A mikvah (or mikveh) is a Jewish ritual bath, which must consist in majority or totality of living waters (i.e. not tap or well water). In urban settings, small immersion pools are built to strict specifications. A mikvah must:
– be permanent (not a portable pool, for exemple),
– be big enough to allow complete immersion (or tevilah),
– contain at least 40 se’ah (about 191 gallons) of natural water (rain, spring water, melted snow or ice, i.e., water that is not drawn from a tap or a well),
– have seven steps leading down into the water (to echo the 7 days of creation).
(Source: Klein, Isaac, A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice. JTSA, 1992. pp 518-19)
The word mikvah today encompasses the entire building, with its waiting area and very well stocked preparation rooms, usually with a shower and a soaking tub, and all the toiletry supplies one could ever need. The very nice thing about those preparation rooms is that they are *clean*. Jews take hygiene and cleanliness extremely seriously, which, if you ask me, is one of their most important contributions to our civilization. Appointments are usually made so that no one has to wait too long, which is a good thing, considering immersion can only take place after sundown (as soon as three stars are visible), unless this poses a risk for the women’s safety.
The mikvah’s primary function is one of transition from a state of “ritual impurity” to one of “ritual purity”.
The water itself is not blessed by a rabbi, sacred enough as it is, since it comes directly from G-d, or Mother Nature, whichever filter works for you.
Traditionally, the mikvah has been the realm of women, because of its deep connection to a woman’s menstrual cycle (see below), but some men also use it on the eve of Shabbat or on the eve of their wedding, and immersion is required of all converts, men and women. (More on my own first and second immersions here and here.)
From the first day of her period to the seventh “clean” day after the last drop of blood has been seen, a woman is considered “niddah” (literaly: separated). Intimacy between husband and wife is forbidden during that time, and some observant couples even sleep in separate beds or separate rooms (especially, I suspect, those whose spouses snore or thrash about all night…)
At the end of the seven “clean” days, or preparation days are they are sometimes called, the woman goes to the mikvah and her tahara (wholesomeness, purity) is fully restored.
I am a little weary of the term “purity”, because it is so intrinsically linked to the notion of sin in our culture. When judaism talks about “family purity” (tarahat ha’mishpacha ), it is in the context of tumah vs. tahara.
I will clumsily translate Tumah, in the context of a woman’s menstrual cycle, as a loss of life energy, of wholesomeness. A woman’s menses are the sign that a potential for new life was not realized, and that “life energy” is leaving her body. She is not so much impure as she is depleted at that point, and a ritual helps restore her tahara, her positive energy, let’s say.
Etymologically, the word mikvah is based on the Hebrew root word k,v,h (root words in Hebrew are usually a combination of three consonants), which means “hope”. The prefix “mi-” means “place”, which makes the mikvah a place where hope is restored.
Of course, the obvious escapes no one: it just so happens that marital relations are permitted to resume precisely at the time a woman is about to ovulate. The Torah only prescribes five preparation days, but the rabbis are wise in more ways than one: asking married couples to wait until the time is right pretty much guarantees a lot more Jewish babies!
In sum, the function of the mikvah is to restore tahara, purity in the ritual sense, to people or items (such as non-kosher kitchen utensils) that are in a state of tumah.
Whether one believes in that mystical power or not, women of all walks of life, even women who do not consider themselves observant Jews, but who one day decide to try it out, just to see, seem to find beauty and profound meaning in the experience.