Mikva'ot - Ritual Baths (IV)
"No man was permitted to enter the Azara to perform Avoda even if he was pure unless he first immersed himself" (Yoma 3:3). The Yerushalmi adds that the prohibition applied even if he did not intend to perform an Avoda (Y. Yoma 3:3). Rambam rules, "This is the general rule in the Mikdash, 'No one may enter the Azara for Avoda even if he is ritually pure - unless he first immerses (Hil. Bi'at HaMikdash 5:4). However Rashi and the Ba'alei Tosafot emphasize the Yerushalmi's ruling. Upon entering the Ezrat Nashim, the Olei Regel proceeded across the courtyard and at the NE corner, the men turned right and entered Lishkat HaMetzora'im (the"Chamber of Lepers") to immerse for the a second time. Unlike the other three Lishka'ot located in the four corners of the Ezrat Nashim, the Mishna in Midot 2:5 does not specify the function of this chamber. However, the Gemara in Yoma 30b asks, "Why was it called Lishkat HaMetzora'im? Because Metzora'im - lepers - immerse themselves there. R. Yehuda says, 'They said this not only about Metzora'im but about all men who enter the Azara'". (Actually Lishkat HaMetzora'im is a misnomer. Before the 'leper' was admitted to Lishkat HaMetzora'im, the symptoms of Tzara'at - 'leprosy' - had long vanished and a Kohein had already orally verified this after a visual inspection (Vayikra 14, Nega'im 14). The chamber was called Lishkat HaMetzora'im because the "ex-Metzora" waited by its entrance with his three Korbanot, until a Kohein came and escorted him up to the Nicanor Gate for his final atonement rite.) But could thousands of Olei Regel immerse in a chamber which only measured 40 by 40 Amot (Midot 2:5)? No doubt there were a number of Mikva'ot in that limited space and these Mikva'ot (and their approaches) were designed to accommodate crowds. Interestingly enough, there are several sources that describe "double path" Mikva'ot.
The most well-known is a fascinating Mishna in Shekalim 8:2. "All utensils found in Jerusalem on the path leading down to the place of immersion must be deemed impure; but (if they are found) on the path leading back, they may be deemed pure. The path by which they are taken down is not the same as that by which they are brought back…". The Letter of Aristeas (106)also describes such a Mikva. "…some of the men went on the upper path and some on the lower. They are careful to keep a distance, one from the other, so those who are in a state of purity will not touch anything that is forbidden (and become impure again). Another source, a Oxyrrhinchus papyrus, records, "…the Kohein asked, 'Who gave you permission to be on Mikdash grounds (the Ezrat Nashim) since you are not pure?'" He replied, "I am indeed pure. I immersed in the David Mikva. I descended one ladder (stairway?) and ascended another (after I immersed)…" Though a number of "double path" Mikva'ot have been unearthed in the vicinity of Har HaBayit, the best preserved (and easily accessible) is adjacent to the Herodian street opposite the foot of Robinson's Arch behind the "four shops". This Mikva is carved into the rock and lined with waterproof plaster. A low partition divides the stairs, separating those entering the Mikva for purification from those exiting after immersion. This was to avoid any contact between the impure descending on one side before immersion and the pure ascending on the other after immersion. Unquestionably, the few Mikva'ot that could be jammed into Lishkat HaMetzora'im were Mikva'ot of this kind. Nevertheless, even if there were numbers of "efficiency" Mikva'ot in Lishkat HaMetzora'im, there must have been severe bottle- necks. Under the watchful eyes of Levites assigned to keep order, lines of barefoot Olei Regel, numbering in the thousands, crowded down the stairs to immerse in the Mikva'ot. Swiftly disrobing, they threw their white pilgrim robes on the parapet before they entered the water. The waters of the Mikva had to reach every part of their bodies without any interpositions of foreign substances (clothes, jewelry etc.). Pausing and catching their breath, the Olei Regel stood on the floor of the Mikva, bent down and plunged beneath the surface. Emerging from the water, they dried themselves as best as they could, and swiftly throwing their robes back on, they raced up the "exit stairs".
Everyone moved at a quick pace. Mobbing the NE corner of the Ezrat Nashim, multitudes of other Olei Regel were (patiently?) waiting their turn. The Mishna also reads, "…in the four corners of the court (Ezrat Nashim), there were courts enclosed (one was Lishkat HaMetzora'im)" (Yechezkel 46:22), and enclosed means that they were not roofed" (Midot 5:2). In winter, the open-aired Mikva'ot could be very chilly!
Who looked after the sacrificial animals while the Olei Regel were immersing? Did Levites fulfill this function? How did they prevent the animals (and birds) from getting mixed up? On Erev Pesach, what did the Olei Regel do with the knives that they brought with them to slaughter their Korbanot Pesach? Did they do something similar to what the Olei Regel did on a Pesach that came out on Erev Shabbat? "He whose (Korban) Pesach was a lamb stuck it (the knife) in its wool; he whose (Korban) Pesach was a goat, stuck it between its horns (Pesachim 66a). How very congested the Ezrat Nashim must have been during the Shalosh Regalim and especially on Erev Pesach! On Sukkot, where did the Olei Regel leave their Etrogim and Lulavim when they immersed? Did they take their Arba Minim with them as they descended the stairs, perhaps leaving them in especially designated cubbyholes on the parapet, and taking them in hand again after immersion, as they exited? We have no way of solving these logistical problems; our sources are silent.
With a strong current, the water flowed directly from the aqueducts which supplied water to the entire Mikdash to the Lishkat HaMetzora'im immersion pools. Speedily, the water coursed through pipes having no impediments, receptacles, or traps. As fast as the water streamed in, it drained out and there was a constant supply of swiftly moving fresh water. Halachically defined as Ma'ayanot, "fountains", these "efficiency purity pools", were even more efficacious for purification than were ordinary 40 Se'ah Mikva'ot (Mikva'ot 1:1,7,8).
Catriel is in the process of writing a book: The Temple of Jerusalem, A Pilgrims Prospective; A Guided Tour through the Temple and the Divine Service