The Mikveh: Today and Tradition


The Mikveh: Ancient Tradition and Modern Interpretation


      “It’s the first building that a community is required to build,” says Rabbi Mordechai Hochheimer, of Congregation Beth Hakneses Hachodosh in Rochester, NY, referring to the building that contains the mikveh, the ritual bath used monthly by married women in the Orthodox Jewish community. In Rochester, that building is Mikveh Beth Hatvilah, a discreet red brick structure on St. Regis Street next to Congregation Beth Hakneses Hachodosh.

            “Without a mikveh, we wouldn’t be able to live here,” says Malkie Eisenberg, who, along with Neche Kilimnick, is the co-president of the Beth Hatvilah Mikveh Board that helps maintain the mikveh. “Without the mikveh, normal married life can’t happen for an orthodox couple,” she adds, “because a woman could not be intimate with her husband.”

            What is a mikveh? The word means a pool or gathering of water, and, according to Talmud, it is water that is used for ritual purification. In Biblical times it was used by both men and women to make themselves ready for entry into the Temple or to purify themselves after they had been in touch with death or illness. Today it is used primarily by women in the Orthodox Jewish community as part of a monthly ritual called taharat mishpachah or family purity.

            The mikveh, which hasn’t been popular in the American Jewish community is undergoing two sorts of resurgence these days. One is within the Orthodox Jewish community, where women see it as a mitzvah, a commandment. The other is among women in Reform and Conservative congregations who are seeking Jewish ways to honor the important events of their lives. These two paths see and use the mikveh in very different ways.

            Under Orthodox Judaism, there are many laws governing how the mikveh should be built, and who should use the mikveh and under what circumstances. Most of the laws concern the use of the mikveh by married women. Under the laws of taharat mishpachah, a married woman must immerse herself in the waters of the mikveh after her monthly period before she can resume relations with her husband. According to Leviticus, during the time of her period and for the seven days thereafter a woman is considered ‘niddah,’ which means set apart, and must abstain from sex with her husband. The same requirements for immersion applied to both men and women before they could enter the Temple, but since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, this requirement has been set aside, and there is no halachah, or Jewish law, concerning the use of the mikveh by men.

            There are, however, other reasons beyond niddah for using the mikveh today which stem from the idea that immersion in the mikveh brings anyone or anything to a state of ritual purity. Many woman immerse before marriage. This is similar to the immersion after niddah, since, for a woman who has never been married, it will be the first time she will use the mikveh and it will bring her to a state of ritual purity so that she can have sex with her husband after the wedding. Converts to Judaism, both men and women, immerse in the mikveh with a rabbi’s supervision. Some men use the mikveh before the High Holidays, and some use it every week before attending Friday night services. A sofer, the scribe who transcribes the Torah scroll, uses it before writing the name of God. And women use the mikveh to immerse pots and pans before they can be used at home.

            For those who use the mikveh monthly, it is more than the experience of immersion that counts. Viewed in the context of taharat mishpachah, family purity, which requires that a husband and wife abstain not only from sex but also from any physical contact during the time of a woman’s period and for seven days thereafter, it determines the ebb and flow of a relationship between husband and wife.

            Devorah Leah Yaras, who, with her husband Rabbi Asher Yaras, is the co-director of Chabad on Campus in Rochester, is “passionate about taking it out of the shadows and letting people know about the mitzvah of the mikveh.” Although, it is not an “easy mitzvah” for her, Yaras says she’s grown to appreciate it. What makes it difficult is the twelve day separation from her husband, but when she thinks about the fact that the requirements to prepare for relations between a husband and wife are the exact same preparations that are required of priests so they can enter the Temple she says, “it’s the holiest we can be as human beings.” And she puts a feminist spin on it. “It shows,” she says, “that a woman cannot be had at whim.”

            Rabbi Hochheimer sees the mikveh in a larger context. For him the viability of the Jewish community depends on the mikveh and the role it plays in the relationship between husband a wife. “Shalom bayit, a happy home, is the basis for performing every mitzvah,” says Rabbi Hochheimer, referring to the 613 mitzvoth that an observant Jew is expected to perform, and the mikveh is important to ensuring that happiness, therefore the mikveh is so important to the community, a synagogue or Torah scroll may even be sold so that a mikveh can be built.

