Water as a symbol of Jewish birth – The Mikvah in Erfurt

— Sophie Felgentreu, Nicolaus Zerlaut-Anders

This blog post was researched and written by students participating in the 2023 lecture series “Global Exchanges – Trade, Knowledge, and Religion“. The lecture series was organised by Elisa Iori and Mateusz Fafinski of the UrbRel group.

What is a Mikvah ?

The mikvah is a ritual bath that serves religious purposes. It is set up according to precisely defined regulations. The use of this bath differs from everyday physical cleansing: the decisive factor is complete immersion. The immersion in the bath serves moral and religious sanctification, which is firmly embedded in Jewish religious law.  It is mainly women who use it, which is why it is often called the “women’s bath”. It was used for ritual purification after touching the dead, blood or other, in a religious sense, unclean things. Women immerse themselves in the bath after menstruation and childbirth before sharing the bed with their husbands. Physical cleansing takes place beforehand. Faithful Jews and Jewish women also clean (“kasher”) dishes before using them for the first time. Even today, the mikvah is visited – not only by Orthodox Jews – before the wedding. Immersion in the mikvah before conversion to Judaism is also an obligation. In Orthodox communities, there are numerous other occasions when the use of the mikvah is mandatory, especially for women.

Mikvahs, which serve for the ritual cleansing of people and objects, are still today, together with the synagogue and the cemetery, among the indispensable components of an Orthodox Jewish community. Nevertheless, the ritual baths have not been the focus of general and scholarly interest until now.

Historical Mikvah in Cologne today (HOWI – Horsch, Willy – Eigenes Werk, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12517453)

What do we know about the Mikvah in Erfurt ?

It was discovered in 2007 during excavation work. The immersion basin of the medieval mikvah can be viewed at any time through a window in the ceiling of the protective enclosure.

Excavations in 2007 (Michael Sander – Selbst fotografiert, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8898732)

A mikvah is fed with “living”, i.e. running, water. This was sufficiently available here due to the proximity to the Gera. The water supply in the basin still works today. However, the water level is much lower than in the Middle Ages, probably due to the construction of the flood ditch at the end of the 19th century and the resulting drop in the water level in the city centre.

Written sources on the mikvah date back to the middle of the 13th century. They show that the Jewish community had to pay taxes for the bath and the land, first to the bishop, later to the city of Erfurt. From the medieval tax lists we learn that the area around the mikvah was densely populated. As everywhere in the Jewish quarter, Jews and Christians demonstrably lived next door to each other. The pogrom of 1349 left clear traces on the building. Likewise, numerous other buildings in the Jewish Quarter, the mikveh had to endure immense damages. In the north wall, you can see an unmistakable groove, which is an indication for repair and reconstruction. In 1354, the Jewish community was refounded and reused the bath.

Protective strucutre and entrance to the Mikvah in Erfurt today (Von Giorno2 – Eigenes Werk, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31073921)

What to expect when visiting the Mikvah in Erfurt ?

Under the light of an oil lamp, one must undress completely, descend the steps to the water basin and immerse oneself three times in the cold water. A deeply intimate act to achieve ritual purity. This atmosphere represents the intellectual core of the design for the protective building of the mikvah. Removed from the actual space of the mikvah, the ritual acts are to be interpreted in form and material.

A bronze-coloured shell protects and preserves the archaeological finds and creates the atmosphere of the intimate, introverted space of the mikvah inside. This is supported and strengthened by a sparing use of daylight in the interior. The result is a room that breaks away from the strict geometry of the existing building remains. The recognisably hand-applied bronze surfaces envelop the stone evidence of the Middle Ages and create a dignified overall impression. Weak daylight illuminates the structural remains of the mikvah, individual light accents point out important details. Only the muffled sounds of the busy open space at Kreuzsand penetrate the silence of the room.

In order to arouse the interest of the passer-by and to point the way for the seeker, the bronze interior turns outwards in two places. A bronze stele rises from the roof of the new building into the open space. In addition to its function of pointing the way in the open space, it allows a partial view into the mikvah without taking away the intimacy of the interior. At the same time, access to the mikvah is marked by the formation of a bronze façade in the new exposed concrete wall, which quotes the former bank wall along the Gera.

