A few words on the mikvah

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.

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Getting my feet (and everything else) wet at the Mikvah (1/2)

Source: Flare.com
Source: Flare.com

My first encounter with the mikvah was on the day of my official conversion, in 2009. After three years of courses and timid first forays into Jewish practice, I took the plunge, literally and figuratively.

When I emerged from the living waters of the mikvah, I was no longer a judeophile, a shiksa learning about Judaism and embracing its philosophy and traditions.

Naked and wet as the day I was born, I was now officially a Jew, not only in my own mind and heart, but in the eyes of the rest of the world, too.

From then on, my fate was tied to that of an unruly, free spirited people whose sense of humour was all at once outlandish and terrific, a people enamored with convoluted parables, a people for whom any conversation worth having was apparently worth having at extremely high volume.

From then on, I was no longer part of the comfortable majority (in Canada) of secular white people. I was now part of a minority with a long history of oppression and persecution. A minority still controversial in many circles, still puzzling to most, even in an open society which, thankfully, protects their rights as human beings.

Having gone through a Conservative Bet Din instead of an Orthodox one, I sometimes hear that I am somehow not Jewish enough, i.e., that I may not be considered Jewish by the Isreali rabbinate (and therefore that my children may not be either). My answer to them is the following:

“if those who hate us decide to round us up again, they won’t care about our respective affiliations. You and I will be on the same train. If I’m Jewish enough for antisemites, I should be Jewish enough for you.

The weight and potential consequences of the decision to convert is almost fully encompassed into Reb Arie’s first question to me, when I called him up and asked if he would be my teacher: “Why would you do such a thing to your children?”

But I saw it then as I see it now, more as a homecoming than a conversion, though transformative it certainly was. Beyond my personal leanings and intuitions,

I see the Jewish faith, its amazing history, its undying love of learning and quest for understanding, its resourcefulness in reconciling observance and the realities of our modern world, as a priceless gift to my children. What they do with it will be up to them.

And so, after answering the Bet Din’s questions about my intentions regarding observance and commitment to the Jewish people, hoping that my honesty would be appreciated rather than held against me, I was invited to enter the preparation room of the mikvah.

I stripped down, took the shower of all showers, scrubbed every inch of my body, filed and brushed my nails, brushed my teeth, patiently pulled every strand of loose hair that might come between me and the water.

I put on a robe, entered the mikvah chamber where the attendant very kindly explained the ritual, which I already knew. I wasn’t going to go into one of the most important days of my life unprepared! I dropped the robe, she quickly inspected my body for any remaining loose hair strand and invited me to step down into the water.

As I recall, it was rather cool, but not as cold as I expected, and slightly chlorinated. I immersed myself completely, making sure to lift my feet so the water could touch my soles. When I came up, standing shoulder deep in the water, I recited the blessings, loud enough for the Bet Din, standing out of sight in the hallway, to hear.

I immersed fully into the water two more times, and as I made my way back up the steps, I was Yael Behira, a Jew. Nervous and bewildered, but happy.