Ein Sarah - Ancient Mikvah from the Second Temple Era

Sarah's spring is an impressive historical site dating back to the Roman era.

22.2.18, 12:32
The busy stores and shopping complexes on Ein Sarah Street are a far cry from the archaeological site it is named after. Alternatively known as Maayan Sarah, Sarah's Spring, or Sarah's Well, the ancient structure is thought to be a mikvah dating back to the Second Temple era. Sarah, the Matriarch of the Jewish people and wife of Abraham, lived in Hebron as described in the book of Genesis. It was here that the three angels delivered the prophecy that Sarah would have a child despite her old age.

At the top of the road, on the slope of Jabel al-Battar, which descends to the east, is a relatively new mosque, Jamiyat al-Qessem, located 400 meters south of the Alonei Mamra archaeological site. Below it is an ancient structure of a Jewish ritual bath from the time of the Second Temple. In Arabic, it has become known as Bir Ijda or Hamam Sarra. It has been described in the writings of Jewish travelers who visited it for centuries.

1180 - "By the tree is the well of Sarah; its waters are clear and sweet." - Rabbi Petachia of Ratisbon [Petachiah of Regensburg], reprinted in Travels of Petachia of Ratisbon, page 65.

1260 - "On the slope of the mountain there is one spring, it is said that it was the mikveh of Sarah our mother." The travel journal Ella HaMasagot.

1488 - "There, too, near Hebron, among the stones of the rock, a mikvah of mayyim hayyim, [living water], and they say that Sarah was our mother immersed there, peace be upon her. " - Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura, reprinted in Letters from the Land of Israel, edited by Abraham Yaari, page 279 - 286.

1522 - "Nearby I saw a very large mikveh with four large square columns, and it is wondrously deep, with a stone ladder to descend by. They say that it was our matriarch Sarah's ritual bath." In Zion and Jerusalem: The Itinerary of Rabbi Moses Basola, page 77.

1537 - The mikveh where Sarah immersed herself is "on the road to Jerusalem" and is called Ein Sarah (Sarah's Spring).  Yihus ha-Avot (Ancestral Genealogy) (MS), fol. 13v.

1624 - "And near that tree, Sarah's mikvah (peace be upon her) with sweet water and pure water." Rabbi Gershon son of Rabbi Eliezer Segal, Igeret Hakodesh - Glilot Eretz Yisrael. 

1642 - "And we saw the shape of a cave and we went in and down the stairs, and it was dug deep in the mountain, and the mountain was all stone, and it was dug deep into the mountain, and the mountain was all stone, and there was cold water in the cave, and we drank and drank very much, and said that it was the mikvah of Sarah " - The Karaite Samuel ben David of Crimea.

1655 - "...a cave filled with fresh water springs, and is said to be the place of the mikvah of our mother Sarah." (the Karaite Moses ben Eliyahu HaLevi). 

1734 - "The tent of Abraham in four openings, and the mikvah of Sarah." - Moshe Chaim Kapasoto.
1837 - "On a rising ground a little beyond the mosque, is a large fountain or reservoir, supported by marble pillars, where my companions told me that Sarah had washed the clothes of Abraham and Isaac." - J.L. Stephens, Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petraea, and the Holy Land, Harper & Brothers,1837, page 125.
1860 - "We went on to Beit Idgdi, a very large and curious well ; steps lead down to it, and the earth overhead is supported by pillars ; at the far end is an opening to an inner chamber, whence the water seems to flow." - L. M. Cubley, 
The Hills and Plains of  Palestine, London 1860, page 47.

It is later described briefly, by name, by Christian visitors, from Samuel Walcott in 1843 to A. E. Mader, who excavated Hebron in 1975. 

The entire complex had three parts: 

An entrance hall built of ashlar stones, with steps carved in natural bedrock. 

A hewn anteroom, where two large openings were hewn, one for an entrance and to dip for immersion in the mikvah, and the other for exiting after immersion. The entire room is hewn in seven steps, which are divided into a low and plastered stone, whose function is to separate the ritually impure one those who enter the mikvah, with the ritually pure ones who have just finished immersion. 

During the Byzantine period, when the original stone ceiling was destroyed, two circular pillars were installed on the back of the steps, which hold two impressive stone arches.

The immersion hall, which is completely hewn, includes five steps, all hewn, descending to the bottom of the hall, to the place of the mikvah itself. 

It should be noted that at the bottom of the immersion hall there is clear water, sometimes at a relatively deep depth, which raises the possibility of a natural eruption on which the complex was constructed, and only later it added channels for draining runoff water from the surrounding area. 

The entire complex is large and impressive, even today, despite the changes that took place in the Byzantine period, and despite the dirt and neglect of the last generation. 

Is this the Biblical site of Alonei Mamre? Did our mother Sarah immerse in the waters of Bir-Ijda and is this Sarah's mikvah? Although there has always been water here, archaeologists today say the locations do not match up with the current identification of the Alonei Mamra archaeological site in what is called Ramat el-Kalil.

Over the years, these identifications were moved slightly westwards, and 'Alonei Mamra' was identified as the ancient oak known as "Eshel Avraham" (and in Arabic "the Ibrahimi Oak"), today at the site of the Russian Church.  

It seems that the Ein Sarah ancient ritual bath was established during the Second Temple period for various reasons, apparently by Jews or by Idumean converts who accepted the laws of ritual purity. They attributed themselves to Jacob and Esau, Sarah's grandchildren, and identified the entire Ramat al-Khalil area as the "Alonei Mamre," the seat of Grandfather Abraham, and the "Hamam Sarra" as the place where Grandmother Sarah died. 

It should be noted that large and impressive mikvot [ritual baths] were discovered in Tel Hevron in 2014, which are very similar to the Ein Sarah mikvah. This constitute an impressive assemblage of ritual purity sites in Hebron from the time of the Second Temple. 

The Hebron Accords of 1997 list Ein Sarah as one of four holy sites that are to be accessible to all following the transfer of jurisdiction from Israeli control to that of the Palestinian Authority. Unfortunately this accessibility never formulated. Of the four holy sites, Ein Sarah is the least accessible. The other three are the Tomb of Otniel Ben Knaz, Abraham's Oak, and Elonei Mamre, which are accessible to Israelis on special holidays with pre-arranged IDF escort. 

This article is based in part by the researcher Ze'ev H. Erlich, a founding member of the Ofra Field School.

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Ein Sarah / Sarah's Spring - Second Temple Era Mikvah | 5 Images