The Icy Mikvah

The Icy Mikvah

The Mikvah is the cornerstone of a vibrant Jewish home. It is within the natural waters of the Mikvah that a woman immerses herself monthly, from marriage till menopause, so that a husband and wife can live a full life of intimacy together. Indeed, it is hard to picture a comprehensive family life without the Mikvah playing a vital part. In our small, yet vibrant Jewish Community of Halifax, we are privileged to have a Mikvah within our Beth Israel premises. It is utilized monthly, to the extent that we all take for granted how very hard it is to have a full, functioning Halachic Mikvah in any town, let alone in the City of Halifax. The next “closest” Mikvah is a mere three hour trip away! Once its many laws are kept and tended to, one just “uses’ its waters, not giving much daily thought to all the above. One of the laws dictates that we have to create a holding tank [Otzar] of 190 gallons of natural water; not pumped by a human like tap water but rather rainwater that flows alone to the Mikvah: not brought by a human but rather “alone” like a large pipe from the roof; and not with any kli/vessel like a pail; and is totally stationary with absolutely no recognizable “leaks” that allow the water to flow outwards.

The only thing that we usually do is to fill the actual “Immersion Tank”/Bor with tap water, something that is permissible once the BASE described above exists by virtue of connecting the two tanks/Hashaka, or by adding tap water to the BASE above, allowing it to “overflow”/Zeriya to the immersion tank.To sum up the given, but vitally needed situation, a natural tank of 190 gallons of rainwater must be in an Orthodox Community so that husbands and wives can live full family lives. Such a given, that even a Young Rabbi takes all of the above for granted. Until…..

A brief trip to Israel took me away from Halifax for a mere nine days. Arriving back for the morning “Shacharit” services on a snowy Tuesday, after sleeping a mere 5 hours since my late arrival back at 1 am, following three consecutive flights, I coincidentally bumped into our caretaker, Greg. I asked if he had made any progress in repainting the outer tank of the Mikvah, fixing some chipped paint, nothing major, or so I thought!. He told me that he had not, since there seemed to be a leak from the holding tank (remember the “premise” for the whole Mikvah!). I went to investigate immediately, never suspecting that I was about to begin a long, almost 2 ½ week, escapade that I called the “Icy Mikvah”.

My eyes almost left my skull when I saw how substantially the water level had dropped from a steady leak somewhere in the tank. Indeed my eyes and head began to review all the laws pertaining to the need for the Mikvah to be totally “stationary”, but to no avail. A recognizable “Zechilla”, or leak invalidates the Mikvah! With tears in my eyes, I saw no shortcut, and deemed that the Mikvah be “Closed for Repairs”.

Greg proceeded to empty its waters, the waters of purity, the waters that allow each husband and wife a full fledged married life with one another, the waters which are the basis of the Mikvah. Each sin can be atoned for, even a leak! Teshuva/Return to the pure, untarnished soul we once were is an unexplainable aspect of creation that G-d instituted in this world, and a Mikvah can be no exception!

We immediately got on the phone with three different pool experts, and they all, thank G-d, gave the same advise: seal every hole you find with the proper sealant and thereafter paint it with a special pool paint. The sealing and painting, suffering the toxic fumes that kill the lungs and give Tylenol business from the resulting headaches, were all done by our Caretaker in a record seven days of almost full time work and worry.

Alas, a nerve wracking week resulted in a totally sealed (for now) Mikvah, ready to be refilled once again. Indeed, the Mikvah had done its “Teshuva” and returned to its state of purity!!!
But now the fun begins: where were we going to get 190 gallons of rainwater? This was not like the terrible drought of our Homeland, for which many fasts and prayers were enacted in the recent past. Rather we were in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the place where the months of January and February maintain steady cold temperatures, ranging in from –20C to the tropical +1C (if we’re lucky)! So how can we get 190 gallons of natural, not tap water, into our Mikvah? And what was I going to say to the poor husbands and wives that needed to make monthly use of it, as much as they needed to brush their teeth? I spent a sleepless night going through various “crazy”

I went up onto the roof, to the place that the rainwater flows down to the holding tank, with two blow dryers in hand, to attempt to melt the snow on the roof and allow it to flow down. Much to my dismay, yet not surprised in the least, with the 6C weather, and with heavy snow falling on my hands, the blow dryers hardly “tickled” the snow on the roof…a far cry from 190 gallons!

It was snowing outside, an indication for local residents that this is “tropical weather”. I thought that maybe it would snow directly into the piping from the roof, so that by the next morning we would have an overflowing Mikvah! But after an evening lecture, one that ended after a three hours of consecutive snowfall, nothing was coming in to the Mikvah!

I asked the “Elders” who informed me that many years earlier, before the local Chabad Rabbi made the special piping system on our roof, they used to go to one of the many local lakes with chain-saws, and carve out large blocks of ice, bringing them to the Mikvah in a non-vessel. This option, though great according to Halacha, was as far from reality as getting a horse and buggy from a car dealer! After many phone calls, we found out that not one company did this anymore.

I went home at 11:00 pm that fateful Tuesday night, after looking at the bone dry holding tank (a requirement to begin to fill it up with rainwater), and gazing at the pipe from the roof which, much to my utter dismay, was as dry as the holding tank! Following many discussions with the local Chabad Rabbi, we ended our conversation at 11:30 pm with no real way to fill the Mikvah, but the hopeless hope that the snow, already falling outside for the past three hours, would find its way into the Mikvah.

