The Historical Mikvah

Mikvah (in Hebrew מקווה‎‎, literally “collection” or “gathering (of water)”) is a Jewish ritual bath. It is a pool filled with spring water used for cleansing people or items. A mikvah should hold at least 762 litres of water and should be deep enough for an adult to become completely immersed. In ancient Israel, priests would use a mikvah for ritual cleansing before performing their service in the Temple of Jerusalem. In the present day, a mikvah is used for purifying women after their menstrual period or after giving birth. Men usually enter the mikvah only during the High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) for spiritual preparation and purification. Immersion in a mikvah is also essential for conversion to Judaism (for both male and female converts). Furthermore, a mikvah is used to make certain utensils which have been made in a non-Jewish environment kosher, , before these being used in a Jewish kitchen. In the past, mikvoth were located in cellars of buildings or in a separate house with public access. Several historic ritual baths have been preserved in the Czech Republic and some are open to the public. A historical mikvah in the basement of the building next to the Pinkas Synagogue was discovered during an archaeological survey in 1968. Judging by the surviving masonry and ceramic objects found, it most likely dates to early 16 century, making it one of the oldest proof of Jewish settlement in this area. The archaeological survey was carried out during work to insulate and damp-proof the Pinkas Synagogue, both from the side of the cemetery and the former Malá Pinkasova Street, as well as from the southern and eastern sides. In the underground area of the synagogue, a very complicated situation was discovered in terms of construction. It was here that houses destroyed in the slum clearance were adjacent to the synagogue building. Their complicated underground structures were mainly preserved underneath the annex of the women’s nave on the southern and south-eastern sides of the synagogue. Vaulted spaces were discovered in the underground area with the remains of several old wells and a mikvah which drew water from a permanent water source in this area. On the southern side, original vaulted cellars were gradually revealed, probably dating from 13 century, with several wells. On the south-eastern side of the synagogue another oblong space was revealed with a barrel-vault ceiling. In this niche under the older building the bath with an anteroom and access cortiidor werediscovered The area housing the ritual bath was mainly preserved. The survey confirmed, that the mikvah was constructed in the cellar of an older building originally dating to the 13 century, by the Horowitz family. This during the reconstruction of ahouse known as “U Erbů”, and at the same time that the Pinkas Synagogue was built in the first third of the 16 century. This mikvah is a classic, oblong, ritual bath, measuring 118 x 233 cm with a flow of spring water and is around 130 cm deep. The original entrance from the synagogue courtyard into the anteroom lead westward via 12 preserved steps. The anteroom was also used to heat the adjoining room housing the bath. Proof of this are the traces of scorching in the areas adjoining the niche and the bench in the bath. During the period when it was in use, many changes occurred at the bath. It is evident from surveys that a lot of construction work took place here, due to the generally confined space of the ghetto. Under these circumstances, it was impossible to have too many aesthetic demands and the bath’s utility took precedence. This is also reflected in the construction of the walls, which are often enhanced with old construction materials, bricked-up orifices and additional vaults. The wider bath complex probably fulfilled social functions as well: adjacent rooms (to the bath) were used as an asylum for poor community members, and even as a hospital. The large vaulted room on the eastern side could have fulfilled a similar function. Following the repairs in the 1970, when the walls were reinforced, the missing parts of the vaults and paving were filled in and a new spiral staircase was constructed, which allowes visitors access to the mikvah. There were several public ritual baths in the Prague Ghetto. The approximate location of two others is known –  the proximity of Židovská (Široká) Street and Goldřichova Street. Information on these dates from more recent times. However, only the historical mikvah in the building next to the Pinkas Synagogue has been preserved and made accessible to visitors.