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by Rivkah Slonim
The world’s natural bodies of water- its oceans, rivers, wells, and springfed lakes – are mikvahs in their most primal form. They contain waters of divine source and thus, tradition teaches, the power to purify. Created even before the earth took shape, these bodies of water offer a quintessential route to consecration. But they pose difficulties as well. These waters may be inaccessible or dangerous, not to mention the problems of inclement weather and lack of privacy. Jewish life therefore necessitates the construction of mikvahs (Mikvah pools), and indeed this has been done by Jews in every age and circumstance.
To the uninitiated, a modern-day mikvah looks like a miniature swimming pool. In a religion rich with detail, beauty, and ornamentation – against the backdrop of the ancient temple or even modern-day synagogues the mikvah is surprisingly nondescript, a humble structure.
Its ordinary appearance, however, belies its primary place in Jewish life and law. The mikvah offers the individual, the community, and the nation of Israel the remarkable gift of purity and holiness. No other religious establishment, structure, or rite can affect the Jew in this way and, indeed, on such an essential level. Its extraordinary power, however, is contingent on its construction in accordance with the numerous and complex specifications as outlined in Halachah, Jewish Law.
Briefly: A mikvah must be built into the ground or built as an essential part of a building. Portable receptacles, such as bathtubs, whirlpools, or Jacuzzis, can therefore never function as mikvahs. The mikvah must contain a minimum of two hundred gallons of rainwater that was gathered and siphoned into the mikvah pool in accordance with a highly specific set of regulations. In extreme cases where the acquisition of rainwater is impossible, ice or snow originating from a natural source may be used to fill the mikvah. As with the rainwater, an intricate set of laws surrounds its transport and handling.
The casual observer will often see only one pool – the one used for immersion. In reality, most mikvahs are comprised of two, sometimes three, adjoining pools. While the accumulated rainwater is kept in one pool, the adjacent immersion pool is drained and refilled regularly with tap water. The pools share a common wall that has a hole at least two inches in diameter.
The free flow, or”kissing”, of waters between the two pools makes the waters of the immersion pool an extension of the natural rainwater, thus conferring upon the immersion pool the legal status of a mikvah.(The above description is one of two methods sanctioned by Halachah to achieve this goal.)
Modern-day mikvah pools are equipped with filtration and water purification systems. The mikvah waters are commonly chest high and kept at a comfortable temperature. Access to the pool is achieved via stairs. (Mikvahs accessible to the handicapped or infirm are equipped with lifts; see pages 239-240 for a partial listing of these mikvahs.)
The mikvah as an institution is the victim of a popular misconception. Immersion in water is naturally associated with cleansing. To further complicate the issue, Jews historically were often barred by the authorities from using rivers in their cities for bathing. In response they built bathhouses, many with mikvahs in or near them. Together, these factors forged an inextricable link between the idea of mikvahand physical hygiene. But the mikvah never was a monthly substitute for a bath or shower. In fact, the Halachah stipulates that one must be scrupulously clean before immersing. To facilitate this requirement, preparation areas-with baths and showers, shampoos, soaps, and other cleansing and beauty aids-are a staple of the modern mikvah.
Many mikvahs are located in synagogues, always in a discreet part of the building and usually with their own entrance. Larger mikvahs are generally housed in freestanding buildings. Until a relatively short time ago, most mikvahs could best be described as utilitarian: function, not comfort, dictated their style. A new awareness among modern Jewish women, the rabbinate, and community leaders over the last few decades has sparked a new trend in Mikvah construction. Beautiful, even lavish, mikvahs – complete with elegant foyers and waiting rooms, fully equipped preparation areas, and well-designed mikvah pools – are being built across this country and around the world. Some mikvahs rival luxurious European spas and offer patrons more amenities than they could enjoy at home.
In communities with large populations of mikvah users, the building may house as many as twenty or thirty preparation areas and two to four immersion pools. In these facilities, an intercom system linking each of the rooms to a central desk and an attendant ensures the privacy of the many mikvah users. Some of the larger mikvah buildings include conference rooms used for tours and educational programming.
