The Jewish Ritual Bath in Speyer
A cold water bath, a so called mikveh, was used by both Jewish men and women for ritual washings after a period of uncleanliness (like fe. menstruation). The water needed to be clean, which means a natural well or an artificial one dug to the ground water level. The mikveh in Speyer is of the latter type (the Rhine running through the town wasn't clean enough).
Constructed 1110-1120, it is one the oldest and best preserved in Europe and had obviously been built by the masons also working on the cathedral.
The wall that separates the anteroom from the bassin
A staircase leads about ten metres under the ground where it opens to the anteroom. With its cross-grain vault, it is the most beautiful part of the building, and the most interesting one because of the architectural history connected to it. It was very unusual for Christian masons to build a Jewish bath, but some of the bishops of Speyer protected the Jewish community in the Middle Ages.
In the left wall is a small changing cabinet, to the right a half-round staircase leads further down to the bassin.
There is a light hole letting in some daylight, but the rest of the ceiling is cross-grain vaulted as well. The water is usually so deep a man can immerse himself fully, which is the requirement for proper ritual cleaning. Since the ground water level changes depending on the level of the Rhine, the bassin was very full when we were there and covered the lowest steps of the staircase.
View from the bassin staircase into the anteroom
The bath is no longer officially in use today, but the guide told us that sometimes orthodox Jews from Israel and particularly the US wish to use the mikveh
. This can be arranged outside the official tourist opening times.
Closeup of a pillar capital
Note the ornaments on the middle border above the cube.
The material used was mostly red sandstone (the same as used for the cathedral, as can be seen here
Entrance to the mikveh.
Note the murals above the gates. They are worked in a net of quadratic sandstones points up, in imitation of the Roman opus reticulatum.
Bishop Rüdiger Huzmann granted the Jews settlement in Speyer in 1084. At first, they lived in the suburb, but after the progrome in connection with the 1096 crusade, Rüdiger allowed the community to move to an area near the Cathedral, within the protection of the town walls.
(To the left: Staircase leading down to the anteroom of the mikveh. It is closed by a double winged gate and constructed in two parts; in the upper part you can see niches with stone banks on both sides. The second part, which is flanked by by pillars, was closed by another door./
The curia Iudaeorum
, called 'Judenhof' by the inhabitants of Speyer, became the centre of Jewish life and culture until the middle of the 13th century. During that time, the Jewish community in Speyer belonged to the most important ones in Europe.
The Judenhof was much larger than the remains today; besides the famlies' houses it encompassed the mikveh
, a synagoge, a school, and women's prayer room.
Because of their trade contacts all over Europe and to the near and far East as well as their knowledge of languages and cultures and the high status education holds in their society, the Jews formed an élite among the town people. The sages of Speyer, a group of rabbis (or rabbe'im
) famous for their wisdom, had considerable influence on the Jews in Europe. A wisdom sought even by bishops and emperors who granted the Jewish community in Speyer a number of privileges.
Detail from the staircase ceiling