Immersion in the mikvah has offered a gateway to purity ever since the creation of man. The Midrash relates that after being banished from Eden, Adam sat in a river that flowed from the garden. This was an integral part of his teshuvah (repentance) process, of his attempt at return to his original perfection.
Before the revelation at Sinai, all Jews were commanded to immerse themselves in preparation for coming face to face with G-d. Immersion in the mikvah has offered a gateway to purity ever since the creation of man
In the desert, the famed "well of Miriam" served as a mikvah. And Aaron and his sons' induction into the priesthood was marked by immersion in the mikvah.
In Temple times, the priests as well as each Jew who wished entry into the House of G-d had first to immerse in a mikvah.
On Yom Kippur, the holiest of all days, the High Priest was allowed entrance into the Holy of Holies, the innermost chamber of the Temple, into which no other mortal could enter. This was the zenith of a day that involved an ascending order of services, each of which was preceded by immersion in the 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).
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.
The mikvah's unparalleled function lies in its power of transformation, its ability to effect metamorphosis
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.
The function of mikvah is not to enhance physical hygiene. The concept of mikvah is rooted in the spiritual.
Jewish life is marked by the notion of Havdalah -- separation and distinction. On Saturday night, as the Shabbat departs and the new week begins, Jews are reminded of the borders that delineate every aspect of life. Over a cup of sanctified wine, the Jew blesses G-d who "separates between the holy and the mundane, between light and darkness, between Israel and the nations, between the seventh day and six days of labor...."
In fact, the literal definition of the Hebrew word kodesh -- most often translated as "holy" -- is that which is separated; segregated from the rest for a unique purpose, for consecration.
In many ways mikvah is the threshold separating the unholy from the holy, but it is even more. Simply put, immersion in a mikvah signals a change in status -- more correctly, an elevation in status. Its unparalleled function lies in its power of transformation, its ability to effect metamorphosis.
Men or women in Temple times, who were precluded from services because of ritual defilement, could, after immersion, alight the Temple Mount, enter the House of G-d and involve themselves in sacrificial offerings and the like. The case of the convert is most dramatic. The individual who descends into the mikvah as a gentile emerges from beneath its waters as a Jew.
The mikvah personifies both the womb and the grave; the portals to life and afterlife
We observe simply because G-d so ordained it. Still there are insights that can help add dimension and meaning to our mikvah experience.
In the beginning there was only water. A miraculous compound, it is the primary source and vivifying factor of all sustenance and, by extension, all life as we know it. But Judaism teaches it is more. For these very same attributes -- water as source and sustaining energy -- are mirrored in the spiritual. Water has the power to purify: to restore and replenish life to our essential, spiritual selves.
The mikvah personifies both the womb and the grave; the portals to life and afterlife. In both, the person is stripped of all power and prowess. In so doing, the immersing Jew signals a desire to achieve oneness with the source of all life, to return to a primeval unity with G-d. Immersion indicates the abandonment of one form of existence to embrace one infinitely higher. In keeping with this theme, immersion in the mikvah is described not only in terms of purification, revitalization, and rejuvenation but also -- and perhaps primarily -- as rebirth.
Family Purity is a celebration of life and our most precious human relationships. It can be understood most fully only within a deeper notion of purity and impurity.
Judaism teaches that the source of all taharah, "purity," is life itself. Conversely, death is the harbinger of tumah, "impurity." All types of ritual impurity, and the Torah describes many, are rooted in the absence of life or some measure -- even a whisper -- of death.
When stripped to its essence, a woman's menses signals the death of potential life. Each month a woman's body prepares for the possibility of conception. The uterine lining is built up -- rich and replete, ready to serve as a cradle for life -- in anticipation of a fertilized ovum. Menstruation is the shedding of the lining, the end of this possibility.
The presence of potential life within fills a woman's body with holiness and purity. With the departure of this potential, impurity sets in, conferring upon the woman a state of impurity or, more specifically, niddut. Impurity is neither evil nor dangerous and it is not The concept of purity and impurity as mandated by the Torah and applied within Jewish life is unique; it has no parallel or equivalent in this postmodern age something tangible. Impurity is a spiritual state of being, the absence of purity, much as darkness is the absence of light. Only immersion in the mikvah, following the requisite preparation, has the power to change the status of the woman.
In ancient times, however, tumah and taharah were central and determining factors. The status of a Jew -- whether he or she was ritually pure or impure -- was at the very core of Jewish living; it dictated and regulated a person's involvement in all areas of ritual. Most notably, tumah made entrance into the Holy Temple impossible and thus sacrificial offering inaccessible.
Even for the ritually pure, ascending to a higher level of spiritual involvement or holiness necessitated immersion in a mikvah.
