This series on Mikvah Building is in honor of the dedicated KGH community members who have taken it upon themselves to refurbish the current KGH mikvah. Everyone is encouraged to participate in this important mitzvah by donating to this project. Further details will be forthcoming.
Question: Which takes precedence: building a mikvah or building a shul?
Short Answer: According to many poskim, building a mikvah takes precedence to building a shul.
I. Importance of Mikvah
The Chofetz Chaim (Taharas Yisrael, end of perek 6) writes that it is forbidden for a married couple to live (“bik’vius” – for a set time) in a city without a mikvah, as it will invariably lead to the couple violating an isur kareis. The Chofetz Chaim adds that it is even forbidden to live in such a city if the couple feels that it is the only place where they can earn a living, as it is not permissible or advisable to trade in olam ha’ba for olam ha’zeh.
While the Chofetz Chaim does not cite a source for this prohibition, the sefer Avnei Derech (15:163) suggests that the source is from the Rambam (Hilchos Dei’os 4:23). The Gemara (Sanhedrin 17b) rules that a talmid chacham is prohibited from living in a town that does not have ten enumerated items, including a butcher. The Rambam (ibid), however, apparently had a different version of the Gemara and replaces butcher with spring water (i.e., to serve as a mikvah). This Gemara is thus the source that a city must have a mikvah.
II. Shul vs. Mikvah
What about where a new community only has funds for either a shul or a mikvah? Which takes precedence?
The Igros Moshe (Choshen Mishpat 1:42) discusses this very issue and rules that a mikvah takes precedence, even if the absence of a mikvah will not lead to kareis violations. Rav Moshe explains that a mikvah takes precedence because any hindrance of marital relations – even for a short time – as well as any obstacle to marital harmony, must be avoided, even if that means selling a sefer Torah or refraining to build a shul. In fact, the Gemara (Megillah 27b) rules that one may sell a sefer Torah in order to get married and cites a proof from a pasuk discussing the mitzvah of la’sheves y’tzarah. The Beis Shmuel (Even HaEzer 1:2) proves from the Gemara’s usage of this pasuk that even a man who has already fulfilled the mitzvah of P’ru u’R’vu may sell a sefer Torah to get remarried. Rav Moshe explains that if you can sell a sefer Torah for one person’s mitzvah, certainly you can sell a sefer Torah or refrain from building a shul for a community’s mitzvah of mikvah.
Rav Moshe concludes by adding a few points: (i) A mikvah takes precedence even if the city already has other mikvaos, as a more convenient (for Shabbos or Yom Tov) mikvah will prevent at least some people from marital discord; (ii) A city may even sell a previously-existing shul to pay for a mikvah if there is no other option; and (iii) The erasing of Hashem’s name by a sotah teaches us the importance of doing radical things for shalom bayis, so certainly a mikvah – a bedrock of shalom bayis – takes precedence over building a shul.
III. The Chasam Sofer’s Opinion
The Chasam Sofer (Yoreh Dei’ah 2:244) likewise addresses the issue whether one may sell a shul’s s’farim and use the funds to build a mikvah. A person bequeathed s’farim to a shul in his will. The s’farim, however, were never used in the shul and instead were left in storage. The Chasam Sofer was asked whether the s’farim can now be sold and the funds used to build a mikvah? After a discussion about the prohibition of downgrading d’varim she’bi’k’dushah (i.e., items infused with holiness), the Chasam Sofer concludes that it is absolutely forbidden to sell the s’farim and use the funds for a mikvah. There is no greater tz’dakah than supporting Torah learning by donating s’farim and thus it is forbidden to downgrade their k’dushah, especially after the donor’s name has already been attached to these s’farim. While a mikvah is certainly a community mitzvah, it is a “mitzvah zuta” (a small mitzvah) in comparison to limud haTorah.
At first glance, this Chasam Sofer appears to disagree with the above ruling of Rav Moshe, which allowed the sale of a shul for a mikvah. However, the sefer Sha’arei Mikvaos (Rabbi Yissachar Chazan, p. 266) cites the sefer Taharas HaMayim, who distinguishes the ruling of the Chasam Sofer as limited to a case where they otherwise could raise funds for the mikvah from different sources. However, the Chasam Sofer would agree that a mikvah takes precedence to s’farim where the alternative is for there to be a kareis violation.
IV. Practically Speaking
Many poskim agree with the ruling of the Igros Moshe, that a mikvah takes precedence to a shul. Indeed, the Chofetz Chaim (Al HaTorah, p. 239) expressly writes that a mikvah takes precedence to a shul. Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l is cited (HaMaor, 29:6, 5737, p. 17) as encouraging the building of a new mikvah if people need to walk more than a mile to the current mikvah.
Moreover, the Beis Avi (Orach Chayim 3:33) cites the Meishiv Davar who ruled that one may sell a village shul and use the funds to build a mikvah. The Beis Avi also cites Rav Yonasan Steif who ruled that it is much more preferable for a city to build a mikvah than to direct their efforts to combating chilul Shabbos in the neighborhood.
Similarly, the Minchas Yitzchak (5:83) wrote to the Taharas Y”T in 1964 to bemoan the fact that the Saratoga Springs mikvah was recently shuttered. The Minchas Yitzchak added that a community must spend as much as they can to fund the upkeep of the mikvah, as building a mikvah takes precedence over building a shul.
V. Mikvah or Hospital?
Chashukei Chemed (Yoma 86a) asks whether building a community mikvah takes precedence to building a community hospital? He cites Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv zt”l, who ruled that a mikvah takes precedence. Having marital relations in a state of tum’ah (i.e., where there is no community mikvah) causes sickness to children and to their parents. A mikvah will thus cause the fulfillment of the verse “va’hasirosi machalah mi’kirbecha” – Hashem will remove sickness, thereby alleviating the need for a hospital. Moreover, sick people can always be sent to a neighboring town’s hospital, while a mikvah must be within walking distance (for Shabbos and Yom Tov).
Rav Zilberstein himself adds that there will always be donors for a hospital. Thus, if a community has a donor willing to fund a mikvah or a hospital, the community should certainly choose the mikvah, as inevitably someone else will donate a hospital. He concludes that a mikvah likewise fulfills the dictum of “lo sa’amod al dam rei’echa” according to the Minchas Chinuch, as it prevents people from sinning.
Next Week’s Topic: Must elderly people (who do not regularly use a mikvah) donate to the building of a community mikvah?