From Levi Yitzchok Rabiski
B”H our community in Toronto (at Bathurst and Finch area) is growing, and with that comes the need for expansion and growth in various areas…and primarily a mikvah! The mikvah is the source of blessings – become a…
What is a Mikvah?
The primary uses of mikvah today are delineated in Jewish Law and date back to the dawn of Jewish history. They cover many elements of Jewish life. Mikvah is an integral part of conversion to Judaism. Mikvah is used, though less widely known, for the immersion of new pots, dishes, and utensils before they are used by a Jew. The mikvah concept is also the focal point of the taharah, the purification rite of a Jew before the person is laid to rest and the soul ascends on high. The manual pouring of water in a highly specific manner over the entire body of the deceased serves this purpose.
Mikvah is also used by men on various occasions; with the exception of conversion, they are all customary. The most widely practiced are immersion by a groom on his wedding day and by every man before Yom Kippur. Many Chassidic men use the mikvah before each Shabbat and holiday, some even making use of mikvah each day before morning prayer (in cities with large populations of observant Jews, special mikvahs for men facilitate these customs). But the most important and general usage of mikvah is for purification by the menstruant woman.
For the menstruant 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-honored 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. While books are a poor substitute for a knowledgeable teacher, select titles can be used as a guide to this ritual or for quick reference (see suggested book list in appendix to this essay). 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 predicated on the woman’s monthly cycle. From the onset of menstruation and for seven days after its end, until the woman immerses in the mikvah, husband and wife may not engage in sexual relations. To avoid violation of this law, the couple should curtail their indulgence in actions they find arousing, putting a check on direct physical contact and refraining from physical manifestations of affection. The technical term for a woman in this state is Niddah (literal meaning: to be separated).
Exactly a week from when the woman has established the cessation of her flow, she visits the mikvah. Immersion takes place after nightfall of the seventh day and is preceded by a requisite cleansing. The immersion is valid only when the waters of the mikvah envelop each and every part of the body and, indeed, each hair. To this end, the woman bathes, shampoos, combs her hair, and removes from her body anything that might impede her total immersion.
Immersion in the mikvah is the culmination of the Taharat Hamishpachahdiscipline. It is a special moment for the woman who has adhered to the many nuances of the mitzvah and has anticipated this night. Sometimes, however, the woman may be feeling rushed or anxious for reasons related or unrelated to this rite. At this point, she should relax, spend a few moments contemplating the importance of the immersion, and in an unhurried fashion, lower herself into the mikvah waters. After immersing once, while standing in the waters of the mikvah, the woman recites the blessing for ritual purification and then, in accordance with widespread custom, immerses twice more. Many women use this auspicious time for personal prayer and communication with G‑d. After immersion, woman and husband may resume marital relations.
Before exploring the deeper dimensions of this ritual, we must briefly examine the centrality of mikvah to Jewish life.
Most Jews, even those who deem themselves secular, are familiar, at least conceptually, with religious observances such as the Sabbath, the dietary laws, Yom Kippur and a number of other Torah laws. Mikvah and Family Purity, on the other hand, are shrouded in obscurity — pages torn out of the book, as it were.
Yet the observance of Family Purity is a biblical injunction of the highest order. The infraction of this law is equated with major transgressions such as eating chametz (leavened foods) on Passover, intentional violation of the fast on the holy day of Yom Kippur, and not entering into the covenant through ritual circumcision, brit milah.
Most Jews see the synagogue as the central institution in Jewish life, But Jewish Law states that constructing a mikvah takes precedence even over building a house of worship. Both a synagogue and a Torah Scroll, Judaism’s most venerated treasure, may be sold to raise funds for the building of a mikvah. In fact, in the eyes of Jewish law, a group of Jewish families living together do not attain the status of a community if they do not have a communal mikvah.
This is so for a simple reason: private and even communal prayer can be held in virtually any location, and venues for the social functions of the synagogue can be found elsewhere. But Jewish married life, and therefore the birth of future generations in accordance with Halachah, is possible only where there is accessibility to a mikvah. It is no exaggeration to state that the mikvah is the touchstone of Jewish life and the portal to a Jewish future.
From Rivkah Slonim‘s introduction to Total Immersion: A Mikvah Anthology