What is Mikvah?

What is a Mikvah?

The world’s natural bodies of water – its oceans, rivers, wells and spring-fed lakes – are mikvahs  in their original form.  They contain waters of divine source and, tradition teaches, have the power to purify.  Created even before the earth took shape, these bodies of water offer a quintessential route to consecration.  However these waters may be inaccessible or dangerous, not to mention the problems that they pose of inclement weather and lack of privacy. Therefore Jewish life necessitates the construction of mikvahs (“pools”), and indeed Jews have built mikvahs in every age, community and circumstance.

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 never function as mikvahs.  The mikvah must contain a minimum of 200 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 originally from a natural source may be used to fill the mikvah.

The mikvah waters are commonly chest high and kept at a comfortable temperature.  Access to the pool is via shallow stairs.  In some mikvahs lifts are available for the handicapped or infirm.

Although historically, mikvahs were sometimes built close to bathhouses, the mikvah never was a monthly substitute for a bath or shower.  In fact Jewish law stipulates that one must be scrupulously clean before immersing.

Today’s modern mikvah frequently  rivals a luxurious spa and offers women more amenities than they could enjoy at home – making the mikvah experience a special monthly  ‘time-out’ pampering evening.

Culturally a mikvah is of such significance that the rabbis of the Talmud ruled that if a community has neither a mikvah nor a synagogue, building a mikvah takes priority over building a synagogue.

The world’s natural bodies of water – its oceans, rivers, wells and spring-fed lakes – are mikvahs  in their original form.
A modern Mikvah in Southend

When is a Mikvah used?

In the practice of mikvah and Family Purity, a Jewish couple separates when the wife begins her monthly period and physical contact doesn’t resume until seven days following the conclusion of her period. On the eve of the night that the couple is to resume physical relations, the woman (after careful preparation) immerses in the waters of the mikvah, where she utters a prayer inviting G-d to sanctify their forthcoming intimacy.

Essentially the sexual union is an affirmation of life, as the couple joins together in the sacred endeavour to draw a new soul from its heavenly source into this world.

However, Jewish law calls for the use of mikvah even among couples for whom procreation is not possible. Indeed, Jewish law also calls for the active pursuit of a healthy, wholesome intimate relationship in married couples of all ages, and considers it an independent value. Whether or not the creation of a life is possible. So in all married circumstances, even after menopause, if she has never been, or let the practice lapse, the woman can go to the mikvah once and it retroactively brings blessing to herself, her husband and her family.

The bathrooms at a Mikvah used prior to immersion.

Is a Mikvah used only by women?

No. A mikvah has various other uses:

  • it is the final stage of conversion to Judaism
  • it is used by men customarily at auspicious times, such as before Yom Kippur and a groom on his wedding day.  Many men use it Erev Shabbat, while some men even use the mikvah daily before prayer.
Mikvahs may be used by males, such as a groom on his wedding day.

Why Mikvah?

Boredom in marriage is no trifling matter.  It is extremely destructive: in our times it is the leading cause of divorce.

In discussing sexuality, the Talmud explains a simple law of human nature: something constantly available to us eventually loses lustre in our eyes.  We allow routine to replace excitement, and grow contemptuous and bored.

This is the first and most obvious advantage of mikvah. For approximately two weeks every month a husband and wife are off limits to each other.  Because of this monthly vacation, the Talmud tells us, a husband and wife become like a bride and groom to one another each month, again and again.  There is perpetual freshness to the relationship.

Second, mikvah teaches us the value of restraint.  In a world where infidelity is a common as it is today – there have been estimates that almost one of every two married men has been unfaithful – people have to learn the art of restraint.

Third, mikvah gives us the invaluable asset of adding space to our times of togetherness.  It affords us the opportunity to be ourselves in a way not possible if there were no separation period.

Two people who strengthen their individuality during this time of separation, join again and enrich each other precisely because they’ve strengthened that part of themselves that is theirs and only theirs.

Finally, mikvah teaches us that we are not objects.  Because I don’t belong to you and you don’t belong to me in the same way we do during the togetherness period, I am compelled to treat you as a whole person, not as an object for my pleasure. This is an invaluable lesson in our society which continues to treat women as objects, in advertising, at the workplace and too often in the home itself.

