gray hydraulic plaster, and built with broad staircases leading to the bottom. Many were divided down the middle by a low (8 in. or 20 cm.) wall, which separated those descending for immersion from those leaving after purification. Some of their larger mikvaot probably served for communal immersion, a central part of their daily rituals. Immersing in a mikveh was also essential for priests prior to performing their regular or special Temple duties.

The main characteristic of a mikveh is that its water needs to come from a natural spring or river, because Leviticus 11:36 ordains that only a fountain or a cistern that gathers water can be declared as ritually pure, or tahor in Hebrew. The mikveh needs to have a constant flow of water, so that it can be used for purifying individuals or utensils that are ritually impure, or tamei, but water drawn out into a vessel loses its effectiveness (except in the case mentioned later). Though one should be clean—since a speck of dirt becomes a symbolic barrier, called hatstitsah, and separates his/her body from the water’s cleansing effect in order to become ritually pure—the mikveh immersion is not a bath. Some sources of impurity include contact with a corpse, childbirth, menstruation, venereal disease, seminal issue, and leprosy. Many Orthodox Jews still keep the custom of ritual immersion, including before entering the Sabbath day of rest, and may often use natural bodies of water or specially constructed pools.

Living Water

In many English translations of the Jewish Scriptures, when the term “running water” is used, the Hebrew words are mayim chaim (מים חיים), which literally mean “living waters.” (It is interesting to note that in Hebrew, water is only used in the plural form.) It could be a well or a spring, such as the well that Jacob’s servants dug (Gen. 26:19), or the spring in the beloved’s garden: “Thou art a fountain of gardens, a well of living waters, and flowing streams from Lebanon” (Song of Songs 4:15, Jewish Publication Society). “Living water” could also be used in a vessel if it was in conjunction with the ashes of the red heifer, and the person or item would be sprinkled with this mixture for purification (Num.19:17–18). If a leper had been healed, the priest would sacrifice a bird while holding it above the “living water” and then sprinkle the person with its blood in order to declare him ritually clean (Lev. 14:5–7).

The Fountain of Living Water

God loves rivers and springs, since He emphasized that He was going to give His people “a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing forth in valleys and hills” (Deut. 8:7, NASB). He also described Himself as living water: “For My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, to hew for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jer. 2:13, NASB). When Jeremiah reprimands Israel for forsaking the Lord, he said that “they that depart from Thee shall be written in the earth, because they have forsaken the LORD, the fountain of living waters (Jer. 17:13, JPS).

Yeshua (Jesus) knew about this term, which is why He told the Samaritan woman, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water(John 4:10). When the woman asked what He was talking about, He answered, “Everyone who drinks of this water shall thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will be in him a well of water springing up to eternal life (John 4:13–14). And to all who surrounded Him on the last day of Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles), Jesus announced, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37–38). Let us all drink of this Living Water and live!

Photo Credit: israelimages.com/Richard Nowitz

Photo Credit: israelimages.com/Duby Tal/Albatross

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