            “Being Jewish is a total experience,” says Rabbi Nechamia Vogel of Chabad, “it’s not compartmentalized. Every part of life is a way in which we express that.” 
            The original mikveh for the Rochester Jewish community was built on Vienna Street in the early 1900s. During the city’s urban renewal period in the 1960s, the mikveh building was taken over by the city, and a new mikveh was built on Gorham Street in a building that belonged to the Jewish Orphans Home. The building contained a men’s and a women’s mikveh and an apartment for the caretaker. The mikveh lady who resided in that apartment was Sarah Goldstein. Harris Nusbaum, and his son-in-law William Rifkin, were active in establishing and helping to maintain the mikveh, and money to maintain the mikveh was raised by the community and through membership fees.
            In the 1970s, the mikveh moved to its present location on St. Regis Street on land donated by Congregation Beth Hakneses Hachodosh. The president of the schul at that time, Sydney Morris, was instrumental in arranging this, along with. Bernie Merzel, a member of the congregation, who, because he had been involved in the building of a mikveh in Binghamton, provided advice. Architect Martin Roth donated his services, local Italian masons did the stonework on the building, while Sr. Rabbi Solomon Cohen of Congregation Light of Israel was the rabbinical authority responsible for assuring that the mikveh was built according to halachah.

            A kosher mikveh must be built under rabbinic supervision and contains two pools. The first, smaller pool is called the bor, meaning cistern, and is filled with about 200 gallons of “living water,” which means water not drawn by human hands. This water is often collected from rainwater, or in some cases, melted ice. The larger pool, where one immerses, is filled with enough heated and treated tap water for a person to submerge completely. Before immersion, the water from the bor is introduced into the larger pool through a small opening known as the kiss.. 

            Mikveh Beth Hatvilah, has two bathrooms, one with a shower and one with a bathtub, and two mikveh pools with the bor, the receptacle for collecting rainwater, between them. One pool is drained and cleaned while the other is in use. The apartment next to the mikveh is no longer provided for the attendant, instead it is rented out to generate income.

            While many women do the preparation of bathing at home, the mikveh carries supplies, like toothpaste, nail polish remover, soap, shampoo and robes,  that allow women to prepare themselves on site. Although there is a concept that the mikveh is about cleanliness, in fact a woman must be scrupulously clean before entering the mikveh. Most of the women who use Beth Hatvilah regularly pay a yearly fee that allows them monthly usage. There are charges for special occasions such as weddings and conversions.

            During an immersion that requires supervision, an attendant, often known as the “mikveh lady,” assures that the immersion is kosher, meaning that all parts of the body, including the hair, are submerged at the same time.

            The current mikveh lady, Beah Klein, has been fulfilling her role for more than 20 years. “Because of the job I do, I feel a connection to every kid born in this town,” she says. A former labor and delivery nurse who volunteered to take over the position when the former mikveh lady became ill, Klein sees her role as “enabling women to have babies.” And, she adds, “I get a great deal of satisfaction in assisting women of the community to perform a mitzvah in the proper way.”

            An Orthodox woman uses the mikveh without fail, says Klein. “It’s just something you do. We are commanded to do it, so we have to do it. It’s not a choice.” The number of people using the mikveh depends on the size of the Orthodox Jewish community. “It’s a cycle,” says Klein, who notes that for a while Orthodox Jews were moving away from Rochester, and now the community is on an upswing as more families move in.

            Over the years, Klein has assisted many women through the process, and, according to her, each woman has a different experience. “Some women love it, some hate it; some are afraid of the water but do it because they are commanded to do so; for some it is a spiritual experience.”

            While Klein and Barucha London, assist with immersions, Rabbi Hochheimer is the rabbinic authority who makes sure that the mikveh is kosher and operational, and he is the one the mikveh ladies call if in doubt about whether something, such as stitches after surgery, are kosher. Other policies, he says, have been in place since the mikveh was first built and are still followed today. 

Modern Interpretations of Mikveh

            While this ancient custom puts off many who worry that it sets women apart and does not accord with modern views of gender equality, there has recently been a movement to more than take the mikveh out of the shadows. Jewish women in Reform and Conservative congregations, looking for ways to mark important moments in their lives with Jewish ritual, have reclaimed the mikveh as a way of honoring life’s transitions. For traditional and non-traditional reasons, they are immersing themselves in pools and oceans, and when possible they are flocking to modern community mikvaot associated with Conservative congregations to reclaim this most ancient of traditions in new ways.

            “Ritual has the potential to be part of our lives at transformational times,” says Rabbi Rebecca Gutterman of Temple B’rith Kodesh, who immersed in a mikveh before her ordination as a Reform rabbi. “It was a contemporary moment marked in a traditional way.”