Today it is not just a Jewish metropolis that can boast a mikvah. In remote, even exotic, locations-Argentina and Brazil, Tasmania and Austria; Anchorage, Alaska, and Bogota, Colombia; Yerres, France, and Ladispoli, Italy; Agadir,Morocco, and Asuncion in Paraguay; Lima, Peru, and Cape Town, South Africa;Bangkok, Thailand, and Zarzis, Tunisia; and almost every city in the C.I.S.(former Soviet Union)-there are kosher and comfortable mikvahs and rabbis and rebbetzins willing and able to assist any woman in their use. In many communities a tour of the mikvah is available on request. Upon arrival in a new city or when traveling, information about mikvahs in the region can be obtained by phoning the local mikvah office, the Orthodox synagogue, or the Chabad House.
Immersion in the mikvah has offered a gateway to purity ever since the creation of man. The Midrash relates that after being banished from Eden, Adam sat in a river that flowed from the garden. This was an integral part of his teshuvah (repentance) process, of his attempt at return to his original perfection. Before the revelation at Sinai, all Jews were commanded to immerse themselves in preparation for coming face to face with God. In the desert, the famed;well of Miriam served as a mikvah. And Aaron and his sons’ induction into the priesthood was marked by immersion in the mikvah.
In Temple times, the priests as well as each Jew who wished entry into the House of God had first to immerse in a mikvah. On Yom Kippur, the holiest of all days, the High Priest was allowed entrance into the Holy of Holies, the innermost chamber of the Temple, into which no other mortal could enter.This was the zenith of a day that involved an ascending order of services,each of which was preceded by immersion in the mikvah.
The primary uses of mikvah today are delineated in Jewish Law and date back to the dawn of Jewish history. They cover many elements of Jewish life. Mikvah’s an integral part of conversion to Judaism. mikvah’s used, thoughtless widely known, for the immersion of new pots, dishes, and utensils (purchased or obtained from a non few) before they are used by a Jew. The mikvah concept is also the focal point of the Taharah, the purification rite of a Jew before the person is laid to rest and the soul ascends on high. The manual pouring of water in a highly specific manner-over the entire body of the deceased serves this purpose. Mikvah is also used by men on various occasions; with the exception of conversion, they are all customary.
The most widely practiced are immersion by a groom on his wedding day and by every man before Yom Kippur. Many Chassidic men use the mikvah before each Shabbat and holiday, some even making use of mikvah each day before morning prayer (in cities with large populations of observant Jews, special mikvahs for men facilitate these customs). But the most important and general usage of mikvah’s for purification by the menstruant woman. For the menstruant woman, immersion in a mikvah is part of a larger framework best known as Taharat Hamishpachah (Family Purity).
As with every area of Jewish practice, Family Purity involves a set of detailed laws; namely, the “when,” “what,” and “how”of observance. Studying with a woman who is experienced in this field is the time-honored way of gaining familiarity and comfort with the practice.In cities or communities with large Jewish populations, there may be classes one can join. The majority of women, however, come by this knowledge through a more personal one on one encounter.
While books are a poor substitute for a knowledgeable teacher, select titles can be used as a guide to this ritual or for quick reference (see suggested book list on pages 235-236). Those with a serious interest in observing this ritual may want to follow up their reading with discussion and/or further study. On occasion, medical conditions or other factors might necessitate rabbinic counsel. Wherever you are, you can count on one thing: there is always someone available and eager to help you, in person or by phone (see pages 236-237 for contact sources).
What follows is only a brief overview of these laws. It is not, and was not intended to be, a substitute for proper study of this subject.
Family purity is a system predicated on the woman’s monthly cycle. From the onset of menstruation and for seven days after its end, until the woman immerses in the mikvah, husband and wife may not engage in sexual relations. To avoid violation of this law, the couple should curtail their indulgence in actions they find arousing. They should put a check on direct physical contact and refrain from manifestations of affection such as petting, necking, caressing, and the like. The technical term for a woman in this state is Niddah (literal meaning: to be separated).
The seven day transition period, known as the “clean” or “white”days, begins only after the woman has determined the complete cessation of her menses by means of a simple internal examination. The examination should be carried out before sunset of the day her period ends, provided there has been a minimum of five days from the onset of menstruation. (Even if a woman’s period lasts less than five days she must still wait a minimum of five days from its onset before examining herself.) If her bleeding ceases after nightfall, she waits for the afternoon of the next day to examine herself and begin her weeklong count.
