A survey of caves in Israel has turned up 500 “caves of refuge”: places where Jews hid during the The First Jewish-Roman War (66-73AD). Most astonishing has been the discovery of 5 mikva’ot (ritual baths) in absurdly inaccessible caves on the Galilean cliffs of Arbel. The presence of mikva’ot indicate that members of the priestly class (kohanim) were among those hiding from the Romans.
“These people saw it as an imperative to build a mikveh in their shelter, in a cave on a steep cliff,” he said….
To reach this particular cave, the two researchers had to scale a cliff “with our fingernails,” as Shivtiel put it.
“The preparation of mikvaot in these refuge caves, sites that are difficult to access and are not meant for routine living but for times of distress, teach us the deep religious need for facilities for ritual purity,” said Shivtiel. “The preparation of mikvehs in these places is not amazing just because of the physical difficulty in digging them, but because in doing so one needs to cope with all the specifics of Jewish law that a mikveh demands, primarily a source of flowing water and an immersion area that has a specific volume.”
The mikveh builders at Arbel assured supplies of natural water by either building the ritual baths directly under still-dripping stalactites or by digging tunnels from the mikvehs to outside the rock wall, so that runoff from rainwater could accumulate.
Other findings that they and others have uncovered in the Arbel region show that these cave dwellers lived at subsistance level and in crowded conditions. They had water, food and light, as evidenced by the water-storage pits, niches for candles, and remnants of cooking pots and pitchers, but no more than that.
Shivtiel, who consulted with rabbis to identify the mikvehs, said they were distinguished from other water cisterns by three things: steps heading into the bath, a water supply from a natural source and enough water to immerse one’s entire body.
“Preparing a mikveh is beyond what is needed to sustain life,” Shivtiel said. “The Jewish group most likely to see it as an integral part of their lives would be a group that was part of the mishmarot kehuna [priests who did shifts at the Temple].”
Previous research has shown that when the priests found refuge in the Galilee after the destruction of the Second Temple, at least one group moved to Arbel.