The Business Licensing Order states that a ritual bath (mikveh) is a business requiring a license, and this, to “insure public health, including appropriate sanitary conditions”. The Business Licensing directives of 1999 (dealing with appropriate sanitary conditions for ritual baths), as set by the Ministry of Health include directives relating to the ritual bath building, it’s facilities, maintenance and operation, and are aimed at preventing safety and sanitary hazards in ritual baths. The Ministry of Health’s website states clearly that “only in licensed ritual baths can the sanitary conditions and other conditions be deemed appropriate.”
In 2004, the State Comptroller carried out an audit with respect to the business licenses of ritual baths in eight different local authorities in Israel, and pointed out numerous flaws and defects, which the authorities promised to rectify as soon as possible. A follow-up check, which we conducted more than a decade later in those very same local authorities, disclosed to the fact that despite the severely negative report submitted by the State Comptroller, with respect to most of the local authorities in question, the business licenses have not been improved, and, indeed, in some places (e.g., Tel Aviv) the situation has even worsened.
In an extensive examination conducted as part of this study, we contacted various local authorities in order to obtain information regarding the business licenses of the ritual baths operated by the different Religious Councils and Departments of Religious Services. Of the 761 ritual baths currently in operation in Israel and operated by these bodies, we received 481 responses (63.2%). Of these, 359 ritual baths (about 75%) currently operate without a license. For the sake of comparison, only 29% of business running regular bathing facilities in the Jewish sector operate without a required license.
The survey reveals that the problem is even more acute in regional councils. From our survey, it was evident that about 85% of the ritual baths in regional councils operate without a license, compared to 65% of those operating in the cities. Furthermore, of all the regions examined, the situation is most severe in the Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem regions: of the 115 ritual baths examined in Judea & Samaria, 113 (98.7%) did not have a business license. In the Tel Aviv region, 88.4% were found to be operating without a business license. In the southern regions, in Haifa and in the center of Israel, a similar trend was observed i.e. about 65% of ritual baths were operating without a business license. The region boasting the best results proved to be the northern region, with 49.5% of ritual baths operating without a business license.
Local authorities rarely close down ritual baths operating without a license, despite their authority and responsibility in this matter. The reason for this may be that they are wary of hurting the women using the baths and leaving them without the ability to immerse. Another possibility is the inherent conflict of interests. The very same authorities are responsible both for issuing business licenses and for enforcing the requirements of the licenses issued. Where they fail to issue licenses because they never got to it (or for some other reason), it might be awkward to close down the business which applied for the license on the grounds that it is operating without one. In his report of 2004, the State Comptroller’s criticized the Ministry of Health for not utilizing the regional doctors’ authority to issue administrative injunctions to ritual baths operating under deficient sanitary conditions. From an inspection carried out in December 2014, we conclude that despite the fact that numerous ritual baths operate under impaired sanitary conditions, the regional doctors do not exercise their authority to prevent this.
A most serious problem with respect to the ritual baths is the fact that the users are not even aware of the existing deficient health and sanitary conditions. The local authorities have not made any information regarding sanitary conditions in ritual baths available to the general public. The claim made by the Ministry of Health is that the data has not yet been computerized, and that individuals can check on specific locations by contacting the Department. This, of course, is easier said than done. Local authorities do not make such information readily available to the public, and even a direct demand to the local authority requesting information concerning business licenses does not yield information. Many authorities did not even bother answering our repeated requests for this information, while others, demanded a Freedom of Information fee in exchange for this very basic and fundamental information.
An additional finding revealed that the Ministry of Health conducts annual audits on only a small number of ritual baths. According to ministry officials, this results from lack of funds budgeted for this purpose. But the State Comptroller pointed out in 2004 that the Ministry of Health was not even aware that some of these ritual baths exist (this is usually the case with private ritual baths).
Matters have not improved in the decade since the State Comptroller’s investigation. From an examination we conducted in Jerusalem, it appears that there is still a big discrepancy between the number of reports pertaining to ritual baths submitted by the local authorities and the number of such reports submitted by the Ministry of Health. Similarly, the inadequate training regarding proper sanitation and proper sanitation inspections given to the religious immersion supervisors has not improved. The Ministry of Health admitted in December 2014, that “the whole issue of national training and guidance for ritual bath workers has not improved in any way.”