The mikvah at Herodian, which was apparently built during the Second Temple period (530 BCE and 70 CE). (photo by Deborah Rubin Fields)
The Dark Ages weren’t given their name for nothing. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, sanitation virtually disappeared. During the Dark Ages – also referred to as the Middle Ages or the medieval period – few people bathed regularly. What did they do? Those who could, or were so inclined, covered up body odour with perfume.
Progress does not always move in a forward direction – the older, classical civilizations bathed far more than did medieval Europe. In the non-Jewish ancient world, the earliest unearthed bathing and plumbing systems date back nearly 6,000 years to the Indus River Valley, in today’s Pakistan. There, archeologists excavated copper water pipes from the ruins of a palace, as well as the remains of what appears to be a superbly constructed ritual bathing pool at Mohenjo-daro. And, in a find dating 3,000 years later, archeologists found a pottery pedestal tub on the island of Crete that measured five feet long.
By instituting a practice of daily bathing, the Romans improved the general level of sanitation. Baths, moreover, functioned not just to raise the level of hygiene, but also provided opportunities to socialize, to exercise, to read and, importantly, to conduct business. From 500 BCE until 455 CE, Roman public baths were common. Moreover, privately owned Roman baths were quite luxurious, often taking up a whole room. The comprehensive sewage system of the baths consisted of lead and bronze pipes and marble fixtures.
Now, note this contrast: until the 1800s, most water pipes in the United States consisted of no more than hollowed-out trees, and the first cast-iron pipes in the United States were imported from England. Only in 1848 was a U.S. plumbing code enacted, with the passage of the National Public Health Act. In 1883, both the Standard Sanitary Manufacturing Co. (now the American Standard Co.) and the Kohler Co. began adding enamel to cast-iron bathtubs to create a smooth interior surface. Kohler advertised its first claw foot tub as a “horse trough/hog scalder [which] when furnished with four legs will serve as a bathtub.” Kohler began mass-producing these tubs, as they were recognized as having a surface that was easy to clean, thus preventing the spread of bacteria and disease.
To give additional perspective, consider this finding: after the First World War, the United States experienced a construction boom, and bathrooms were fitted with a toilet, sink and bathtub – but, even in 1921, only one percent of American homes had indoor plumbing.
Since antiquity, Jews have maintained a relatively high level of sanitation, due in part to the prescribed hand-washing ritual before eating and to the religious practice surrounding the mikvah, or ritual bath. In Israel, the oldest discovered mikvah dates back to the Second Temple period, more than 2,000 years ago. In recent years, archeologists discovered Europe’s oldest mikvah – in Sicily’s ancient Syracuse, it goes back to the Byzantine period, or the fifth-century CE.
But two important questions need answering: how do we know bathing was so important and what is a mikvah? The Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berakhot 57b, provides this insight: though anointing (oil) and bath (water) do not enter the body, the body benefits from them. Moreover, in Tractate Sanhedrin 17b, we learn that scholars were forbidden from residing in cities that did not have public baths.
Historically, municipalities often barred Jews from bathing in their rivers, and Christians blocked Jews from using public baths. Moreover, there was a fear that Jewish women might be molested in a general public bath. So, there was a need to construct separate facilities, and Jews built bathhouses, many with mikvot close by. Thus, Jews began to link the concept of the mikvah with physical hygiene.
Significantly, the mikvah was never a monthly substitute for a bath or shower. In fact, Jewish law calls for immersion only after one has bathed or showered. Oceans, rivers, wells and lakes, which get their water from springs, can usually serve as a mikvah. The common thread between these bodies of water is that they are natural sources. To traditional Jews, they are derived from G-d. As such, they have the ability to ritually purify.
A human-made mikvah must be built into the ground or built as an essential part of a building. There are two pools: one that contains collected rainwater and the other, the actual immersion pool, is drained and refilled regularly with tap water. The pools, however, share a common wall with a hole that permits the free flow of the water, so the immersion pool also receives rainwater.
When the Temples stood, the high priest immersed in the mikvah at prescribed times. But, today, when there is no Temple, for the Orthodox, the mikvah serves the following four functions: a woman uses the mikvah after menstruating and after giving birth; immersion in a mikvah marks the final step in converting to Judaism; before beginning to cook and eat from them, Jews use the mikvah to immerse new pots, dishes and utensils; and the mikvah is also used to prepare a Jew’s body before his or her burial. Men go to the mikvah before their wedding and before Yom Kippur, and many Chassidic men use the mikvah before each Shabbat and holiday.
It is speculated that up to 60% of the general European population died of the Black Death. There are no statistics as to how many Jews died of the plague, so it is hard to actually say that Jewish bathhouses or the Jewish practice of hand washing or other sanitation prescribed by Jewish law kept Jews safer than the general medieval public. Two points, however, may be stated with certainty:
- In a number of instances, European Jews were blamed for the Black Death. As a consequence, beginning in November 1348 in Germany, Jews were massacred and expelled from their homes. In February 1349, 2,000 Strasbourg Jews were murdered. Six months later, Christians wiped out the Jews of Mainz and Cologne. By 1351, 60 major and 150 smaller Jewish communities had been eliminated.
- Even today, comments on the subject need to be scrutinized for possible antisemitic motives.
As for today, in the Western world, there seems to be an obsessive amount of soap bars, soap liquids, no-soap cleaners, hand wipes and wet wipes. Can one over-clean? Yes.
In an interview with Global News earlier this year, Dr. Anatoli Freiman of the Toronto Dermatology Centre explained the negative consequences of excessive showering or bathing. “The skin can dry out,” he said. “But the message is, after the shower or bath, you need to pat yourself dry and moisturize to seal it.”
Prof. David Leffell, chief of dermatological surgery at Yale School of Medicine, gives these guidelines about keeping clean. “You don’t want to do the Lady Macbeth thing, where you’re scrubbing and scrubbing,” he told businessinsider.com. “The purpose of showering is to eliminate dirt.” This can be done, he explained, in less than a few minutes by focusing on the grimier parts of the body (armpits and groin) and not overdoing it with soap elsewhere. He advised using warm, not hot, water; aiming for a three-minute shower; and moisturizing while the skin is still damp.
Deborah Rubin Fields is an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology Exams, published in English, Hebrew and Arabic.