In stark contrast to Christian dogma -- where marriage is seen as a concession to the weakness of the flesh, and celibacy is extolled as a virtue -- the Torah accords matrimony an exalted and holy position
Within that consecrated union, the expression of human sexuality is a mandate, a mitzvah. In fact, it is the first mitzvah in the Torah and one of the holiest of all human endeavors.
Moreover, human lovemaking signals the possibility and potential for new life, the formation of a new body and the descent from heaven of a new soul. In their fusing, man and woman become part of something larger; in their transcendence of the self, they draw on, and even touch, the Divine. They enter into a partnership with G-d; they come closest to taking on the godly attribute of creator. In fact, the sacredness of the intimate union remains unmitigated even when the possibility of conception does not exist. In the metaphysical sense, the act and its potential remain linked.
Human sexuality is a primary force in the lives of a married couple; it is the unique language and expression of the love they share. A strong relationship between husband and wife is not only the backbone of their own family unit but is integral to the world at large. For the blessings of trust, stability, continuity, and, ultimately, community, all flow from the commitment they have to each other and to a joint future.
In reaffirming their commitment, in their intimacy, the couple adds to the vibrancy and health of their society, of humanity, and ultimately to the fruition of the Divine plan: a world perfected by man. In their private, personal togetherness, they are creators of peace, harmony, and healing -- on a micro- cosmic scale but with macrocosmic reverberations -- and as such are engaged in the most sacred of pursuits.
In this light it becomes clear why marital relations are often referred to as the Holy Temple of human endeavor. And entrance to the Holy always was, and continues to be, contingent on ritual purity.
While we can not presently serve G-d in a physical Temple in Jerusalem, we can erect a sacred shrine within our lives. Immersion in the mikvah is the gateway to the holy ground of conjugality.
The laws of Family Purity are a divine ordinance. There is no better, more legitimate, more logical, or essential reason for their observance. It is a difficult commandment, a discipline that makes demands on our time, our psyche, and our emotions. It is a force at odds with the flesh, a way of life that the average person would not likely choose or devise.
And therein lies the mitzvah's potency. The knowledge that it is sourced in something larger than the self -- that it is not based on the emotions or subjective decision of one or the other -- allows Taharat Hamishpachah to work for the mutual benefit of woman and husband. Ironically, this "unfathomable" mitzvah reveals its blessings to us more than almost any other, in daily, palpable ways. Its rewards are commensurate with the challenge of observance.
"From every tree of the garden you may indeed eat but from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil you must not eat...." So G-d commanded Adam and Eve on the day of their creation. But they indulged on that fateful Friday afternoon, and the history of mankind was altered forever.
The complicated nature of human sexuality has its genesis in this tale. For the Tree of Knowledge contained a mixture of good and bad, and indulgence of this "knowledge" by primeval man introduced a new world order: a world where good and bad intermingled, a world of confusion and challenge, multiple choices, and endless potential.
No longer would intimate relations -- one among many human biological functions -- be as natural and uncomplicated as the others. Banishment from the Garden of Eden meant the introduction of a new sexuality: one pregnant. with possibility and fraught with tension. It would hold the key to great ecstasy and excruciating pain, the most tantalizing fulfillment and most devastating sensation of void.
But even the maximum effort put forth by man would need to be augmented by help from above. The blessing would flow from a reservoir called mikvah, and Eden as it was before the sin would be attainable.
Trite as it may sound, mikvah offers couples the possibility of repeated "honeymoons" during the course of their marriage. Boredom, a seemingly innocuous state of affairs, can beleaguer any relationship and chip away at its foundation. The mandatory monthly separation fosters feelings of longing and desire -- at the very least, a sense of appreciation -- which is followed by the excitement of reunion.
Over the course of a lifetime, open-ended sexual availability may well lead to a waning of excitement and even interest. The monthly hiatus teaches couples to treasure the time they have together and gives them something to look forward to when they are apart. Every month they are separated -- not always when convenient or easy-but they wait for one another. They count the days until their togetherness, and each time there is a new quality to their reunion. In this regard the Talmud states: "So that she will be as beloved as on the day of her marriage."
The man-woman relationship thrives on a model of withdrawal and return. The Torah teaches that Adam and Eve in their original form were created as an androgynous being. Subsequently, G-d separated them, thus granting them independence on the one hand and the possibility for a chosen union on the other. Men and women have been pulling apart and coming together ever since. The mikvah system grants the married couple this necessary dynamic. Within their commitment to live together and be loyal to each other forever, within their monogamy and security, there is still this springlike mechanism at work.
G-d wanted man and woman to find each other on their own and to work at that quest-not merely once but constantly -- in an ongoing process of becoming "one flesh."