The protective building is half-buried at the edge of the newly designed open space. The riverside promenade, an open staircase, the paved and green areas generate a new place with a high quality of stay in view of the Krämerbrücke. Visitors have barrier-free access to all levels and can experience the references to the medieval city and the water of the Gera undisturbed. This fulfils the requirement for a harmonious coexistence of Krämerbrücke, green space and the appropriate presentation of the mikvah. The Thuringian state capital Erfurt has decided to strive for the title of “Unesco World Heritage Site” for its Jewish heritage of the Middle Ages. The shelter received recognition at the 2012 Thuringian State Prize for Architecture and Urban Development.

The Mikvah in Erfurt in November 2021. (Image: Kasa Fue – Eigenes Werk, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=112683432)

What importance does the Mikvah held in the Jewish community ?

Diving into a pool, rather than taking advantage of the physical cleansing properties of water, clearly symbolizes a transformation of the soul, which is a very deep and compelling spiritual statement. No other symbolic action embraces a person as completely as immersion, which should touch and cover every wound, every hair, and every birthmark. Few other religious practice is as rich in meaning as this one which touches all aspects of life and proclaims a total commitment to new ideas and new ways of living as it swallows up the old and gives birth to the new.

Mikvah water is meant to purify past actions through rituals. Newborn converts are considered under Jewish law. By purifying the spiritually transformed, the mikveh water prepares him to face God, life, and people with a new mind and new eyes: it erases the past, leaving only the future. Of course, this does not mean that the past had its good side. But in a strictly religious sense, this past is only a prelude to the future life of the Jewish people.

Mikvah has also another meaning. It marks the beginning of the ascent to high religious status. This function of the mikvah goes beyond the main purpose of purification. Anthropologists refer to this higher threshold of social status as “marginal”. The person at this moment of transformation is a “limited” or “threshold” person. The borderline state is common to almost all individuals and societies, ancient and modern, and represents a movement to change status or transform lives. For example, the transition from adolescence to adulthood requires a tunnel of time, a rite of passage, and a liminal state of recognition through symbolic actions of sudden changes in identity, behaviour, and attitudes.

In a sense, this serves as the spiritual drama of death and rebirth that mutant souls bring to life on screen. He dove into the water over his head and entered an environment where he could not breathe and only survived for a moment. It is the death of everything that came before. When you step out of the old water into the fresh air, you begin to breathe and live again, like a child struggling to be born.  If we delve deeper into this graphic metaphor, we can feel that the mikvah is a spiritual womb. The human fetus is surrounded by water. He is not alive yet. The amniotic fluid breaks in less than a second and the baby enters a new world.

The Mikvah in aspects of ‘global exchange’

Water is essential for life. We build cities around them, clean, play and drink. It is a scientific fact that we cannot live without water. Although we are generally aware of the importance of water in human life, each culture  has its own way of symbolizing this value. For many religions and beliefs, water plays an important role in rituals and practices. In some cultures, Animism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam refer to water. Although water manifests in unique ways in different cultures, all people must find a responsible way to consume healthy water. As can be seen in the example of the Mikvah in Erfurt, water has always been a religious ritual. At the same time, water is also a unifying element in many religions, so it can also be seen as a possible crossroads.

Remember that the traders and travellers who opened the seas were often educated in foreign lands and cultures. Crossing naturally formed ocean boundaries often allows humans to fall more freely and open up to unfamiliar cultures, such as bathing rituals. You must leave the old life and accept the new. It was also noted that cities within ports could not only be considered economically prosperous, but culturally more diverse and open, as merchants would remain in their cities.


Cite this blog post
urbrel (2024, January 2). Water as a symbol of Jewish birth – The Mikvah in Erfurt. Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations. Retrieved May 29, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/vesf

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1 Response

  1. February 1, 2024

    […] Water as a symbol of Jewish birth – The Mikvah in Erfurt, sur le Carnet Religion and Urbanity ; […]

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