During the seven day “white” period, the woman should examine herself regularly to ensure that there is no further issue of menstrual blood. In addition, white underclothes are worn during this period so thatthe woman can be sure to sight any bloody discharge.
Exactly a week from when the woman has established the cessation of herflow, barring any staining or spotting, she visits the mikvah (i.e., ifshe examined herself before sunset on Monday, she will visit the mikvah the following Monday evening). Hence, there is a minimum of twelve days during which conjugal life is suspended.
Immersion takes place after nightfall of the seventh day and is preceded by a requisite cleansing. The immersion is valid only when the waters of the mikvah envelop each and every part of the body and, indeed, each hair.To this end, the woman bathes, shampoos, combs her hair, and removes fromher body anything that might impede her total immersion.
A female attendant, known as a shomeret, is present at immersion. She assists in ensuring that there are no intervening substances or objects (makeup, loose hair or jewelry, etcetera) on the woman’s body and that her wholebody is submerged all at once during immersion. In keeping with the biblical injunction against placing oneself in danger, the attendant is also there to assist the woman as necessary.
Immersion in the mikvah is the culmination of the Taharat Hamishpachah discipline.It is a special moment for the woman who has adhered to the many nuances of the mitzvah and has anticipated this night. Sometimes, however, the woman may be feeling rushed or anxious for reasons related or unrelated to thisrite. At this point, she should relax, spend a few moments contemplating the importance of the immersion, and in an unhurried fashion, lower herself into the mikvah waters. After immersing once, while standing in the waters of the mikvah, the woman recites the blessing for ritual purification and then, in accordance with widespread custom, immerses twice more. Many women use this auspicious time for personal prayer and communication with God. After immersion, woman and husband may resume marital relations.
Before exploring the deeper dimensions of this ritual, we must briefly examine the centrality of mikvah to Jewish life. Most Jews, even those who deem themselves secular, are familiar, at least conceptually, with religious observances such as the Sabbath, the dietary laws, Yom Kippur and a number of other Torah laws. Mikvah and Family Purity, on the other hand, are shrouded in obscurity pages torn out of the book, as it were. The observance of Family Purity is a biblical injunction of the highest order. The infraction of this law is equated with major transgressions such as eating chametz (leavened foods) on Passover, intentional violation of the fast on the holy day of Yom Kippur, and not entering into the covenant through ritual circumcision, brit milah.
Most Jews see the synagogue as the central institution in Jewish life. But Jewish Law states that constructing a mikvah takes precedence even over building a house of worship. Both a synagogue and a Torah Scroll, Judaism’s most venerated treasure, may be sold to raise funds for the building of a mikvah. In fact, in the eyes of Jewish law, a group of Jewish families living together do not attain the status of a community if they do not have a communal mikvah.
This is so for a simple reason: private and even communal prayer can be held in virtually any location, and venues for the social functions of the synagogue can be found elsewhere. But Jewish married life, and therefore the birth of future generations in accordance with Halachah, is possible only where there is accessibility to a mikvah. It is no exaggeration to state that the mikvah is the touchstone of Jewish life and the portal to a Jewish future.
We have already determined that the function of mikvah is not to enhance physical hygiene. The concept of mikvah is rooted in the spiritual.
Jewish life is marked by the notion of Havdalah – separation or distinction. On Saturday night, as the Shabbat departs and the new week begins, Jews are reminded of the borders that delineate every aspect of life. Over a cup of sanctified wine, the Jew blesses God who “separates between the holy and the mundane, between light and darkness, between Israel and the nations, between the seventh day and six days of labor….”
In fact,the literal definition of the Hebrew word kodesh – most often translated as “holy”- is that which is separated; segregated from the rest for a unique purpose, for consecration.
In many ways mikvah is the threshold separating the unholy from the holy, but it is even more. Simply put, immersion in a mikvah signals a change in status – more correctly, an elevation in status. Its unparalleled function lies in its power of transformation, its ability to effect metamorphosis.
