Ancient ritual bath makes journey to new kibbutz home

Kibbutz campaign triumphs in attempt to house ancient mikveh

Abd Elghani Ibrahim of the Israel Antiquities Authority, at the site of the excavated mikveh near Kibbutz Hannaton.  (photo credit: YANIV BERMAN/IAA)
Abd Elghani Ibrahim of the Israel Antiquities Authority, at the site of the excavated mikveh near Kibbutz Hannaton.
(photo credit: YANIV BERMAN/IAA)
A 2000-year-old ritual bath (mikveh) that provides the first significant evidence that there were Jewish farmsteads in the Galilee during the Second Temple Period was transferred on Tuesday to Kibbutz Hannaton in the Galilee.
The ancient facility was revealed during a salvage excavation by the Antiquities Authority in preparation for construction work of a new highway intersection near the kibbutz and was slated for destruction.
Kibbutz residents launched a crowd-funding campaign for the project earlier this year, with the goal of saving the ancient mikveh and placing it next to the modern, functioning mikveh on the religiously pluralistic kibbutz.
With support from the IAA, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, Netivei Israel, the Jezreel Valley Regional Council and the kibbutz residents, the campaign received the funding needed to move the ancient mikveh.
Anat Harrel, a tour guide and member of the mikveh committee at Kibbutz Hannaton, was ecstatic that the crowdfunding campaign had worked and that the mikveh had found a new home on the kibbutz.
“We are elated,” she said. “It’s just 20 meters from our current mikveh. Our motto is, ‘Renewing the old and sanctifying the new.’ We feel we’ve really done it, we’ve taken something very old and are renewing it... We plan to refurbish it and make it usable.”
She said the IAA and specialists were going to help to bring the ancient mikveh back to life. “It’s doable,” she said. “We have to shoot for the stars.”
The mikveh was discovered at an IAA archaeological dig before the construction of a major interchange at the Hamovil junction in the Lower Galilee. Workers discovered the remains of a Jewish agricultural farmstead from the Second Temple period, including a well-constructed mikveh.
The excavations were conducted with the help of workers from the village of Kfar Manda, students of pre-military preparatory programs and volunteers from the vicinity, including residents of the kibbutz.
According to Abd Elghani Ibrahim and Dr. Walid Atrash, directors of the excavation on behalf of the IAA, “The existence of a mikveh, a purification facility, unequivocally indicates that the residents of the ancient farm were Jewish, who led a religious and traditional way of life, and maintained purity as a Torah commandment.
Ritual baths have been used in daily life by Jews since the Second Temple period and until today.”
“The discovery of the mikveh in the farmstead changes what we knew about the lifestyle of the Jews in the Second Temple period,” Ibrahim and Atrash said. “Until now we hadn’t discovered Jewish farms in the Galilee.
It was considered that the Jews in the Roman period didn’t live in farms outside the villages or towns. The discovery of the farmstead at some distance from the village of the Shikhin and the large Jewish town of Sepphoris showed that Jews also settled in farmsteads, that perhaps functioned as the rural hinterland of Sepphoris.”
About 1,700 years have passed since the farm was destroyed in an earthquake, and about 1,400 years since the site was completely abandoned.
The work recently began on the highway interchange, where deep foundation trenches were constructed in the bedrock to anchor one of the supporting bridge columns.
As the archeologists excavated next to the construction work, the mikveh was uncovered. Since it was not possible to preserve the mikveh on the site, archaeologists proposed the idea of detaching the installation from the rock and transplanting it to a protected site for display, for the benefit of the public.
Over the past week, preparatory work for the transfer was carried out. The mikveh, which weighs approximately 57 tons, was sawed off on all sides, detached from bedrock and surrounded by a steel cage to protect it and allow it to be hoisted. On Tuesday, as residents cheered, it was hoisted in the air and carefully deposited in its new place.
Archaeologists were able to date the mikveh to the Second Temple period thanks to the gray plaster coating the pool and the width of the staircase leading into it. As it was very common in the region, it is believed that the area back then was cultivated with either olive trees or vineyards producing the high quality oil or wine used in the Temple.
For this reason, the ritual bath could have been used by the farmers, who needed to constantly immerse themselves to avoid making the produce impure.
Similar cases are discussed in the Mishna, the foundational text of rabbinic Judaism, which would be compiled in the nearby city of Tzipori some 200 years later.
“From the hill, we can see Tzipori as well as Nazareth, which is also about 20 minutes away,” said Hannaton’s Harrel. “I often guide Christian tourists and this mikveh dates back to the time of Jesus. Would we be able to tell them that maybe he visited this field and talked to the workers who used this mikveh?”
Other ritual baths from the Second Temple period have been found throughout Israel in recent years. In 2015, during archaeological excavations in an underground cave on the site of a planned nursery school in Jerusalem, researchers found a ritual bath and anteroom, adorned with inscriptions and wall paintings.
Earlier that year, a family in the Ein Kerem neighborhood of Jerusalem discovered an ancient ritual bath while renovating their home.
Rossella Tercatin contributed to this report.