Priorities in Mikvah Building

I was privileged to give an adult ed class over Shavuot on the topic of the relative prioritization of building a mikvah as compared with building a shul or school. The shiur also dealt with the relative importance of a men’s mikvah, both objectively and as compared with a women’s mikvah. Click here for the sources. In the write-up below, the numbers and letters correspond to the sources in the shiur at the link above.

For some context, the shiur was given as my community continues its ongoing fundraising and planning for a new mikvah after the last one was condemned due to poor construction, and as we deal with our desperate need to build a shul building so we can finally escape the multipurpose room my 200-family shul currently occupies in an affiliated school that is itself desperately short on space. Hence the not-so-theoretical nature of the questions raised in the shiur. But as I said during the shiur, I am not a posek and the shiur was meant as a source for general reflection or enlightenment rather than as a means of deciding on practical local community matters.

A. Mikvah vs. Shul

In a 1960 Teshuva addressed to a scholar who, from my research, did not preside over a shul or community of any kind, Rav Moshe deals with the question of whether to first build a mikvah or a shul, employing two related Halachot in Shulchan Aruch (Sources 3 and 5). One Halacha (Source 5), related to the Gemara in Megillah (Source 2), states that one may sell his personal Sefer Torah to finance his own wedding. Another Halacha (Source 3), related to a Teshuva of the Rash, further states that one may sell an entire shul building (or a Sefer Torah) in order to finance the wedding of an orphan. Using these earlier Halachot, Rav Moshe extrapolates (Source 6C) that if the matrimonial possibility of even one person (oneself or an orphan) could supersede the possession of a Torah or shul, then certainly the marital harmony of an entire town would supersede owning such holy objects. Thus, Rav Moshe concludes, the building of a mikvah should supersede the building of a shul. This despite the fact that the earlier Halachot concerned selling a shul, while our question concerns whether to build a shul at all; and that the earlier Halachot concerned creating a marriage which otherwise would not exist, while Rav Moshe’s concerns the temporary betterment of existing marriages.

Rav Moshe proceeds (Source 6D) to further extend this ruling to a situation in which a mikvah exists, but is an unspecified distance away from the populace of the town. Even here, Rav Moshe asserts that the construction of the mikvah would supersede the building of the shul because many women will not be willing to travel a great distance to the mikvah, and even those who would normally be willing to travel will be unable to do so on Shabbat and Yom Tov, thus leading to the prevention of their being able to have children or be properly married (the mitzvah of שֶׁבֶת, derived from Source 1). Here, Rav Moshe is beginning to assert his own opinion more forcefully, because the original Halachot upon which his ruling is based concern situations in which the orphan or yourself will have no other means to finance the wedding besides this sale – see the final words of Source 5, אם אין לו דבר אחר למכור, if he has nothing else he can sell. Extending that to our case, in which some women may choose not to drive a distance, or the inconvenienced couple can access the far-away mikvah a night or two later after Yom Tov, is not an altogether obvious application of the earlier Halachot. Rav Moshe continues (Source 6F-G) by explaining that while it is possible to extend the Halacha of selling a Torah to that of selling a shul in order to finance the construction of a mikvah, it is preferable to avoid doing so unless it is absolutely necessary, but he does leave open the possibility that one could sell an existing shul to finance the building of a mikvah.

Turning to a different topic, Rav Moshe concludes the Teshuva by discussing whether it is permissible to build a mikvah in a shul building. While he does not advocate (Source 6H) doing so a priori, he does permit doing so as an extension of the Torah’s allowing the erasing of Hashem’s name in the Sotah waters and the Gemara’s allowing for the embarrassment of Torah scholars in order to bring peace between husband and wife. (See אגרות משה אורח חיים חלק א סימן נא for two more reasons to permit building a mikvah inside an עזרת נשים. It is interesting that the original Teshuva, written while Rav Moshe was still in Luban, Russia in 1939, discusses building a mikvah in an עזרת נשים; the later Teshuva, written in New York in 1960, refers to the earlier Teshuva as having concerned a mikvah in a “חדר בית הכנסת שנעשה להתפלל שם.”)

