Reflections on the History of the Oxford Mikvah in the 19th century

Wednesday, 2 September, 2015 - 8:56 pm

oxford-18-b.jpgIn celebration of ten years since planning approval was granted for the building of the first Mikvah (Jewish ritual pool) in Oxford - The Slager Family Mikvah - in over 800 years.


The modern established Oxford Jewish community dates back to 1842. In 1845, an Anglo-Jewish provincial survey by Chief Rabbi Nathan Adler (1803-1890) documents a community in Oxford that includes a paid shochet (ritual slaughterer), 4 families and 20 individuals. The synagogue was in a private room in a house. As Jewish tradition stipulates that an important feature of a Jewish community is the building of a Mikvah – taking precedence even over the building of a synagogue[1] - a further point in the survey requests the status of a Mikvah in Oxford. It is most interesting that in the survey, the question regarding a Mikvah elicited a response from the community ‘not yet’. Professor David Lewis (1928-1994) notes in Jews of Oxford that other similar size provincial Jewish communities responded to the Mikvah question with a simple ‘no’. He gives credit to the founders of the modern Oxford Jewish community for having the vision, desire and hope that one day a Mikvah in Oxford would in fact be built.


This wishful comment might have been due to the extension of the railway to Oxford in 1844, and what appears to be the subsequent expansion of the Jewish community, consisting of mainly merchants. Indeed, in 1848 the first synagogue was opened in Paradise Square off Castle Street. This was followed by a place on George St from 1878 and in 1884 a community of fifty congregants acquired a new location for a synagogue, which was originally built as a lecture room, in Worcester Place. The present day synagogue site was purchased in 1892. However, there was no evidence of the need for a Mikvah during this period, as the community was small and Jewish undergraduate students, admitted to Oxford only in 1856, dominated the academic contribution to the community. Although the ban on Jewish academics was lifted in 1871, it took many years for Jewish fellows to arrive and many would choose to keep their identity to themselves.


Interestingly, the comment 'not yet' in response to Chief Rabbi Nathan Adler’s survey, may point to there being a functional use of a Mikvah in 19th century Oxford albeit ‘not yet’ a specially built Mikvah. This is supported by a report in 1844 brought to light by Oxford Jewish historian Harold Pollins[2]The first Jewish wedding in Oxford in the modern period[3] took place on Wednesday, 28 August 1844 between a young couple from two Oxford Jewish families, originally from Poland: Nathan Jacobs (1824-1890), son of Rabbi Aaron Jacobs, and Hannah Wolf (1826-1899[4]), daughter of Mr Isaiah Wolf. The wedding took place soon after a tragic fire in St Ebbe's in which the bridegroom's father, Rabbi Aaron Jacobs, and sister were killed. As the fire attracted much attention the subsequent wedding was reported in numerous local and national newspapers, including The Times, the Oxford Journal, the Oxford Chronicle, the Jewish Chronicle and the Oxford University & City Herald. In the Oxford University & City Herald however there is a fascinating piece of information. It reports that 'on the Tuesday evening (the night before the wedding) the bride went into the bath, accompanied by her female friends, who made a great noise - that being part of the ceremonial.' 


The problem with this report is that it contradicts the answer in the survey suggesting that there was ‘not yet’ a Mikvah in 1845 in Oxford, so how could the bride have gone to a Mikvah in Oxford in 1844? On the other hand, one can be almost certain Hannah would have found a way to have immersed herself in a Mikvah the night before her wedding, as she was from a traditional family marrying the son of a rabbi and the appointment of Nathan himself as Minister of Oxford’s Jews after the passing of his father was imminent[5]. In addition, a Rev Dr. Levy of London who came from London to conduct the wedding would have likely been reluctant to oversee a Jewish wedding without the bride having observed this important Jewish tradition.


The answer to this dilemma may be that although there was no purpose built Mikvah belonging to the Jewish community in Oxford in the 1840s, there was an arrangement in place that served the purpose of a Mikvah, as found in other cities in England at the time. A number of cities in England did not have a purpose built Mikvah in the 19th century but had an arrangement with the local public bathhouse or swimming pool to serve as a Mikvah. This would have almost definitely been the case in Oxford in the 19th century, supported by the fact that between 1827 and 1881 there was an impressive bathhouse on Bath Street in St Clements, Oxford – hence the street’s name[6].


According to Nathaniel Whittock in his book ‘A Topographical and Historical Description of the University and City of Oxford’ (p. 86), published in 1829, the bathhouse included ‘numerous dressing rooms; plunging, shower and warm baths; an elegant saloon furnished with daily newspapers, magazines and periodicals. The two plunging baths opened into the swimming school, a grand elliptical basin, of various depths, eighty-three feet long, forty-four wide, formed of Bath stone, containing 129,000 gallons of water, which is continuously supplied from a fountain in the centre’. In addition, there were steps that led down to the river for the use of customers arriving by boat. It is likely that the bathhouse in St Clements would have been used as an alternative to the Mikvah the night before the wedding of Hannah and Nathan Jacobs. As an upscale communal bathhouse, it would also make sense that her friends could accompany her making it a joyous occasion.


