Kibbutz Rescues Second Temple-period Mikveh From Builders

During groundworks to build an intersection a rare Galilean ritual bath was found, sawed out of the bedrock and moved in an extraordinary collaboration

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Lifting the caged mikveh for transport
Lifting the caged 2,000-year-old mikveh for transportCredit: יולי שוורץ / רשות
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

A rare Galilean mikveh dating to the Second Temple period discovered near Kibbutz Hannaton has been rescued from oblivion: Instead of being paved over by a new intersection, it has been extracted and moved to a permanent home at the kibbutz.

As was the way of Second Temple ritual baths, the mikveh had been hewn from bedrock. Saving it from disappearing under the tarmac took a complicated and expensive process of laboriously sawing the whole enchilada out of the bedrock, gingerly hoisting it with heavy machinery and moving the thing onto a truck. This was achieved thanks to the insistence of kibbutz members and the goodwill and funding of a host of government bodies as well as crowd-funding.

The Israel Antiquities Authority says the block of rock containing the purification installation weighed 57 tons. Its arrival at its new home was greeted with cheers by the kibbutzniks, the IAA adds.

In fact the Mikveh Mission was just one part of a salvage excavation that revealed something profoundly surprising to some archaeological circles: a Jewish farmstead, and a wealthy one to boot, in the Galilee from the Second Temple period, some 2,000 years ago.

The existence of the mikveh unequivocally indicates that the residents of the ancient farm were Jewish and maintained purity as commanded by Torah, states excavation codirector Abd Elghani Ibrahim of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Aerial view of the carved-out mikvehCredit: Abd Elghani Ibrahim, IAA
Excavation codirector Abd Elghani Ibrahim of the Israel Antiquities AuthorityCredit: Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority

It was a surprise because no Jewish farms had been found from that time in the region. Some assumed the Jews stayed in their towns, eschewing an isolated subsistence in the countryside because they were afraid of the Romans, excavation codirector Walid Atrash of the Israel Antiquities Authority and Haifa University explains to Haaretz. Apparently, that was not the case.

To approach the divine

Cleanliness is next to godliness, they say, a tenet that many inaccurately assume is a biblical exhortation. Actually it seems Sir Francis Bacon was responsible for disseminating the word on sanitation in the early 17th century. Nowhere does scripture suggest that if we wash, we approach the divine. It does dictate that we wash if we aspire to proximity to the divine, but doesn’t specifically prescribe ritual bathing places to cleanse one’s polluted mind and grimy body.

So where and when the first mikveh arose is not known. The most we can say based on archaeological and historic evidence is that by the Second Temple period, ritual baths were widely used by Jews, male and female, for the purpose of ritual purification. Especially high numbers of the ritual baths hewn into the bedrock were found in Jerusalem, home of the Temple until the Romans destroyed it in 70 C.E. and in Qumran by the Dead Sea.

Washing is good but actually, where did the notion of ritual purification come from? Haaretz contributor Elon Gilad suspects the “purity obsession” originated in Persia, and we caught it following the Babylonian exile.

Second Temple-period Jewish farmhouseCredit: יניב ברמן / רשות ה

“The Persian religion Zoroastrianism was preoccupied with purity and impurity, and certainly we have hard archaeological and historical evidence of purity rituals in the Second Temple period,” he says. Though some involve just washing the hands, not necessarily immersing oneself from head to toe in water. In any case, by the Second Temple time, clearly purity ritual had taken hold at least among some Jews, if not necessarily all Jews, Gilad adds – one of whom was evidently John the Baptist, who was Jewish, and practiced purifcation by immersion in water.

And now we have this mikveh hewn into the bedrock near Hannaton some 2,000 years ago, a beautiful mikveh according to members of the agriculture collective and the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Asked if it’s so extraordinary: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” remarks one expert involved in the excavation and transplant operation.

Anyway, it certainly was unusual. While Jerusalem and the Dead Sea area have hundreds of ritual baths, in the Galilee there are all of five, including this one, Dr. Walid Atrash of the Israel Antiquities Authority and construction director of the Hannaton mikveh moving project tells Haaretz.

The ancient mikveh by Hannaton definitely dates exactly to the Second Temple period, he says: “We have two elements for dating: the style of the mikveh and the type of plastering used to seal the walls, and coins and pottery.” Coins found at the spot date to the 50s C.E. – some 20 years before the Romans razed the Temple.

Bird's-eye view of the Hannaton mikveh rescueCredit: Abd Elghani Ibrahim, IAA

Excavation co-director Abd Elghani Ibrahim stated that the existence of the mikveh unequivocally indicates that the residents of the ancient farm were Jews, who led a religious and traditional way of life and maintained purity as a Torah commandment.

The other four Galilean ritual baths are in Tzippori (Sepphoris), a nearby ancient city famed for its stupendous mosaics. “The Second Temple-period mikvehs were of two types, the earlier Jerusalem type and the later Tzippori type, after the Temple destruction,” Atrash explains. The steps down to the Jerusalem type are as wide as the pool at the bottom; while the Tzippori style has a narrow staircase. The Hannaton mikveh was the Jerusalem type that predated the destruction, he says.

Elon Gilad, an expert on ancient Jewish practices, point outs that a hole hewn into the ground does not necessarily a mikveh make. Some could have been just baths, not necessarily ritual baths.

The high life

This find was evidently a real ritual bath, but if anything surprised the team, it was less the bathing spot and more the discovery of the farmstead. “The whole site is special,” Atrash says. Historical records show that there had been Jewish agriculture in the Galilee, including by the great rabbis and elites right through to the Byzantine period, which ended in 325 C.E. Rabbi Gamliel, for example, was described as both the first person to head the Sanhedrin tribunal in the post-Temple period and a farmer.

Aerial view of the mission to carve out the mikvehCredit: Abd Elghani Ibrahim, iAA

For all the historical references to Jewish agriculture in the region, the Jewish farmstead near Hannaton is the first to be found.

“The farm is actually not far from Tzippori. Probably it belonged to one of the wealthy Jewish families of the town,” Atrash suggests, qualifying that we don’t have enough information to say who exactly.

Why deem the family wealthy? “We found part of the farm owner’s home – based on the style and quality of construction, they were very wealthy. Beneath the house we found cellars and a water storage well – all the elements necessary for the high life,” Atrash says.

The farm was destroyed by an earthquake around 1,700 years ago, the archaeologists say, though people continued to live at the site for another few hundred years.

The members of Hannaton had the 2,000-year-old mikveh moved to about 20 meters from their modern one. And they hope to use it in the same way. The Hannaton mikveh isn’t restricted to Jews wishing to purify themselves but for all who come. It isn’t controlled by the rabbinate, kibbutz members point out, and hope the new one can convey a similar message of global fraternity.

Fittingly quite a lot of people funded this excavation and move: the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Netivei Yisrael road-building company, the Hamoreshet company in Jerusalem, the Jezreel Valley regional council and private donors.

Stairs leading into the mikvehCredit: Yaniv Berman, IAA
Team of IAA and Kibbutz Hannaton mikveh rescuers, in front of the craneCredit: יולי שוורץ / רשות

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