I spoke about the mikveh (Jewish ritual bath) at the Silicon Valley JCC last weekend. This happens to be the mikveh that serves people like my adorable mother-in-law (who used this mikveh when she joined the Jewish faith almost five years ago), and it was a real pleasure to speak in front of her and some of my other Bay Area family.
I was asked to speak on the history, meaning, significance, and usage of the mikveh, a talk I have never given before. It’s a daunting task to speak about mikveh in a non-Orthodox setting, largely because I hold to the restrictions and halachos (traditional Jewish laws) known collectively as Taharat HaMishpacha (the laws of niddah), which many people in Reform and Conservative circles reject.
Here’s a rundown of the talk and a little about my personal experience with the mikveh.
A Little History
For thousands of years, Jewish men and women have used a mikveh for ritual immersion in water for various purification purposes (think baptism before the Christians came… this was the original baptism!). Women immerse in the mikveh after they stop menstruating every month, but mikvehs are also used for conversions and for spiritual and bodily cleansing of both men and women. The basic idea is to immerse with nothing between you and the waters and God.
Women Aren’t Dirty
Women aren’t dirty and Judaism doesn’t think they are. Did some rabbi a long time ago maybe say something that could be interpreted that way? Sure. Does that make him right and does he speak for all of Judaism? Heck, no. So get over that and check this out: it’s not about going from dirty to clean. It’s about reaching for higher and higher states of “clean”: as we try to get close to God who is The Ultimate Clean.
When Do You Go?
The first time women traditionally go to the mikveh is before their wedding; I went the night before mine with the women in my family along for moral support. I go to the mikveh every month after my cycle ends, and I went for good luck in my ninth month of each pregnancy. You also go after giving birth, once you stop bleeding.
The Torah says to count seven days of your cycle, but the Rabbis (oh, Rabbis) said to count five days of your cycle followed by seven days of no bleeding to make it 12. Take out your high school biology book, people. An average woman ovulates on–you guessed it–day 12 of her menstrual cycle. So mikveh visits on day 12 coincide with optimal days to get pregnant which was typically expected of married couples for most of history. Most observant women refrain from sex and many refrain from any and all physical contact with their husbands (even non-sexual touching or sleeping in the same bed!) for those 12 days. For the full story on the rhythms of Jewish intimacy and our love for sex, check out the piece I wrote on it here.
How Do You Prepare?
The counting of the seven days varies by community, and suffice it to say you can check out this clip of a really amazing brave woman on The Tyra Show describing what many do.
On the night of the seventh “clean” day, you take a long soak in a bathtub and scrub your body as it’s never been scrubbed before, combing out any knots in your hair, trimming your nails short, and letting any callouses you may have soften in the tub. You remove all nail polish, makeup, and you take off any acrylic nails, jewelry, etc. And, no, you don’t have to shave your body hair if you don’t want to.
What Actually Goes On at the Mikveh?
You go to a mikveh after nightfall, and you check in and pay ($18-$30 is the standard range for use of the mikveh). Mikveh bathrooms look like modest hotel bathrooms, and come equipped with all the amenities you might need to get ready: shampoo, soap, nail trimmers, makeup and nail polish remover, etc. You are led in a large towel or robe to the mikveh and the attendant has you hold out your hands and feet to check for dirt or missed jewelry or nail polish. I always ask them to check for stray hairs on my back, but they never see me naked. I have never been asked if I observed the rules of checking bleeding, not touching my husband, or not having sex.
Seven steps (think of the seven days of creation) lead you into the warm waters of what otherwise looks like a jacuzzi. You immerse once, close your eyes and cross your arms over your belly (thus demarcating the sexual lower region of your body from your cognitive and emotional upper region), recite the brief blessing for immersion (they have it available if you don’t know it by heart), and immerse again, the number of times depending on your custom (I immerse once, say the blessing and immerse twice more). The mikveh attendant says “kosher” each time you immerse, to let you know that all of you–every last hair–went under the water, thus making the immersion appropriate.
After you immerse, you can say a personal prayer (for your family, the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, whatever you want) or just exit, and the attendant waits at the top of the seven steps with your towel in front of her face, blocking her view of your nakedness. You then go back to your bathroom, get dressed (many women don’t shower after, since we are told that the waters hold specialness!) and go home.
Well, many find it transformative, spiritually fulfilling, and a useful tool to facilitate enduring intimacy in marriage. When you go, it’s a beautiful moment of physical and emotional cleansing during which time you can feel truly and completely “pure.” I enjoy taking the time to prepare for the mikveh, remembering each part of my body and how it needs to be cared for more than once a month.
When I close my eyes and go under the water, it’s silent and it’s warm and I feel really safe. Sometimes I feel like crying and I don’t know why. Sometimes I can’t wait to be back home and it’s hard to focus on the mystical aspects I studied so intently with kids to care for, dishes to wash, and posts to write for Kveller. Throughout Jewish history, women have risked their lives to immerse in secret; in shtetls and under Communist threat and in the camps where it couldn’t have been very easy or meaningful or rewarding, women preserved this mitzvah above all else because it has the potential to mean so much to our people and to the fabric of Jewish marriage. Even though it seems labor-intensive and sometimes I don’t feel it as deeply as I’d like to, there’s not much I do that makes me feel this deeply and mysteriously connected to thousands of years of women, so I’m going to stick with this.
And Another Thing
Another amazing thing related to this weekend was that a woman came over to me before my talk to say that her daughter couldn’t line up for a picture with me because she was in a wheelchair, so she asked if I could come over after. I finished pictures with those in line and went over to this woman’s daughter. She was probably about my age, the daughter, and her mother told me what I, as a neuroscientist, would not have even guessed. She had Huntington’s Disease. My brain started doing the neuroscience guesswork as I walked over to her: Huntington’s? It’s typically a geriatric onset disease. I can’t remember if it’s dominant or recessive. Do they have other affected children? How many CAG repeats does she have that gave her this early onset?
The young woman’s eyes lit up when I came over and shook her hand which she could not form into a handshake shape for me. I called on Something Bigger Than Me to give me the ability to not break down in tears at the frailty of God’s world. Her father took a picture of us, and I could see that she could not speak but she was grinning from ear to ear. My talk was about to start, and I placed a hand on her back and rubbed her shoulder and shook her hand again as best as I could. I thanked her sincerely for coming, and I saw her father’s eyes well up with tears.
I started to cry as well as I made my way through the crowd and up to the front of the room where I waited to be introduced so that I could try and touch someone, inspire someone, share my love with someone. That young woman sat patiently through my entire talk, smiling when I made the crowd laugh, and watching intently as her mother helped her orient where I was standing.
I can’t help but thank God for the myriad opportunities to touch people that I have been given, from a discussion of ancient customs of purification to a loving moment with a young woman in a red shirt and hair tied up in little pigtails for this special day.
I hope you all had a blessed week.