            Gutterman sees a positive side to using mikveh and other traditions in a new way.  “In instances in which we come to the edge in life, we can use ritual to bring us back to the flow of life.” She cites Mordecai M. Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism who instituted the Bat Mitzvah, who saw Judaism as “an evolving religious civilization.” Kaplan felt that the survival of Judaism depended on its adaptation to changing conditions of the modern world.  “He felt that Judaism exists for Jews,” says Gutterman, who sees rituals as a touchstone for people to bring Judaism more closely into their lives.

.           The most prominent of the new sort of community mikveh is Mayyim Hayyim in Newton, MA, just outside of Boston. Founded in 2001 by Anita Diamant, author of several books on Jewish life cycle rituals and, most notably, The Red Tent, a fictional portrait of Jacob and Leah’s daughter, Dinah, it took three years before the facility opened in 2004.

            In a recent article by Nadine Epstein in the July/August 2008 issue of Moment magazine, Diamant talks about the meaning of building the mikveh in accord with Jewish law.  “It is built with intention and respect and kavanah [honor] and high aesthetic values. This is one way we express our spirituality and are moved spiritually. It’s not trivial and not incidental and not idolatrous. It’s hidur mitzvah [going above and beyond halachic requirements]. And it matters.”

            Since it’s inception, Mayyim Hayyim, which is the only independent pluralistic mikveh in the country, has done more than 4800 immersions, including 900 conversions, and it has been called on to consult with the more than 30 community mikvaot across the country that are affiliated with Conservative congregations and new ones that are being built. They have prepared a training manual for mikveh guides, called Guide My StepsI, and are offering a training program for mikveh guides in mid-November in Newton, MA 

            Aliza Kline, Executive Director of Mayyim Hayyim, is also working on a healing guide for women with cancer who come at the beginning of diagnosis or recurrence. “They have the feeling they have survived something and want to mark it,” she says.

.           Kline, the daughter of a reform rabbi in Colorado Springs, CO recalls driving with her father to conversions in Denver. As a young woman in her 20s, she joined a rosh hodesh group exploring Jewish rituals. At that time, despite her background, the idea of mikveh was scary to her, yet before her marriage she found herself drawn to explore it and immersed in a lake.

            Kline, who had been in nonprofit management before, was excited to partner with Diamant and create an organization from its inception. Making it available and inclusive is important to her. “Everyone should be able to do it, the question is how to meet needs of each person,” she says. To find ways to provide services for those with special needs, Mayyim Hayyim works with Jewish Family Services and other local organizations.

            In addition to the two pools in what Mayyim Hayyim refers to as its ‘wet side,’ there are an education center and an art gallery in its ‘dry side.’ The gallery has displayed over 11 unique exhibits relating to water. The education center offers 90 classes per year, and some 1500 people have come through synagogue trips and individually to attend.

            The mikveh has been used for conventional immersions – weddings, conversions, even niddah, although, because it does not have an Orthodox hechsher, a kosher approval, these are not sanctioned within the Orthodox community – and not so conventional reasons.  While most of the users of the mikveh are women, about 20% are men, Kline says.

            In 2006, Mayyim Hayyim sponsored a national conference, Reclaiming Mikveh: Pouring Ancient Waters into a Contemporary Vessel. The conference was presented by the Outreach Training Institute, a program of the Union for Reform Judaism and supported by a grant from Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, in cooperation with our Boston and national partners.

            Amy Kolko Chartock, who grew up in Rochester as a member of Temple Beth El, is now the National Training Seminar Coordinator at Mayyim Hayyim. Although, much to her mother’s surprise, she had immersed in Mikveh Beth Hatvilah before her own wedding in 1990, she did not use the mikveh again until she went to a mikveh in Boston after a miscarriage.

            It was many more years before Chartock used a mikveh again, and then her association with Mayyim Hayyim came about because her son, Benjamin, took on an internship there as preparation for his Bar Mitzvah to study how it related to his parsha, parsha metzorah, which contains the laws of purity in Leviticus. Benjamin not only interned at Mayyim Hayyim, he wrote a personalized set of Kavanah for use at his immersion before his Bar Mitzvah, he invited his entire second grade class to tour the facility, and he gave a presentation about his experiences at the conferencein 2006.

            Trained in Social Work, Chartock finds her work at Mayyim Hayyim coordinates well with her training. “Beautiful experiences happen here every day,” she says, “several times a day.”