B. Mikvah vs. School

In a 1969 Teshuva (Source 7) addressed to the leadership of the new Jewish community of (East) Brunswick, Rav Moshe discusses which to build first – a school or a mikvah – emphatically coming out on the side of the school, in large part due to the existing mikvah in the town of Elizabeth, which the map in the sources shows is at least a half-hour drive from East Brunswick. In contrast to the earlier Teshuva, in which Rav Moshe worried (Source 6D) about the women who would be unable to travel to the mikvah on Shabbat or Yom Tov, Rav Moshe dismisses this concern out of hand (Source 7D) in this later Teshuva. As to the women who would be unwilling altogether to travel, these are not even mentioned in the later Teshuva. Rav Moshe does provide (Source 7E) that due to the small outside possibility (“לפעמים רחוקים”) that delaying a trip to the mikvah could impact on the couple’s ability to have children, priority should be given to the building of a mikvah over merely alleviating the financial burden on an existing school’s donors.

As the Teshuva proceeds (Source 6F-G), Rav Moshe allows that the mikvah could supersede the school if there is deemed to be greater suspicion that the lack of a mikvah will curtail women from traveling to a mikvah than that, without a school, the children will fail to be Jewishly educated in some other institution. However, if the suspicions are of equal viability, or if the educational suspicion is greater, the school should be built first, “שהוא במדינה זו הצלה מכפירה ומכל איסורין שבתורה.” Ultimately, Rav Moshe concludes (Source 6G), it is the job of the community’s leadership to determine and weigh such suspicions and plan accordingly. Hidden in the final lines of this Teshuva is a striking confirmation of the role of the town Rabbi and his jurisdiction in matters of town planning, albeit using the guidelines outlined by Rav Moshe in this Teshuva.

C. The Men’s Mikvah

As an aside, it is worth noting why some men use the mikvah daily. This is not, as it might seem, a custom rooted in Kabbalah or “Chassidut.” In fact, although normally Torah study and Tefillah are unaffected by tumah (impurity), the Gemara records (Source 8A) that Ezra ruled that men who had had an emission in the night should go to a mikvah in the morning, as a way of discouraging men from being with their wives every night (Source 8B). However, even in the time of the Gemara, this rule appears to have been honored in the breach. Rabbi Yannai (Source 8B) reports that some people were careful about observing this decree while others were not; Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi (Source 8B) was unsure why any men used the mikvah at all; and Zeiri (Source 8C) reported that Ezra’s decree – or perhaps the decree to wash one’s hands before Tefillah – was officially rescinded. The Rash and Rif (Source 9) report that the prevailing custom in their time (roughly the year 1200) was indeed for men to visit the mikvah in the morning. The Ein Yitzchak (Rav Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor, 19th century) notes (Source 10A) that the Shiltei Giborim says that the Rabbis did not protest men failing to use the mikvah in the morning, implying that it would have been better were men to continue the ancient practice. Rabbeinu Yonah (Source 10B), as well, felt that it was universally accepted that men should preferably continue the custom. In that context, it is not surprising that Rav Moshe has respect for those who continue to observe this daily ritual and considers the building of a men’s mikvah to be a town necessity which can be compelled even upon those who do not observe this custom (Source 11G).

However, the bulk of this 1970 Teshuva, addressed to the community of Detroit, leans strongly against men who use the mikvah on a daily basis. In discussing the propriety of a plan to build a new mikvah on the basis of excluding men at all times except Erev Rosh Hashana and Erev Yom Kippur, a plan which was naturally opposed by some men in the town (Source 11B), Rav Moshe rules (Source 11C-F) against the men, citing the Shoel U’Meishiv (Source 11C-D) that if the women’s protests were based on the perception that the men’s presence leaves the mikvah dirty and disgusting, the women can force the men to not come to the mikvah on a daily basis. He further cites the Ein Yitzchak (Source 11D) that a community has an obligation to build a separate men’s mikvah so that the women will have a clean mikvah of their own! He does posit that perhaps the Ein Yitzchak would not allow the women to kick out the men before the men’s mikvah is built, but he rejects that understanding and instead explains that the Ein Yitzchak’s point is only that despite Ezra’s decree having been rescinded, it remains in full force for those who choose to observe it, thus necessitating a separate men’s mikvah.

In any event, Rav Moshe is clear that women may force the community to build a separate men’s mikvah – despite the additional cost of building, staffing, and heating a separate men’s mikvah (Source 11E) – and that the women may block men’s entry to the mikvah even before a separate men’s mikvah is built. However, if the women have not made it clear that they have such a compunction against men using the mikvah, a community should not assume that they are of this mind and meanwhile should not prevent men from using the mikvah (Source 11C).

These are some of the salient points raised in relation to Rav Moshe’s positions on priorities in mikvah building. ואידך, זיל גמור!

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