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.
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.