Utensils that could heretofore not be used can, after immersion, be utilized in the holy act of eating as a Jew. A woman, who from the onset of her menses was in a state of Niddut, separated from her husband, may after immersion be reunited with him in the ultimate holiness of married intimacy. Men or women in Temple times, who were precluded from services because of ritual defilement, could, after immersion, alight the Temple mount, enter the house of God and involve themselves in sacrificial offerings and the like. The case of the convert is most dramatic. The individual who descends into the mikvah as a gentile emerges from beneath its waters as a Jew.
God’s commandments, the 613 injunctions known as mitzvot, are divided into three distinct categories:
Mishpatim are those laws governing the civil and moral fabric of life; they are logical, readily understood, and widely appreciated as pivotal to the foundation and maintenance of a healthy society. Examples are the proscription against murder, theft, and adultery.
Eidut are those rituals and rites best described as testimonials. This category includes the many religious acts that remind Jews of historic moments in their history and serve as testament to cardinal beliefs of the Jewish faith, such as the observance of the Sabbath, the celebration of Passover, and the affixing of a mezuzah on the doorpost.
The third category, chukkim, are suprarational principles; they are Divine decrees about which the human mind can form no judgment. Chukkim completely defy human intellect and understanding. From time immemorial they have been a source of amusement, a target of scorn, and an uncomfortable and shameful presence to the detractors of Jewish observance. For the observant Jew,they personify a mitzvah at its best; a pure, unadulterated avenue of connection with God. These mitzvot are recognized as the greatest, the ones capable of affecting the soul on the deepest level. Unimpeded by the limitations of the human mind, these statutes are practiced for one reason only: the fulfillment of God’s word. Examples are the laws of Kashrut, the prohibition against wearing shatnez (clothes containing a combination of wool and linen),and the laws of ritual purity and mikvah. When all is said and done, an understanding of the ultimate reason for the framework of Family Purity and its culminating point immersion in the mikvah – is impossible. We observe simply because God so ordained it. Still there are insights that can help add dimension and meaning to our mikvah experience.
In the beginning there was only water. A miraculous compound, it is the primary source and vivifying factor of all sustenance and, by extension, all life as we know it. But Judaism teaches it is more. For these very same attributes – water as source and sustaining energy – are mirrored in the spiritual. Water has the power to purify: to restore and replenish life to our essential, spiritual selves. The mikvah personifies both the womb and the grave; the portals to life and afterlife.
In both, the person is stripped of all power and prowess. In both there is a mode of total reliance, complete abdication of control. Immersion in the mikvah can be understood as a symbolic act of self-abnegation, the conscious suspension of the self as an autonomous force. In so doing, the immersing Jew signals a desire to achieve oneness with the source of all life, to return to a primeval unity with G-d. Immersion indicates the abandonment of one form of existence to embrace one infinitely higher. In keeping with this theme, immersion in the mikvah is described not only in terms of purification, revitalization, and rejuvenation but also – and perhaps primarily – as rebirth.
In years gone by, menstruating women were a grave source of consternation and fear. At best they were avoided, at worst they were shunned and cast aside. Often, menstruating women were blamed for tragedy and mishap, as if they had polluted the environment with their breath or gaze. This was a simplistic, if not misguided, response to a complex phenomenon whose rhyme and reason eluded the primitive mind. In those societies, peace could be made with menstruation only by ascribing it to evil and demonic spirits and by the adaptation of a social structure that facilitated its avoidance. Viewed against this backdrop, the Jewish rhythm in marriage is perceived by many as a throwback to archaic taboos, a system rooted in antiquated attitudes and a ubiquitous form of misogyny. In truth, Family Purity is a celebration of life and our most precious human relationships. It can be understood most fully only within a deeper notion of purity and impurity.
Judaism teaches that the source of all Taharah, “purity,” is life itself. Conversely, death is the harbinger of Tumah, “impurity”. All types of ritual impurity, and the Torah describes many, are rooted in the absence of life or some measure – even a whisper – of death. When stripped to its essence, a woman’s menses signals the death of potential life. Each month a woman’s body prepares for the possibility of conception. The uterine lining is built up-rich and replete, ready to serve as a cradle for life – in anticipation of a fertilized ovum. Menstruation is the shedding of the lining, the end of this possibility. The presence of potential life within fills a woman’s body with holiness and purity. With the departure of this potential, impurity sets in, conferring upon the woman a state of impurity or, more specifically, Niddut. Impurity is neither evil nor dangerous and it is not something tangible. Impurity is a spiritual state of being, the absence of purity, much as darkness is the absence of light. Only immersion in the mikvah, following the requisite preparation, has the power to change the status of the woman.