“But even if a sharp sword is at your neck” teaches our Talmudic Sages in Tractate Berachot 10a, “don’t deter yourself from asking for Heavenly mercy.” That night, sleep and I met only occasionally. So the book of Psalms, and Chapter 201 of the Yore Deya section of the Code of Jewish Law that contained the long and only chapter dealing with a Mikvah, were at my side during the wee hours of that snowy night. Indeed, as I stood before G-d in petition, I thought of the men and women of the Community that would not be able to live full comprehensive married lives together until the Mikvah was filled. The weather forecast, that here in Halifax, can change in just 5 minutes, seemed to be indicating that a good, hard rain was a far cry away.

I finally reconciled my predicament by saying that I’d done all that I could, and
placed a call to the renowned “Gadol”/Halachik Genius, Rabbi Hershel Shachter of Yeshiva University and the O.U, hoping that he, together with other minds in N.Y., would come up with the solution for our small Community.  That morning, during the silent “Amidah” part of the morning service, (the part that is said silently, and usually allows the common Jew to reflect on his deficit in the bank, the mortgage, the kids, and every other inner thought, everything but the words he should be concentrating on), an overlooked passage in the Code of Jewish law came to me. Indeed, the passage was as clear as the water we needed in the Mikvah; [Yore Deya 201/30]; “Pumped water invalidates a Mikvah only if it is water. But snow, hail,ice, salt and clay that is thick, even if it’s a bit soft so that one can transfer it from cup to cup, is not considered“Sheuvin”/pumped….and even if one makes the whole Mikvah from the above, the Mikvah is Kosher”!

How could I forget? After all to pass the six Smicha/ordination examinations of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, one is tested on this chapter thoroughly and must know it virtually by heart. Why didn’t I see this before? Did G-d change the text overnight? The answer, of course, was not rooted in the preparations for a test but rather in practical Rabbinics. Why would I ever remember such a law concerning filling a Mikvah with ice or snow, while living in Israel? To be precise, in Israel, what ice and snow? I was still unsure; after all, there is a minority opinion of the Raavad that states that you can only fill a Mikvah that is missing water with ice, but not have the whole Mikvah filled out of ice, and the minority opinion of the “Baal Hamaor” that states that ice is like water, and can not be brought in by a human.

To my rescue came one of the leading Sages of our generation, Rav Herschel Shacter, who phoned me back and with me not even mentioning the above, said quite matter of factly “Just use ice. You have no choice!” He continued to check in during the next few days and even faxed me a Responsa of the famous Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grozinsky, o.b.m., who says exactly what to do and how to be careful when filling a Mikvah in such a fashion.

Though the solution was there, implementing it took quite a lot of creativity:
1) First, we had to create a system that when the ice/snow is brought in, we can allow it to flow in “on its own”.

Our Building Chairman, Michael Argand, got his crew to build a small “wall” of wood, so that we could fill the floor of the Mikvah room with snow and allow it to “flow” 30 cm into the Mikvah holding tank.

2) Next, with the assistance of a few community people and the workers that built the wall, we carried in snow. To avoid the prohibition of bringing the snow in a vessel that can be impure and to avoid a scenario that the snow melted before we got to the room of the Mikvah, (and therefore we “pumped water”/ brought water by a human), we used wooden planks with holes in them for the occasional drops of water to drain before we got there and brought it in, piece by piece.

We filled the room with snow. But since snow is mostly air, not that much water was produced. However, the large quantity of snow did fill almost half of the holding tank.

3) With the permission from Rav Shacter, we called, The Fisherman’s Market, who brought in, using special plastic bags with holes (and not in their normal containers which might be “impure”), a total of 2000 pounds of ice. We in turn opened them up on the floor of the Mikvah room, to allow the ice to “flow” as well.

The next few days were nerve racking. Ice does not melt easily if it’s together with its “friends”! It stays as ice for days; so even after letting it melt, with three heaters and a closed door, in a very small room, we only had about one third of the tank filled! How could we speed up the process? Remember, you can’t pour boiling water on it, since that is “pumped water”. The only thing that came to mind was to BLOWTORCH THE ICE! So for over 8 hours I did just that, with the assistance of Mr Edelstein. He was an out-of- town guest who volunteered to help during the Motzei Shabbat/Saturday night he was here, by buying another blowtorch and working on it for over 2 hours!

Even then the torch kept going out, since when the ice melted the water it put out the flame. Also, even after you melted some ice you still needed to wait for it to “flow”! Despite cheerleading, prayers and annoyance, we still needed to allow nature to do its work! Patience is not a firm characteristic of mine, but that’s what was needed.

After many hours of two fisted blowtorching, coughing from the fumes in my lungs, and just gazing as the tank slowly filled up (with a Shabbat coming in the middle when none of this could be done), victory was at hand; the 190 were in! That Sunday night, at 8:45 pm, we filled the outer immersion tank for a woman that needed it. We filled the immersion tank/Bor with nice hot top water, allowed it to mix with the holding tank, and our long 2 ½ weeks came to an end.

That’s how the Icy Mikvah of Halifax came to be. We hope that it will stay for a while, with all the leaks sealed and all the water intact and stationary. With G-d’s help, a new and improved Mikvah will be built in our Community very soon, with two holding tanks, one acting as a reserve and also to fulfill various Halachik opinions.

Hopefully this will save the Community money on ice and on the construction of artificial walls. Hopefully, this will save a Mikvah from becoming dysfunctional, save a young Rabbi’s lungs, and, finally, keep the snow and ice for play and beverages only! I’ve received many responses to this write up. My favourite…I should have put up a sign saying “THE MIKVAH IS ON ICE FOR A WHILE”.

Note: Please be aware that the filling of a mikvah involves intricate and specific halachic requirements. It is imperative that a rabbi experienced in these matters is consulted, even more so when attempting to fill with ice or snow.

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