What is the Mikvah?

The ritual wellspring of purity and renewal

Mikvah at Masada
Wikipedia Commons

The mikvah or mikveh can be translated from the Hebrew Bible as a “collection,” specifically of water in the form of a pool or ritual bath. It is a ritual space used for purification in Judaism by both men and women, as well as for individuals converting to the religion and for the ritual cleaning of items that will be used for eating or drinking.

The mikvah is considered so critical to a Jewish community’s success and health that the Talmud prioritizes building a mikvah over that of a synagogue.

In fact, excavations have shown that even during the siege of Masada, Jews built mikva’ot (the plural of mikvah) to observe the laws of ritual immersion.

Sources

There are many citations for full ritual immersion found in the Torah. These requirements to immerse followed events that involved illnesses, certain secretions of the body, ritual practices by the priests, and contact with a dead body. Immersion was required

  • After certain types of skin conditions, which we translate today as leprosy (Leviticus 14:6-9)
  • After the discharge of abnormal body fluids (Leviticus 15:13)
  • After seminal emissions following sex or related to nocturnal emissions (Leviticus 15:16)
  • After contact with a dead body or a grave (Numbers 19:19)
  • After eating meat from an animal that died of natural causes (Leviticus 17:15)
  • By individuals who were in contact with someone unclean because of the emission of semen, someone in niddah (menstruation or the seven clean days following menstruation prior to immersion in mikvah), or anyone who has touched objects with which either of these types of individuals came in contact (Leviticus 15:5-10 and 15:19-27)
  • By the kohanim (priests) during consecration (Exodus 29:4, 40:12)
  • By the High Priest on Yom Kippur after the goat has been sent away to Azazel (the “scape goat”) as well as the man who leads the goat away (Leviticus 16:24, 16:26, 16:28)
  • By the kohen (priest) who performs the ritual of the Red Heifer (19:7-8)

    Prior to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the laws of purity (tumah) and impurity (taharah) were more heavily practiced and more deeply seeded in the life of the Israelites, as is evidenced by the requirements above.

    Following the destruction, ritual immersion tended to fall to women because many of the acts requiring immersion were no longer standard (e.g., the Red Heifer ritual and the roles of the priests). As a result, the rabbis lessened the laws of purity but extended the laws regarding women and menstruation known as niddah.

    Niddah

    One of the major three mitzvot (commandments) that Jewish women are bound to, these laws dictate the ritual status of a menstruating woman and whether she can be sexually active or not. The other two mitzvot are the lighting of Shabbat candles and the preparation and “taking” of challah.

    According to Leviticus, a woman is ritually “impure” or “unclean” -- called niddah -- for seven days while she is menstruating, and sexual activity is forbidden during this time.

    This period of time was later extended by the rabbis to a minimum of 12 days. This means that if a woman menstruates for only three days, she has to count seven “clean” days (no bleeding), and still has to wait until day 12 to immerse in the mikvah.

    Likewise, if a woman bleeds for 10 days, she still must count seven clean days, even if it pushes her beyond the minimum required 12 days. Once a woman has finished bleeding, counted her seven clean days (and hit a minimum of 12 days), she is allowed to immerse in mikvah and resume sexual activity.

    Requirements

    More than simply a pool of water, there are specific requirements for the size, shape, and location of the mikvah.

    1. It must be stationary, not flowing water.
    2. It must comprise a certain percentage of water from a natural source such as rainwater or water from a lake or the ocean. The water must flow naturally from this source, too.
    3. It cannot be pumped by hand or carried to the mikvah.
    4. It must contain enough water to cover the entire body of an average-sized person.
    5. It must contain 40 seah of water, which is about enough to fit 144 eggs or 575 litres (Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz ruled that one seah is 14.3 litres).

      Modern mikva’ot (plural of mikvah) typically use rainwater collected from a cistern and use the power of gravity to flow into a bathing pool. In more upscale mikvah houses, the pool is heated within the bounds of halakah (law) creating a spa-like experience.

      Who Observes?

      Although both men and women use the mikvah, the requirements for women are more pronounced than they are for men. According to Jewish law, women must immerse in mikvah waters prior to their wedding, following their menstrual cycle (niddah) and the “clean” days, and after childbirth. Immersion is a requirement for the rekindling of sexual activity after a period of being “unclean” following menstruation and childbirth.

      Many men will visit mikvah before their wedding day and prior to Yom Kippur and other Jewish holidays, as well as before the onset of Shabbat (this is common for many Hasidic and Haredi Jews) every week. There are also some communities were men visit and immerse in the mikvah daily.

      Also, Orthodox Judaism requires immersion in mikvah for individuals converting to Judaism, and Conservative and some Reform and Reconstructionist authorities also require immersion.

      Modern Observance

      Although the practice of mikvah declined during much of the late 19th and 20th century, there has been a revitalization in the 21st century among liberal Jewish groups. The meanings and significance of the mikvah have changed drastically over time for certain subsets of the Jewish population. Unfortunately, because of the private nature of the laws of family purity (taharat hamishpacha), it is difficult to gauge how many Jews observe the ritual of immersion today.

      The earliest mikva’ot found in the U.S. are 1759 in New York and 1784 in Philadelphia. It appears that throughout the 19th century it was key for American Jewish communities to build a mikvah, as at one point New York’s Lower East Side was home to more than 30 ritual baths, both synagogue-owned and privately run versions. However, despite the existence of these mikva’ot, many outspoken individuals called for an end to the practice and there is a strong literature suggesting the indifference of women to the laws of niddah.

      The view of niddah slowly merged from being one of religious significance to playing a medical and hygienic role in the early 20th century as eugenics rose in popularity. During this time, the observance of niddah began to play a role in sexual abstinence because it was said to decrease rates of cancer and to contribute to overall health. Thus mikvah became a positive part of a move for a modern, medical-centered practice. Modern Orthodox Rabbi Leo Jung, who focused on creating a modern relevance of Judaism’s ancient practices for an urban, American society, viewed the laws of family purity as emotionally and conjugally beneficial.

      In the 1970s, during the Jewish feminist movement, a new approach to the mikvah arose as women sought to relieve themselves of the restrictions of Jewish law, which many viewed as oppressive to the modern woman.

      Others, however, embraced the mikvah as a powerful mode of enhancing marital bonds through abstinence, as well as by viewing niddah as part of the unique and beautiful cycle of the female body. In these instances, mikvah and niddah became an avenue for spiritual renewal for Jewish women and as a place where attention could be devoted specifically to a woman’s needs. The result of this movement was a new mode of mikvah use for lifecycle events beyond the pre-wedding dip, menstruation, and conversion.

      Today, women will visit and immerse in the mikvah to mark the death of a loved one, divorce, after a miscarriage, while seeking cancer treatment, following rape or sexual abuse, and other both positive and negative life experiences.

      There also are women in Orthodox circles who will immerse in the mikvah during the ninth month of pregnancy in order to prepare for a healthy birth experience. Others who are experiencing fertility issues will immerse in the mikvah following a woman who has given birth successfully to several children of her own.

      Looking for a mikvah? Find one near you now: Mikvah.org