Overview of Mikvah construction


To understand how an Oxford bathhouse could have been used as a Mikvah in the 19th century, here's a brief overview of the history of the methods of construction of a Mikvah. There are a number of possibilities for a Mikvah pool to be valid according to Jewish tradition: a. A pool of water that is fed from a natural spring[7], as is found in places in Israel. This has been the ideal Mikvah throughout history. b. A river is used as a Mikvah. This follows the Ashkenazic custom that allows a river to be used as a Mikvah all year round[8]. c. A pool is located in a building near a river with the water from the river feeding through the ground into the pool[9]. d. A more recent type of Mikvah is a Mikvah located in a bathhouse or swimming pool fed by municipal water. Some call this the ‘Daiches Mikvah’ after the name of the proponent of this view, Rabbi Israel Chaim Daiches (1850-1937) from Leeds[10]. Dayan Yechezkel Abramsky (1886-1976), head of the London Beth Din, also supported this Mikvah[11]. As long as the filling of the water is achieved through a (hamshacha) channel affixed to the ground and constitutes 575 litres - the equivalent to the Talmudic measurement of forty Seah - the pool is a valid Mikvah[12].


The modern purpose-built Mikvah however broadly follows the innovation of Rabbi Moses Sofer (1762-1839) in 1814, while serving as Chief Rabbi of Bratislava[13]. In response to the lack of municipal water at the time, necessitating water to be drawn with a utensil – an invalidating factor for a Mikvah - he suggested that one should construct two pools adjacent to each other, separated by a wall. The water in one pool would be filled with rainwater, into which one pours ‘drawn’ water, allowing it to overfill through a breach in the wall, and fill the neighboring pool. This would, according to Jewish law, retain the status of rainwater for both pools of the Mikvah. It would also allow the water to be frequently changed as long as the new water is fed via the original rainwater pool, even if technically after a while there is no longer the actual original rainwater due to the exchange of the water. Variations of the latter (two pool) Mikvah are what exist in most communities today[14].


With the description of the use of a bath as the Mikvah before Hannah’s wedding in Oxford in the 19th century, it would appear that although Daiches was not yet living at the time (born in 1850), it is likely the Daiches method was already in use in England, especially in a town with a bathhouse, thus allowing one of the pools at the Oxford bathhouse, either the plunge or a warm bath, to have been used as a Mikvah. Alternatively, the river itself accessed from the bathhouse was used as a Mikvah. This would have been the preferred option according to Jewish law if the river was available for this purpose[15]. However, from the description of the event it seems more likely that the bath itself was used. The use of municipal water for a Mikvah in fact became common practice in England and America until the Second World War.


It is interesting then to give further thought to the enigmatic answer the community gave in 1845. If the Oxford bathhouse was indeed used as a Mikvah and was not an exception to the rule in Jewish communities of that period, why would they respond that there was ‘not yet’ a Mikvah? The thoughtful answer ‘not yet’ points to a hesitation and reluctance to view the municipal water fed bathhouse as a suitable Mikvah, though in practice that is what they may have used due to no viable alternative option. This would be consistent with the view that developed a century later after the Second World War in America and England that for all practical purposes municipal water fed bathhouses and swimming pools became no longer acceptable standards for a valid Mikvah. This view was argued forcefully post war in America by leading experts of the intricate aspects of Jewish law pertaining to the building of a Mikvah, including Hungarian born Rabbi Chanania Yomtov Lipa Deutsch (1903-1991)[16], Chabad Rabbi Nissan Telushkin (1882-1970)[17], Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986), among others[18]. Their views became accepted among American and Anglo Jewry rabbis post war and the practice of using a city pool as a Mikvah discontinued, as is evident today. This gives new insight into the wisdom of leaders of the early 19th century Jewish community of Oxford indicated in this survey, likely filled out by the minister Nathan Jacobs himself. They would have not viewed a bathhouse fed by municipal water as a suitable option for a Mikvah, despite its support by the rabbinical heads of Anglo Jewry in the first half of the 20th century[19].


Growth of the community


During the Second World War, the community went through a drastic change when refugees arrived from London and other places to escape the bombing. The community increased in size to 1000 members, the largest since the 13th century. Three other synagogues were established during that time, two in Headington and one in Cowley, ‘the Cowley and Iffley Minyan’. However, after the war there was steep numerical decline and Rev. Weinberg, the last serving minister of the synagogue, left for South Africa in 1948. Many Jewish institutions, which had opened to help with the influx of Jewish refugees, also closed. Thus, the possibility of building a purpose built Mikvah in Oxford may have slipped away.


First purpose built Mikvah


The absence of a proper Mikvah in Oxford however came to an end in 2005. In 1988, with the inspiration of some Oxford dons, Chabad House of Oxford was established at 75 Cowley Road, within walking distance of the Oxford colleges. The Chabad House works in tandem with the local community and provides hospitality for Jewish students, with open Shabbat dinners every week, regular classes and lectures, services and a kosher cafe. Apart from serving the students during the six-month university year, the Chabad House is active all year round as a Jewish centre for tourists, academics attending conferences and the local community.