The man-woman relationship thrives on a model of withdrawal and return
Human beings share a nearly universal intuitive tendency for the forbidden. Solomon, the wisest of all men, spoke of "stolen waters which are sweeter." How many otherwise intelligent, calculated individuals have jeopardized their marriages and families in pursuit of the illicit because of its seeming promise of the romantic and the new? Mikvah introduces a novel scenario: one's spouse -- one's partner in life, day after day, for better and for worse -- becomes temporarily inaccessible, forbidden, off limits. Often this gives couples reason and opportunity to consider each other anew. In this "removed" span of time, from this new vantage point, they view and approach each other with enhanced appreciation.
The Taharat Hamishpachah discipline is helpful in other ways as well: fluctuation and disparity in sexual desire can never be completely alleviated. Yet the regulation in the mikvah system serves to assuage tensions that arise from this source. For couples who must abstain for a minimum of twelve days a month, the time they have together is peak time for both, a time they cherish and savor.
For many women, their time as a niddah also offers them a measure of solitude and introspection. There is, additionally, an empowering feeling of autonomy over their bodies and, indeed, over the sexual relationship they share with their spouses. There is strength and comfort in the knowledge that human beings can neither have their every whim nor be had at whim.
Ultimately, however, mikvah's powerful hold on the Jewish people -- its promise of hope and redemption -- is rooted in the Torah and flows from a belief in G-d and His perfect wisdom.
Judaism calls for the consecration of human sexuality. It is not enough that intimacy be born of commitment and sworn to exclusivity, it must be sacred. As such, the first mandated time for immersion in the mikvah is at the threshold of marriage.
Immersion in the mikvah is an important way of drawing G-d and His blessing into the marriage.
For as long as a woman menstruates, her monthly cycle dictates the rhythm of conjugal relations within the marriage, and each month it is a mitzvah for husband and wife to draw renewal from the waters of the mikvah. For those who have not made a lifelong commitment at the onset of married life, it is never too late to begin following the laws of Family Purity.
Even if they are not ready for adherence to these laws at all times, women and their husbands should give particular consideration to this mitzvah before the conception of their children. Mikvah, we are taught, is the conduit for drawing down an exalted soul vested in a receptive and healthy body.
For the postmenopausal woman, one final immersion in the mikvah offers purity for the rest of her life. Even a woman who has never used the mikvah before should make a special effort to immerse after menopause (it is never too late for a woman to do this even if many years have elapsed since her menopause), thus allowing for all subsequent intimacies to be divinely blessed.
The single greatest gift granted by G-d to humankind is teshuvah -- the possibility of return-to start anew and wash away the past. Teshuvah allows man to rise above the limitations imposed by time and makes it possible to affect our life retroactively. A single immersion in the mikvah late in life may appear insignificant to some, a quick and puny act. Yet coupled with dedication and awe, it is a monumental feat; it brings purity and its regenerative power not only to the present and future but even to one's past.
Nails are trimmed, teeth cleaned, and hair combed free of interfering knots. No make-up, nail polish or anything artificial may intervene in this sacred mitzvah.
Everything that would come between your natural body and the sanctity of the Mikvah waters must be removed. There is just you and G-d, the way you were created, in His image.
At first glance, the Mikvah, its construction and its waters, may appear nothing more than a very small swimming pool. What sets it apart, granting it sanctity, are the manner of construction and the water itself. The waters of the Mikvah are "Living Waters", coming from a natural source. A tiled pipe on the wall allows rainwater to flow directly into the "Bor" (lit. reservoir). The "Bor" maintains this natural source, and through an opening either to the side or from underneath (in this particular Mikvah, the "Bor" is underneath), these 'Living Waters' (i.e. the natural water) "kiss" the city water added into the main pool, maintaining constant contact between the two waters during immersion.
The construction of the Mikvah is quite complex, and must be supervised by rabbis trained and expert in the field. As you can see, it is not a swimming pool!
The water is about chest high. You immerse, water covering every last hair. The mitzvah surrounds you. It is but a moment, yet you sense the holiness here.
Come up and recite the blessing.
The attendant has watched carefully to ensure that each immersion is complete according to Halacha (Jewish law). She pronounces each immersion: "Kosher", and her voice rises to the heavens, witness to the fact. This is your time. A moment just for you, when the gates to heaven are open to your personal prayers.
Now the mitzvah is complete. You are renewed and reborn in a spiritual way unlike any other.
"Waters of Eden",
by Aryeh Kaplan.
The author calls Mikvah the secret of Jewish survival, a mystical connector to the Garden of Eden, and explains the Mikvah's fundamental connection to birth, marriage, conversion and death. This is a revealing book that explores old myths and prejudices and offers insights never before available to the English reading public.
For more information , see Mikvah.org