hidden europe 32

The mystery of the mikveh

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: The mediaeval mikveh in Speyer is one of the oldest preserved mikveh’ot in Europe. The ritual bath was first mentioned in sources dating back to 1128 (photo by Chris 73, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0).


The mikveh (or ritual bathing pool) is a key part of Jewish culture, an intimate part of Orthodox Jewish life that is hidden from the public gaze. We take a look at mediaeval and modern mikveh'ot across Europe.

It is the time of year when, across much of central Europe, carp begins to feature on menus. The fish is the dish of first choice for the celebratory Christmas meal that families share on the vigil of Christmas. And just as some British people eat turkey twice or thrice during Advent — tickling the taste buds for the festivities to come, as it were — so, in many parts of central Europe, carp is a recurrent December delicacy.

We first mentioned the Destille Restaurant in Görlitz in eastern Germany five years ago in hidden europe. It is as good a spot for Christmas carp as you’ll find anywhere in central Europe. The fresh carp served at the Destille enjoy the last days of their lives swimming in a man-made pool in the cellars under the restaurant. But this is not any pool, but one that has a touch of Görlitz history. For the Destille is in a part of Görlitz that was once home to the city’s Jewish community, and the pool under the restaurant is a former mikveh.

The Görlitz mikveh was purposefully constructed in the basement of what was until the fifteenth century a Jewish prayer house. It was (and still is) fed by a natural spring, so the water was constantly refreshed, and thus satisfied the strict rabbinical prescripts for purification.

Nowadays the Görlitz mikveh is barely large enough for the Christmas carp. It would surely have been larger when it was used as a mikveh up until about four hundred years ago.

On our journeys around Europe, we have stumbled upon many examples of former mikveh’ot that attest to a hitherto rich Jewish religious and community life in various cities. The mikveh played a key role in Jewish life — a place for ritual cleansing by total immersion. Some of the Jewish ritual bathhouses of central Europe were converted into general-purpose bathhouses after the Holocaust.

The old mikveh in Zamosc (eastern Poland) is in a building that now houses a night club. Yet some old mikveh’ot are in areas that still have some association with Jewish life and culture. In 2006, archaeological excavations under the Ashkenazi Synagogue complex in Amsterdam, now part of the city’s Jewish Historical Museum, revealed a former eighteenth-century mikveh, part of a treasure trove of Jewish artefacts from the site — unearthed during a series of excavations — that included Sabbath lamps, Dutch faience Passover plates embellished with Hebrew inscriptions, kosher meat seals and clay pipes that bore the names of their Jewish owners.