Plnw1022220.jpgWith the opening of the Chabad House in 1988, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneersohn (1902-1994), suggested through his chief of staff Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Isaac Hodakov (1902-1993) that a priority of the Chabad House should be to build a Mikvah. After many years of planning, and a hundred and sixty three years after the establishment of the modern Oxford Jewish community, in 2005, planning approval was given and construction began for a state-of-the-art Mikvah to be built on the site of the Chabad House - just a few minutes walk from Bath Street in St Clements - with the help of generous alumni, as the Slager family, and local community members. Despite skepticism that there would be no users for the Mikvah, and the funds would be better spent in other ways, ten years on, the Mikvah has proven to be an enormous contribution to Oxford’s Jewish community testified by the large number of visitors, including more than a few brides, experiencing the same joy as that of Hannah Jacobs on the night of her wedding some 170 years ago. It might have taken over a century and a half but one can be certain the founders of the modern Oxford Jewish community would be delighted at this all important vision come true.


To find more info about the Oxford Mikvah please visit: To arrange a visit email [email protected] or call 07788 437 754.


[1] Talmud Megillah 27a



[2] Jewish Gen



[3] The Times 3rd September 1844



[4] Buried in the Jewish cemetery, Combe Down, Bath. They had eight children, including Aaron (born 1845), named after his grandfather, who died in the fire, Emmanuel, Julius, Rosa, Benjamin, Rebecca Isaiah and Judith.






[6] The communal well and bathhouse that is believed to have existed in Bath Place in Oxford - hence the name - had already been replaced by cottages in the early 17th century.



[7] Leviticus 11:36



[8] Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah, 201, Hilchot Mikvah, Rabbi Moses Isserles. Some argue that in the winter when the river constitutes significant rainwater, as opposed to spring water, it is not valid.



[9] Tzemach Tzedek, Responsa, Yoreh Deah 167:2.



[10] This view is presented in his work Mikveh Yisrael (1912). His son was Oxford oriental scholar Rabbi Dr. Samuel Daiches (1878-1949).



[11] According to Dayan Gokovitzky, Abramsky visited such a Mikvah in Leicester and the Shochet asked whether he would permit his wife, Rebetzin Abramsky, to use such a Mikvah. Abramsky replied evasively ‘that was not the question he came to answer; the Mikvah is Kosher.’



[12] Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah, 201:44 - ‘sheuvah shehimshichua kulah ksheirah’.



[13] Responsa Chasam Sofer, Yoreh Deah 203.



[14] While this opinion was widely accepted, many strongly contest the view of Rabbi Moses Sofer, including Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneersohn of Lubavitch (1860-1920) in Igrot Kodesh vol. 3, 540, following the opinion of Rabbi Avraham ben David (c. 1125-1198), known as the Raavad, as well Rabbi Yechiel and Maimonides. The Oxford Mikvah combines both opinions by having two storage tanks for the rainwater, one on the side of the immersion pool, which serves as a method for ‘sowing’ the tap water into the rainwater and a second rainwater tank below the immersion pool to avoid the problem of diluting the initial rainwater. The idea of two tanks is mentioned by Rabbi Moses Feinstein (Igrot Moshe Yoreh Deah vol. 2, 89). An additional advantage of the Oxford Mikvah is that the second rainwater tank is below the main pool, as oppose to alongside it, constituting the lower rainwater tank and the main pool a single unit.



[15] It is possible that the medieval Jewish community in Oxford would have availed itself of the river as a valid Mikvah. If this is the case, a possible location might have been the site of the present day Oxford Retreat by Lower Fisher Row, alongside the river, formerly called ‘The Unicorn and Jacob’s Well’- a similar name to the site of a medieval Mikvah in Bristol. The name persisted as ‘Jacob’s Well’ until 1865. Anglo Jewish historian Marcus Roberts points out however it is unlikely this would have been connected with the use of a Mikvah. In the medieval period the inn was apparently called The Ducklington’s, as recorded in Oxford Pubs by Dave Richardson (2015). A possible connection of the name ‘Jacob’s Well’ to an earlier period has not been explored. It is interesting to note that a recent well found on the site of the Botanic Garden, formerly site of the medieval Jewish cemetery, might be connected with a medieval Mikvah, either for burial purposes like in Bristol or for communal use. The staff of the Botanic Gardens informed me that the well, discovered during excavation after the recent felling of the ‘Tolkien’ black pine tree (planted 1800) is most likely medieval, as it does not appear on the blueprint of the Botanic Garden in 1621.



[16] Taharat Yom Tov



[17] Taharat Mayim



[18] These views were published in the important monthly rabbinical journal Hamaor by Rabbi Meir Amsel (d. 2007).



[19] The concerns involve a number of the steps that are used in the process of conveyance of water from the source into a property. A number of aspects raise concerns of man-initiated interference in the process or areas where there may be retention of the water, considered a vessel, susceptible to the laws of impurity that invalidate a Mikvah. This includes curved pipes, valves that need opening or closing, pumps, the underground pressurised holding tanks and the water meters.



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