Thursday, December 17, 2009

Mikveh Israel, or what Makes Israel Pure?

The Mishnah, the rabbinic guide to matters of halakha (legal regulations and requirement to do with the Law of Moses), contains a tractate describing the high priest's preparations for the Day of Atonement, when he would offer up a sin-offering on behalf of all Israel.
It closes with a reminder, attributed to r. Akiva, of who it is who actually makes Israel clean.

How fortunate you are, O Israel! Before whom are you made clean? Who is it that makes you clean? Your Father that is in heaven! As it is said (Ezek 36:25) "And I will pour clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean"; it says also (Jer 17:13), "the mikveh of Israel is the Lord"- even as a mikveh makes clean those who are unclean, so the Holy One, blessed be He, makes Israel clean.
Mishnah, t. Yoma, 8:7.

The word in bold is usually translated in English as hope, but it was seen as an allusion to the practice of ritual bathing, which was done in what was termed a mikveh. The association is further strengthened by the rest of the verse, which calls the Lord the fountain of living waters. Living water was the essential component in the mikveh, without it one could not become clean.
I'm not too sure that the wordplay isn't Jeremiah's, he certainly picked an unusual form of the word hope.
Whilst actions were paramount in Judaism, the sages recognised that it was God who made them efficacious. In that respect, there was not that big a difference between them and the early Christians.


  1. Be sure and add Isaiah's testimony to that mix.

    Isa 1:16
    ¶ Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil;
    17 Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.
    18 Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.
    19 If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land:
    20 But if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.

  2. "Then [those who are "persuaded and believe that what we teach"] are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, "Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven." Now, that it is impossible for those who have once been born to enter into their mothers' wombs, is manifest to all. And how those who have sinned and repent shall escape their sins, is declared by Esaias the prophet, as I wrote above; he thus speaks: "Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from your souls; learn to do well; judge the fatherless, and plead for the widow: and come and let us reason together, saith the Lord. And though your sins be as scarlet, I will make them white like wool; and though they be as crimson, I will make them white as snow. But if ye refuse and rebel, the sword shall devour you: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it." And for this [rite] we have learned from the apostles this reason." (Justin Martyr, The First Apology, Ch. LXI)

  3. This is a really good article on the mikveh:

    Ron Moseley “The Jewish Background of Christian Baptism.” Sherwood, Arkansas: Arkansas Institute of Holy Land Studies, 2002.

    Can be found here:

    Dr. Moseley is the president of the American Institute for Advanced Biblical Studies in North Little Rock, Arkansas, and has a Master of Divinity, a Master of Jewish Studies, a Ph.D. in Second Temple History, a D.Phil. in Religion and Society, and a D.Litt. in Research