We also learn to communicate better with each other through mikvah. Many problems can be glossed over by a hug and a kiss. During the two weeks without intimate contact, a couple has to learn how to talk about everything including many difficult things.  We get to know each other’s inner thoughts in ways we might not otherwise. Intimacy – real intimacy- is the result.  

Without serving a higher purpose, our physical intimacy is just that – physical.  With mikvah, and

G-d’s presence, the intimate relationship changes from something that’s completely physical, an act which subhuman species also engage in, to an act of holiness and the highest expression of two people.

Mikvah in a marriage adds freshness to the relationship.

A Touch of History

If we want to understand mikvah in depth, we must turn to the references to it in the Torah.  In Leviticus, chapter 16, we read about the Yom Kippur service as practised when we had the Temple in Jerusalem.

At the apex of the service, the High Priest would enter the innermost chamber of the Temple – indeed the holiest space on earth – the Holy of Holies, or Kodesh Hakadashim, where he would ask forgiveness for the nation’s shortcomings throughout the previous year.  No one but the High Priest was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies and he himself, as the holiest representative of the holy Jewish nation, was allowed in there only once a year, for one short interval on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year.

It’s hard to imagine today the significance of that moment.  For seven days beforehand, the High Priest prepared himself for it.  The night before he entered the Holy of Holies, a team of great Jewish leaders keep him awake all night, quizzing him and pushing him to the heights of his moral and spiritual potential:  the future of not just the Jewish nation but the entire world would rest on his actions in the Holy of Holies – actions that were done completely in private, witnessed solely by G-d and himself.

After seven days of refining himself, and after the long night vigil, the High Priest had one final preparation to make before the awesome moment in which he would enter the Holy of Holies, and effect atonement for himself, for his nation and for the world:  he immersed in the mikvah.

The resumption of the act of intimacy of a Jewish woman with her husband is a similarly awesome moment.  After her seven days of preparing herself for that moment, a woman immerses herself in amikvah in order to elevate her relationship with her husband and to elevate the world itself.

The Laws of Family Purity: A Brief Overview

For the Jewish 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-honoured 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.

On occasion medical conditions or other factors might necessitate consulting a rabbi with experience in this field.   Wherever you are, you can count on one thing: there is always someone available and eager to help you, in person, by phone or by email.

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 based on the woman’s monthly cycle.

From the onset of menstruation and for seven days after its end, until the woman immerses in themikvah, husband and wife may not engage in marital relations.  To avoid violation of this, the couple should avoid indulging in actions they find arousing. They should put a check on direct physical contact and refrain from physical manifestations of affection.  The technical term for a woman in this state is niddah (literal meaning: to be separated).

The seven-day transition period, known as the “spotless” or “white” days, begins only after the woman has determined that her period has completely stopped 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 week-long count.

During the seven “spotless” days, 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 the woman can be sure to notice any discharge of especially of blood.

Exactly a week from when the woman has established the cessation of her flow, barring any staining or spotting, she visits the mikvah (i.e. if she examined herself before sunset on Monday, she will visit the mikvah the following Monday evening).  So 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.  For the immersion to be valid, the waters of the mikvah need to envelop each and every part of the body and, indeed, each hair.  To ensure this, the woman bathes, shampoos, combs her hair, and removes from her body anything that might impede her total immersion.

Going to the mikvah is a private affair. The only person present is a female attendant, known as the mikvah lady, who helps support and facilitate the actual immersion in the mikvah. She assists in ensuring that there are no intervening substances or objects (makeup, loose hair or jewellery, etc.) on the woman’s body, and that her whole body 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 taken care to observe the many nuances of the mitzvah and has anticipated this night.  Sometimes, however, the woman may be feeling rushed or anxious on this special evening. Going to the mikvah enables a woman to relax, and presents a wonderful opportunity to spend a few moments contemplating the importance of the immersion and the blessings it brings.  She gently lowers herself into the mikvah waters and after immersing once, while standing in the waters of the mikvah, recites the blessing for ritual purification. Then, in accordance with widespread custom, she immerses twice more.  Many women use this auspicious time for personal prayer and communication with G-d.  After immersion, the couple may resume marital relations.

A bath tub used as part of the cleansing before immersion in a Mikvah.