Immersion in Flakes
Edward Simon wrote:
I have heard on good authority from my son Rashi that it is permissible to use snow to tovel (ritually immerse) new dishes. On the other hand, my son Hillel says that although it is permissible, it is not advisable to do so. What is the actual halachah and procedure? With much of American Jewry currently blanketed in snow, this is a question of general interest and some urgency.
Dear Edward Simon,
Mikveh means 'a gathering.' A mikveh is basically a pool of naturally-gathered waters, i.e., rainwater, which was never drawn or contained in a vessel. A mikveh must have a volume of at least 40 se'ah (a se'ah is a measure of volume.)
Not only rain-water, but melted snow as well can be used for a mikveh. Putting snow in a mikveh and letting it melt is in fact one of the methods sometimes used to fill a mikveh. I hear that during dry spells in Arizona they sometimes truck in snow from the Sierra Mountains to fill mikvehs.
But your question is about unmelted snow. Can you use unmelted snow as a mikveh?
Rashi (your son) is consistent with Rashi (the 11th century commentator)! Rashi and other authorities say "Yes, unmelted snow is valid." The snow wouldn't have to be in a 'mikveh' per se -- rather you could just go out and stick your dishes into the snow. Of course, you would need 40 se'ah of contiguous snow (excluding air). And you would need to make sure to cover the dish completely in snow, even on top.
Other poskim disagree. They rule that snow in its unmelted state is invalid as a mikveh.
As for the halacha, most authorities rule that unmelted snow shouldn't be used. In extenuating circumstances, however, you can use it to tovel glass or clay vessels, because this is a Rabbinic obligation. Similarly, you can stick your hands in the snow for netilat yadayim, if, for example, you're skiing cross-country and there's no water available.
Stories of the '96 blizzard are piling up. Here's one from <firstname.lastname@example.org>:
As the snow came down, inch by inch, my children were discussing what they would do once the snow stopped and they would be able to go outside. One was planning a snow fort, another a snow angel, and so on. Our three-year-old, never to be outdone, began telling his plans for the snow. My wife, however, had different plans. The snow would be higher than our son was tall, and she didn't think it a good idea that he be allowed out.
"You know," she said, "you might get lost in the snow and we might not be able to find you!!"Sources:
"Yes we will," piped up our six-year old. "In the summer!"
- Mishna Mikvaot 7:1
- Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 201:30
- Yoreh Deah 201:71, Shach; 120:4, Pitchei Teshuvah
- Tractate Shabbat 154b, Rashi