Demystifying the mikvah
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Demystifying the mikvah

Multiple meanings of the mikvah mitzvah

Judaism Basics 2

When is it required to take a shower before immersing oneself in a pool of water? When a visit to the mikvah is planned.

The mikvah is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism and is central in the lives of Jewish women throughout the world. The symbolism associated with the rite has inspired uses that go far beyond the traditional practices required by the Torah and Jewish law.

According to halakhah, women observing the laws of niddah, or family purity, are required to immerse themselves in a mikvah. At its most basic, the law requires a woman to immerse herself after her menstrual cycle before resuming sexual relations with her husband.

The requirement is found in the Torah. Leviticus 18:19 states, “You shall not come close to a woman during her menstrual impurity to expose her nudity.” Leviticus 20:18 elaborates, “And a man who will lie with a menstruating woman will expose her nudity, it is a shame; and they will be cut off in the eyes of the children of their people.”

Rabbi Amy Greenbaum of Beth El Congregation of the South Hills explained that for those women who follow the laws of niddah, “a woman immerses in the mikvah seven days after the cessation of her cycle before having sexual relations with her husband.”

Additionally, women visit the mikvah before their wedding ceremony. Chani Altein, co-director of Chabad of Pittsburgh said that “women are required to go before marriage” to become “ritually pure.”
Visiting the mikvah calls for preparation, Altein said. “A woman needs to be physically clean before going to the mikvah, [she must] take a bath and shower and remove all barriers between her body and the water of the mikvah. That would mean all jewelry, make up, nail polish … anything that could prevent contact between her body and the water.”

That preparation is required by anyone (female or male) visiting the mikvah, which is a requirement for conversion in all movements.

Rabbi Jessica Locketz of Temple Emanuel of South Hills pointed out that “the largest way the Reform movement uses the mikvah is for conversion. You immerse to emerge as a Jew. It’s about renewing who you are and your soul becoming Jewish.”

While those who visit the mikvah for conversion purposes usually make appointments during the day, evening hours are typically reserved for women so they can maintain a sense of anonymity and modesty.
The mikvah experience is not limited to women. Rabbi Mendel Rosenblum of Chabad of the South Hills immerses himself in a mikvah dedicated to men daily. “It’s a Chasidic tradition. Many centuries ago, Ezra proposed we should have to go. He believed you had to do it for the purpose of prayer and other reasons. His enactment was not accepted by the Jewish people and never really took hold. Some people do it today to be at an elevated level of ritual purity.”

Some women who go to the mikvah go for reasons that are not related to family purity laws.

“It connects you to the tradition of Jewish practice going back 2,000 years,” said Rabbi Doris Dyen, spiritual leader of the independent havurah Makom HaLev. “It’s about feeling renewed and inwardly cleansed.”

Other reasons women may visit a mikvah, Dyen said, are “transitional moments in life. Women may use a mikvah for the last time after a hysterectomy and are completely healed physically to mark that phase of their life. It may also be for a nonphysical reason … to mark the transition from being single to a family unit. Sometimes, if people are getting divorced or for retirement [they go]. It’s marking the passage from one place in your life to another.”

Rabbi Locketz spoke of transition as well — “immersing as one person and emerging renewed and changed.”

“Before or after major challenges or experiences in life,” Greenbaum said, “the mikvah can be a powerful spiritual experience. I believe it is worth a visit for anyone who has ever wondered what it would be like.”

Altein agreed. “I can’t speak of everyone, but there are definitely women that get a lot out of the experience of going to the mikvah. They feel when you are in the water, after you immerse yourself and pray — an auspicious time for prayer — that’s a time between the woman and God. It can be very uplifting and rejuvenating.”

This is the second in a series of articles providing information about Jewish customs and habits. PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@
pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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