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It stood silent and undignified for years. Neglected in a secret corner of the The Jewish History Museum, it was simply referred to as a ‘cistern’ by local workers at the Museum, which opened in 1992. Every so often, a group of Israeli tourists passing by would ask the guides: ‘Is that a mikvah?’. Given a negative response, the Israelis would turn to each other whispering: ‘It is a mikvah!’. Time proved them right.
In recent years, a team of archaeologists from the University of Girona, led by Jordi Sagrera, conducted an independent investigation to confirm the possibility of the existence of a mikvah within the synagogue compound. To their surprise, they found it to be in the exact location of what was until then known as the ‘cistern’! A few days later, the discovery of the first walls certified the finding. These partitions, which hid the site, dated back to the 17th century, and were found to be standing on medieval stone walls. The mikvah consisted of a tub 1.50 meters deep, accessed by a long, low lintel arranged diagonally in a southwest direction and a landing of stone slabs to facilitate access to water.
This is a remarkable finding that highlights the importance of Jewish heritage in the architecture and history of the city, while the Mikvah itself is among the best preserved in Europe, together with those of Sicily, Montpellier and Besalú.
Observing it’s interior enclosure, one can picture a place of ritual for female gathering, where the sounds of the water lulled their liturgical chants as the moonlight filtered through carefully-placed holes in the ceiling; a bathing scene with a mystic aura. These were the cleansing pools into which Jewish women concurred to purify before marriage or after a period of delivery. Bathed and barefoot they would plunge into the mikvah three consecutive times.
The stones which constitute the mikvah walls are more than a silent witness to Girona’s Hebrew past; they are also the source of many stories. In early 1400, the coexistence between Christians and Jews became increasingly difficult due to the general poverty, the black plague that was sweeping Europe, and the strong pressure from the church to eliminate heresy. As a result, a papal decree by Benedict XIII, published in 1415, ruled a separation of living areas within the Call, forcing its members to leave their usual synagogue and place a new locality in today’s Força Street. The purchase of the new place was made in 1434 and a new synagogue was built within a stone enclosure in the hope of continuing their life within the new circumstances. However, in 1492, the synagogue would be forcibly sold to Christian clerics following the edict of expulsion.
Today, thanks to the work of archaeologists and the staff of the Museum of Jewish History in Girona, you can visit and connect with the women who came to the mikvah complex in search of purification of body and soul; a tradition still maintained today by Sephardic communities in the Diaspora.
[accordion title=”Historical Notes”]1. The mikvah (מִקְוֶה / מקווה) is a bathing space for the purification custom of Judaism. It is a place that gathers natural waters (river or rain water) in a small pool which is connected to a cycle of natural flowing clean (seldom warm) water. It can be used by both men and women, although according to Sepharadic tradition, nowadays only women retain the obligation for the mikvah ritual 7 days after the completion of each menstrual cycle.[/accordion]