The concept of purity and impurity as mandated by the Torah and applied within Jewish life is unique; it has no parallel or equivalent in this post-modern age. Perhaps that is why it is difficult for the contemporary mind to relate to the notion and view it as relevant.
In ancient times, however, Tumah and Taharah were central and determining factors. The status of a Jew – whether he or she was ritually pure or impure -was at the very core of Jewish living; it dictated and regulated a person’s involvement in all areas of ritual. Most notably, Tumah made entrance into the Holy Temple impossible and thus sacrificial offering inaccessible.
There were numerous types of impurities that affected Jews – regarding both their life and Temple service and a commensurate number of purification processes. Mikvah immersion was the culmination of the purification rite in every case. Even for the ritually pure, ascending to a higher level of spiritual involvement or holiness necessitated immersion in a mikvah. As such, the institution of mikvah took center stage in Jewish life.
In our day, in this post Temple period, the power and interplay of ritual status has all but vanished, relegating this dynamic to obscurity. There is, however, one arena in which purity and impurity continue to be pivotal. In this connection only is there a biblical mandate for mikvah immersion – and that is regarding human sexuality. To understand why this is so, we must first understand how the Torah views sexuality.
The alleged incompatibility of sexuality and spirituality – more precisely, their antithetical nature – is a notion that, while foreign to Torah thought, is attributed by many to Judaic philosophy under the larger and completely mythical rubric of a “Judeo-Christian” creed. Few concepts have done more harm than this widespread misapprehension. In stark contrast to Christian dogma – where marriage is seen as a concession to the weakness of the flesh, and celibacy is extolled as a virtue – the Torah accords matrimony an exalted and holy position.
Within that consecrated union, the expression of human sexuality is a mandate, a mitzvah. In fact, it is the first mitzvah in the Torah and one of the holiest of all human endeavors. Moreover, human lovemaking signals the possibility and potential for new life, the formation of a new body and the descent from heaven of a new soul. In their fusing and meshing, man and woman become part of something larger; in their transcendence of the self, they draw on, and even touch, the Divine. They enter into a partnership with God; they come closest to taking on the godly attribute of creator. In fact, the sacredness of the intimate union remains unmitigated even when the possibility of conception does not exist.
In the metaphysical sense, the act and its potential remain linked. Human sexuality is a primary force in the lives of a married couple; it is the unique language and expression of the love they share. A strong relationship between husband and wife is not only the backbone of their own family unit but is integral to the world at large. For the blessings of trust, stability, continuity, and ultimately, community, all flow from the commitment they have to each other and to a joint future.
In reaffirming their commitment, in their intimacy, the couple adds to the vibrancy and health of their society, of humanity, and ultimately to the fruition of the Divine plan: a world perfected by man. In their private, personal togetherness, they are creators of peace, harmony, and healing – on a microcosmic scale but with macrocosmic reverberations – and as such are engaged in the most sacred of pursuits. In this light it becomes clear why marital relations are often referred to as the Holy Temple of human endeavor. And entrance to the Holy always was, and continues to be, contingent on ritual purity.
While we can not presently serve God in a physical Temple in Jerusalem, we can erect a sacred shrine within our lives. Immersion in the mikvah is the gateway to the Holy ground of conjugality.
The laws of Family Purity are a divine ordinance. There is no better, more legitimate, more logical, or essential reason for their observance. It is a difficult commandment, a discipline that makes demands on our time, our psyche, and our emotions. It is a force at odds with the flesh, a way of life that the average person would not likely choose or devise. It calls for willful suspension of self-determination, the subservience of our most intimate desires to the bidding of a higher authority. And therein lies the mitzvah’s potency. The knowledge that it is sourced in something larger than the self -that it is not based on the emotions or subjective decision of one or the other – allows Taharat Hamishpachah to work for the mutual benefit of woman and husband.