            One of the highlights of the conference was a presentation of The Mikveh Monologues
written by Anita Diamant and Janet Buchwald which gives voices to the many men and women who have come to Mayyim Hayyim since its inception. It gives an idea of the many reasons people have come to immerse. There is the Bat Mitzvah girl, too young for a traditional mikveh,  a young woman preparing to die, a gay couple adopting a child, a woman undergoing cancer treatment, and more.

            It was the use of the mikveh for non-orthodox conversions that was initially responsible for the building of mikvehs associated with Conservative congregations.

            One of the earliest was built twenty five years ago in Los Angeles, CA at what is now the American Jewish University, formerly the University of Judaism. Because the orthodox community would not let Conservative rabbis use their mikvehs for conversions, the Rabbinic Assembly approached the University of Judaism which agreed to allow them to use their mikveh. Rabbi Ben Zion Bergman, professor emeritus of Rabbinic Literature at American Jewish University, counseled Mayyim Hayyim and others about the requirements of Jewish law in the building of a mikveh.

            Suzanne Rosenthal, of the mikveh at American Jewish University, notes that it is the only community mikveh in Southern California, although there are 13 Orthodox mikvaot in Los Angeles. “People come for a variety of reasons,” she says, to get pregnant, to celebrate being pregnant, before a trip to Israel, before surgery, after a cancer diagnosis. Whatever the reason, she says “It’s a chance to reconnect and recreate yourself.” And it can be seen in a larger context. “The flood,” she says, “can be seen as a kind of mikveh, encircling the earth with water for rebirth.”

             “Because the university is affiliated with three rabbinical schools,” Rosenthal says, “students come to use the mikveh before ordination.” And because they offer an Introduction to Judaism course, many come for conversions. In 2007 there were 900 immersions, she says, over 500 of which were conversions.

            What makes this mikveh slightly different from others is the way it gets its living water. While mikvaot in other parts of the country can rely on rainwater, in Southern California this is not always possible. Therefore, blocks of water are brought in and melted in accord with Jewish law.

            Mayyim Hayyim and the American Jewish University are is not the only  way for women to find alternative places and rituals for immersion.
            Many women have instinctively turned to water to mark significant passages in their lives. Linda Gold Ruda and her friends used the swimming pool in her backyard as a way of marking the passing of her husband, Jack Ruda. At Elat Chayyim Center for Jewish Spirituality, a Jewish retreat center now located in the Berkshires, participants often used the swimming pool or hot tub for immersion before Shabbat services.      

            Traveling to Boston may not be possible for women seeking to use the mikveh in these ways, so locally there are other opportunities for immersion in a mikveh as well

            In Ithaca, Temple Beth El, a Conservative congregation, has a community mikveh that ”is open and accessible to all Jews in our community as a place to reclaim one of the most ancient Jewish rituals, immersion in the Mikveh, for contemporary spiritual uses." The mikveh, which is tucked away within the temple building, was built as  part of an expansion project as the result of a donation specifically stipulated for a mikveh. The mikveh walls are covered with pink Jerusalem stone and decorated with blue tiles.

            Marlaine Darfler, the mikveh attendant, sees immersing in the mikveh as a way of “coming back to the light after a hard time.” Although she recognizes there are several negative connotations associated with the mikveh, she says they are working on “expanding ways to bring the mikveh into our lives on many levels, even encouraging men to use it before the High Holidays.” She attended the conference at Mayyim Hayyim. “”It opened my mind to what it could be.”

            And, she points out, there are other traditional uses. “A woman can go once after menopause,” she says. “It blesses all future relationships and all generations. It’s a forward kind of blessing.”

            Locally, Chabad has its own non-traditional form of mikveh for men to use before Shabbat and the High Holy Days. “We felt we had a need for it, especially for boys home from Yeshiva who wanted to immerse regularly,” says Rabbi Vogel, “but it doesn’t meet the requirements of a traditional mikveh in terms of measurement of water and how the water is collected.”

            While there is some concern within the Orthodox community about what it means when mikveh becomes a voluntary experience rather than fulfillment of a commandment, there is a sense that anything that brings one to a greater connection with Judaism is a positive thing.

            The philosophical idea that one of the major sources of impurity has to do with being in touch with death is cited by both sides as a way of understanding the ritual. Menstruation is seen as the loss of a potential child, while recovery from cancer can seen as an escape from possible death. Immersing in the mikveh, says Gutterman, is a way to draw back from that moment and rejoin the living.”





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