Masechet Mikvaot begins with discussing different bodies of water in the earth and how they differ from one another with respect to taharot. The first category is mei gevaim. As we will learn a mikveh (commonly known as the “ritual bath”) must be at least forty seah in volume. Mei gevaim is collection of water on the ground that is less than that measure. Water, while inside a mikveh is not susceptible to tumah. Furthermore, we have learnt recently, that if tameh water comes into contact with the mikveh water it becomes tahor. Something however appears to be different when discussing mei gevaim.
The Mishnah (1:1) teaches that if someone drinks from mei gevaim after someone tameh drank from that water, they would be tameh. More specifically, it would be considered as if the water they drank was tameh and thereby, by way of rabbinic decree, be a sheni le’tumah. What is the reason for the Mishnah’s ruling and how is mei gevaim different to a regular mikveh.
One approach taken by many commentaries is that, like a mikveh, mei gevaim cannot become tameh while attached to the ground (e.g. Rashi Vayikra 11:36). The Tifferet Yisrael explains that on a biblical level, only a small amount of water (revi’it) is required for a mikveh for the immersion of small utensils (see Pesachim 17b, Nazir 38a). The Meiri explains the reason for increasing the measure to forty seah was out of concern that people would begin using water that collected in utensils and not in the ground for the purpose of immersing keilim; which would be invalid. Consequently our case must be referring to mei gevaim whose source was not drawn but naturally collected (Bartenura). Therefore when the tameh person drinks from the mei gevaim his contact with the water does not make it tameh. Why then does the second person become tameh?
The concern is that drops of liquid that were removed from the mei gevaim by the tameh person when drinking would return. Since it is not the volume of a mikveh, that liquid remains tameh; albeit amongst the tameh liquid. Many commentaries continue to explain that we are concerned that the tahor person will drink water from the mei gevaim that includes that tameh drop. Once removed from the ground that tameh drop will cause the other water in the person’s mouth to be tameh and he will be drinking tameh liquid.
The Tifferet Yisrael prefers however to explain that when the tameh drops falls into the mei gevaim it is considered as through it is mixed evenly. Therefore when the second person takes a drink he will certainly be taking some of the tameh liquid into his mouth. The reason he prefers this variation of the explanation is because otherwise this would appear to equate with a doubtful case involve tameh liquids that we learnt previously would be deemed tahor (Taharot 4:11).86
The Mishnah Achrona does not like either approach. The question he poses is that in this case the tumah should be considered batel. (He dismisses the Raavad answer that the minority can be “reawakened” when some of the water is removed as another Gemara that assesses that concept does not cite this Mishnah.) He therefore prefers the Rambam’s approach.87
The Rambam disagrees with the first premise. He maintains that the mei gevaim is susceptible to tumah – much like water that is contained in utensil. The difference is that the mei gevaim becomes tameh only if one brings the tumah in contact with the water willingly. According to this understanding, since the law of mei gevaim is not connected to mikvah, mei gevaim can also be made up of drawn water. Returning to the Mishnah, once the tameh person drank from the mei gevaim, that water is tameh. The reason why the second person becomes tameh is then readily understood.
86 In defence of the other opinions, one could say that there is a difference between a case where one is unsure whether he drank liquid that is definitely tameh (perhaps the case referred to in taharot) and this case where one is certain they drank the liquid, but is unsure whether it is tameh. We have drawn this distinction previously where the latter was ruled in stricter way – see volume 6 issue 46.
87 See the Tifferet Yisrael at length for his treatment of this question.
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