Ironically, this “unfathomable” mitzvah reveals its blessings to us more than almost any other, in daily, palpable ways. Its rewards are commensurate with the challenge of observance. At first glance, the mikvah system speaks of limitations and constraints – a loss of freedom. In truth, emancipation is born of restriction. Secure, confident, well adjusted children (and adults) are disciplined children; they understand restraint and ultimately learn self-control. Safe, stable countries are those pieces of land surrounded by definite, well guarded borders. The drawing of parameters creates terra firma amid chaos and confusion and allows for traversing of the plain we call ‘Life” in a progressive and productive manner. In no area of life is this more necessary than in our most intimate relationships.
“From every tree of the garden you may indeed eat but from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil you must not eat….” So God commanded Adam and Eve on the day of their creation. But they indulged on that fateful Friday afternoon, and the history of mankind was altered forever. The complicated nature of human sexuality has its genesis in this tale. For the Tree of Knowledge contained a mixture of good and bad, and indulgence of this “knowledge” by primeval man introduced a new world order: a world where good and bad intermingled, a world of confusion and challenge, multiple choices, and endless potential.
No longer would intimate relations – one among many human biological functions – be as natural and uncomplicated as the others. Banishment from the Garden of Eden meant the introduction of a new sexuality: one pregnant with possibility and fraught with tension. It would hold the key to great ecstasy and excruciating pain, the most tantalizing fulfillment and most devastating sensation of void. A meaningful union would necessitate unequivocal commitment and constant nurturing by man and woman. But even the maximum effort put forth by man would need to be augmented by help from above. The blessing would flow from a reservoir called mikvah, and Eden as it was before the sin would be attainable.
Trite as it may sound, mikvah offers couples the possibility of repeated “honeymoons” during the course of their marriage. Boredom, a seemingly innocuous state of affairs, can beleaguer any relationship and chip away at its foundation. The mandatory monthly separation fosters feelings of longing and desire – at the very least, a sense of appreciation – which is followed by the excitement of reunion.
Over the course of a lifetime, open ended sexual availability may well lead to a waning of excitement and even interest. The monthly hiatus teaches couples to treasure the time they have together and gives them something to look forward to when they are apart. Every month they are separated not always when convenient or easy – but they wait for one another. They think about each other and how it is when they can be physical – all the while counting the days until their togetherness – and each time there is a new quality to their reunion. In this regard the Talmud states: “So that she will be as beloved as on the day of her marriage.”
The man-woman relationship thrives on a model of withdrawal and return. The Torah teaches that Adam and Eve in their original form were created as an androgenous being. Subsequently, God separated them, thus granting them independence on the one hand and the possibility for a chosen union on the other. Men and women have been pulling apart and coming together ever since. The mikvah system grants the married couple this necessary dynamic. Within their commitment to live together and be loyal to each other forever, within their monogamy and security, there is still this springlike mechanism at work.
God wanted man and woman to find each other on their own and to work at that quest – not merely once but constantly – in an ongoing process of becoming “one flesh”. Human beings share a nearly universal intuitive tendency for the forbidden. Solomon, the wisest of all men, spoke of “stolen waters which are sweeter.” How many otherwise intelligent, calculated individuals have jeopardized their marriages and families in pursuit of the illicit because of its seeming promise of the romantic and the new? Mikvah introduces a novel scenario: one’s spouse – one’s partner in life, day after day, for better and for worse becomes temporarily inaccessible, forbidden, off limits.
Often this gives couples reason and opportunity to consider each other anew. In this “removed” span of time, from this new vantage point, they view and approach each other with enhanced appreciation. The Taharat Hamishpachah discipline is helpful in other ways as well: fluctuation and disparity in sexual desire can never be completely alleviated. Yet the regulation in the mikvah system serves to assuage tensions that arise from this source. For couples who must abstain for a minimum of twelve days a month, the time they have together is peak time for both, a time they cherish and savor.
While a physical distancing is mandated, emotional intimacy is encouraged and indeed nurtured. Meaningful communication – that precious and increasingly rare form of art – is given full expression as couples must learn to embrace and hug, comfort and rejoice, all without touching skins. A new strata is uncovered in their relationship, a new possibility emerges: friendship.
Jewish mysticism speaks of two types of love. There is ahavah shel eish,love that is compared to fire. This love is hot and passionate; it abates and flare-up cyclically in its quest to rise ever higher. This flaming emotion must be guarded lest it sputter and die.
Then there is ahavah shel mayim, love that is like water. This love is cool, deep, and ever present; it is not extinguishable, there is no fear of an eclipse. Love between a man and woman must be twice blessed; it must contain the miraculous combination of fire and water. Mikvah – with its two weeks on, two weeks off schedule – lends venue to the development of both; it brings fruition to the blessing conferred upon every Jewish couple under the chuppah: that of love and harmony, peace and friendship. For many women, their time as a niddah also offers them a measure of solitude and introspection. There is, additionally, an empowering feeling of autonomy over their bodies and, indeed, over the sexual relationship they share with their spouses. There is strength and comfort in the knowledge that human beings can neither have their every whim nor be had at whim.
The benefits brought to married life by the practice of Family Purity have been recognized by numerous experts, Jew and gentile alike. To be sure, this type of analysis, as any other, is subject to argument and critique. Ultimately, however, mikvah’s powerful hold on the Jewish people – its promise of hope and redemption – is rooted in the Torah and flows from a belief in God and His perfect wisdom.
Judaism calls for the consecration of human sexuality. It is not enough that intimacy be born of commitment and sworn to exclusivity, it must be sacred. As such, the first mandated time for immersion in the mikvah is at the threshold of marriage.
Mikvah before marriage, strictly speaking, is not contingent upon a commitment to regular observance of Family Purity. Even so, it should not be understood as unrelated to this larger framework. It is simply the first time a Jewish woman is commanded to purify herself in this way. And it is an awesome and auspicious way to start a new life together with one’s beloved.
After learning of the details and giving them due consideration, mikvah is a ritual that can be easily incorporated in the pre-wedding preparations by every Jewish bride and groom. The wedding date should be planned around the bride’s monthly cycle, thus allowing for her immersion before the nuptial.
Tremendous amounts of time and energy are expended in planning a wedding. There is an innate human hope that a perfect wedding equals a perfect start in life. Yet all thinking individuals recognize human limitations. That which we most need and want – health, good fortune, and children – are beyond our control. As we voice the age old greeting of mazel tov, we are offering up a prayer to the one above, asking that He bless the new couple with abundant goodness. Immersion in the mikvah is an important way of drawing God and His blessing into the marriage.
For as long as a woman menstruates, her monthly cycle dictates the rhythm of conjugal relations within the marriage, and each month it is a mitzvah for husband and wife to draw renewal from the waters of the mikvah. For those who have not made a lifelong commitment at the onset of married life, it is never too late to begin following the laws of Family Purity. Similarly, while observance should ideally be continuous, one should not allow a lapse of any length to deter further commitment. Nor is this practice contingent on the observance of other precepts in the Torah. Mikvah is not, as is often thought, the exclusive domain of the strictly observant.
Even if they are not ready for adherence to these laws at all times, women and their husbands should give particular consideration to this mitzvah before the conception of their children. Mikvah, we are taught, is the conduit for drawing down an exalted (a pure) soul vested in a receptive and healthy body. For the post-menopausal woman, one final immersion in the mikvah offers purity for the rest of her life. Even a woman who has never used the mikvah before should make a special effort to immerse after menopause (it is never too late for a woman to do this, even if many years have elapsed since her menopause), thus allowing for all subsequent intimacies to be divinely blessed.
The single greatest gift granted by God to humankind is teshuvah-the possibility of return – to start anew and wash away the past. Teshuvah allows man to rise above the limitations imposed by time and makes it possible to affect our life retroactively. A single immersion in the mikvah late in life may appear insignificant to some, a quick and puny act. Yet coupled with dedication and awe, it is a monumental feat; it brings purity and its regenerative power not only to the present and future but even to one’s past.
In this way, each woman can link herself to an ongoing tradition that has spanned the generations. Through mikvah she brings herself in immediate contact with the source of life, purity, and holiness – with the God who surrounds her and is within her always.
Reprinted, with permission of the author, from Total Immersion : A Mikvah Anthology (Urim 2006) by Rivkah
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